BOSTON — Manufacturers of electronic gadgets, from smart phones to vacuum cleaners, are keeping repair plans secret and limiting access to replacement parts, advocates say, which drives up costs for consumers and forces many small repair shops out of business.
Electronics repair business and consumer groups are pressuring lawmakers to intervene, forcing manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and Apple to openly sell parts and provide diagnostic manuals to independent repair shops.
A proposal that went before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure on Monday would require makers of electronic devices made after Dec. 31, 2012 to share repair information, tools and parts with consumers and independent repair shops.
Consumer advocates say the lack of repair data from electronics manufacturers ultimately drives up costs for consumers by not allowing a more open repair market.
“Manufacturers aggressively lock out repairs to either force us to go back to them, or buy the newest version,” Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, told the panel in support of the measure.
“The result is surging repair costs and a massive amount of waste,” Domenitz added.
The average U.S. family disposes of 176 pounds of toxic electronic waste each year, according to MassPIRG. The group says lifting repair restrictions will reduce the flow of e-waste into landfills and save consumers money.
Manufacturers have resisted right-to-repair bills, arguing that controlling repairs keeps their products working safely. They also point to copyright laws that allow them to guard their intellectual property, including against potential pirates.
Chris Gilrein, Northeast region executive director for TechNet, which advocates for technology companies, said requiring companies to turn over that information will hurt the state’s thriving high-tech industry and small start-up companies.
“For a lot of these companies, the only thing of value they have is their intellectual property,” Gilrein said.
He said forcing them to turn blueprints or schematics over to “anyone who asks” would hurt their competitiveness and ability to attract potential investors.
Other opponents of the proposal cited concerns about consumer safety from turning over electronic schematics and diagnostic data for large machinery that could possibly cause injuries and deaths among those not properly trained.
Massachusetts, with its strong consumer protection laws, is considered a test ground for right-to-repair initiatives.
In 2012, the state’s voters overwhelming passed a ballot question that requires auto companies to provide software and diagnostic information to independent repair shops and vehicle owners.
Voters agreed in the 2020 elections to an update of the so-called “right to repair” law, expanding the rules to allow independent shops to access the data collected by vehicle’ computers. The referendum passed with 75% of the votes cast.
Still, proposals that would lift electronic repair restrictions — or put the question to voters — have languished in Beacon Hill committees.
In Congress, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require manufacturers of digital electronic equipment “to make available certain documentation, diagnostic and repair information to independent repair providers.”
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden directed the Federal Trade Commission to draft new rules on repairing electronics and review whether the limits imposed by manufacturers constitute anti-competitive conduct.
In July, the FTC stepped up scrutiny after releasing a report asserting that some manufacturers use “anticompetitive practices” to limit the ability of consumers and independent repair shops to fix and maintain products.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.