It’s been a long road for New York’s Right to Repair bill. It could have (and now does) serve as the first statewide law granting fundamental requirements to make repairing devices easier. But after six months of waiting for a signature, we almost lost hope. That changed today: with a big catch.
For months, we weren’t sure if New York’s Right to Repair bill would actually become law, despite being passed by the legislature. In New York, after the legislature passes a bill, it essentially waits for the Governor to request the bill for signature. It doesn’t hit the Governor’s desk until that request, and thus the “sign, veto, or it becomes law automatically” clock never starts. If the Governor doesn’t request the bill before the year is over, the bill expires and doesn’t become law. It’s like a soft veto that the legislature can’t override.
When we last wrote about New York’s Right to Repair bill, it was in danger of exactly the outcome. The bill passed in June 2022, but by early December, Governor Hochul still hadn’t requested the bill be sent to her desk. If she didn’t by December 31st, it would expire, and the whole process of passing the bill would have start over. But that changed on December 16th, when the bill made its way to the Governor’s desk at her request. That started the clock; either sign or veto by December 28th, or the bill would automatically become law.
The good news is Governor Hochul signed the Right to Repair bill, and it will become law. The bad news is several last-minute changes will weaken the law significantly.
Last Minute Changes Weaken the Law
Dubbed the “Digital Fair Repair Act,” New York’s Right to Repair law served as a template for the United States. In most of the country, repairing the gadgets and devices you purchase is difficult at best, and impossible in many cases. The law, as designed, ensured that independent repair shops could purchase reasonably-priced, authentic parts and schematics. Regular citizens would also gain access to these materials.
It wasn’t perfect, thanks to lobbying, but a big step forward. Unfortunately, as Governor Hochul announced she signed the law, she also laid out several changes the legislature agreed to make at the last minute. Some of those changes are innocuous and even sensible. The law requires manufacturers to make parts available for repair, for instance. But one of those changes altered that requirement. At first glance, it might seem like a change designed to drive up the price of repairs, but there’s some logic to it. The new language allows manufacturers to provide “assemblies of parts rather than individual components when the risk of improper installation heightens the risk of injury.”
Most DIY repairs are safe to do, even replacing your laptop battery if you properly discharge it first. But some repairs can be dangerous, and in this scenario, a manufacturer could provide an “all-in-one kit” that minimizes that danger. On the face of it, that’s a reasonable and potentially good change (provided manufacturers don’t abuse the concept). But other changes have a more drastic effect on the law.
The Digital Fair Repair Act would have applied to existing devices on the market, for instance. But thanks to a change Governor Hochul requested the law will now only apply to “digital electronic equipment that is both manufactured for the first time as well as sold or used in New York for the first time on or after July 1, 2023.” That drastically curtails the number of devices the new law applies to, though eventually, that list will grow as time moves on. Unfortunately, the very idea of Right to Repair is to keep existing devices functional, so it cuts out the very equipment that needs the law the most.
But another pair of changes might have even wider-reaching consequences. First, the law will now sold in “business-to-business” or “business-to-government” settings, which would include things like school laptops. The other change removed the requirement to “provide to the public any passwords, security codes or material to override security features” and exempted “printed board assemblies that may allow device cloning” from the parts manufacturers have to supply.
That first part means that if a manufacturer locks down repairs behind a password, it doesn’t to give you the password so you can do the repairs yourself. That’s a common tactic used in business settings, like the McDonald’s McFlurry machines. But given the loophole, manufacturers could start adding passwords to retail devices too. The latter change means Apple and other companies can continue to lock parts to serial numbers—preventing you from changing a broken camera or fingerprint module.
Altogether, those changes weaken the bill significantly. But despite that fact, right-to-repair activists seem hopeful about the law passing.
Hope For a Repair-Friendly Future
That a Right to Repair law passed at all is a big step forward. Large companies frequently fight repair efforts and take steps to make the process more difficult. When a large enough area passes a law, it helps everyone. France’s recent law requiring manufacturers to publish repair manuals led to manufacturers making those manuals public to everyone, even people in the United States.
New York is a large enough state that manufacturers will have a hard time ignoring this law, and the law is broad enough that it’ll be difficult for those same manufacturers to comply only in the state. Chances are, the changes it brings about will help everyone in the United States and possibly beyond. And when one state passes a law, many often follow—sometimes while closing loopholes from previous states. As iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens explained to Review Geek:
This is a big step in the right direction. The bill requires serivce information free of charge, availability of spare parts, and the sale of repair tools to independents.
More reform is needed. Serialized parts continue to be a challenge and enterprise equipment is critical to keeping schools and hospitals operational. I expect many states to introduce bills closing these loopholes in the coming legislative session.
That the law passed at all is a giant step forward. Larger than the ‘tiny step back,’ the last-minute changes enacted. Large companies have long fought efforts to pass Right to Repair legislation, even as those same companies funded studies showing the movement is good on the whole. With each step, companies are (begrudgingly) embracing the desire for DIY repairs more, announcing new DIY repair programs, providing instructional videos, and even working with companies like iFixit to provide official parts.
But those changes are begrudging at best. Ultimately the manufacturers care about the bottom line first, and buying new is better for profits than repairing old devices. It’s a tale as old a time, and not limited to repair. Laws requiring manufacturers to install seat belts in cars started at the state level and were fought by car manufacturers (though not all of them). Laws like the Digital Fair Repair Act are a starting point that could lead to a similar outcome. They don’t need to be perfect out of the gate; they just need to light the fire.