Minnesota's 'right to repair' bill would upend tech giants' monopoly on fixing your stuff

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At the moment, the monopoly companies like Apple and HP have on parts and software means that to refurbish something, people like Tom Becicka have to rely on parts from Amazon and watching tutorials on YouTube.

If Amanda LaGrange’s Toyota 4Runner needs service, she can take it down the street to an independent repair shop at a fraction of the cost of going to a dealership.

The same isn’t true for an iPhone. Or a PC. Or an old television.

For LaGrange, the CEO of Tech Dump, a nonprofit that repairs and recycles old electronics, this is a problem. Manufacturers can set their own prices for repairs, since they don’t give out manuals, parts, or access to software codes. The monopoly companies like Apple and HP have on parts and software means that to refurbish something, her techs and at-home DIYers rely on parts from Amazon and watching tutorials on YouTube.

This begs the question: Do we really own our electronics, or are we just licensing them from the manufacturer?

Jennifer Larson, CEO of Vibrant Technologies and a leader for the digital right to repair coalition, says the issue comes down to property. If you buy something, you own it, and should be able to do what you want with it.

Two Minnesota state senators wholeheartedly agree.

John Marty (DFL-Roseville) and David Osmek (R-Mound) have been working on a fair repair bill for the last two years. This session, they hope to finally pass it.

According to Marty, this bill is good for everyone. Or everyone except manufacturers who make money off consumers who throw away old electronics and buy new ones, rather than fixing them. This makes it more lucrative to make products that don’t last, creating a cycle of waste with no end in sight.

“What we’re doing is trying to say, ‘Hey, you can charge what you want, but if something breaks, it’s in society’s best interest to repair and replace, not trash it,’” Marty says.

The bill would allow small businesses like Tech Dump to streamline the process of repairing electronics, would prevent old technology from ending up in landfills, and would give consumers the ability to control the life of their products, instead of being at the mercy of Cisco and IBM.

And at Tech Dump, it would have an auxiliary benefit.

The nonprofit helps employees learn skills and offer them the dignity of having a job and contributing to their communities. Of her 48 full-time staffers, 75 percent have had contact with the justice system or addiction.

Tom Becicka, 50, is one of those employees.

As a satellite technician for the Army, he gained experience working with technology, but soon became more interested in drugs than computers.

In 2014, after getting out of treatment, he was looking for a job after nearly 20 years out of the workforce. Many companies were reluctant to hire Becicka. Not Tech Dump.

He liked tinkering with computers as long as he can remember. Tech Dump helped him relearn the skills needed to wipe hard drives and complete data destruction for refurbished computers.

The fair repair bill will allow Becicka to work on iMacs, products without much wiggle room for mistakes, and whose small boards can cost nearly half the price of a new machine.

The new law provides a way for other companies to train people without previous tech experience, and consumers who want to fix their electronics could do so -- without worrying about voiding the already limited warranties.

According to Jennifer Larson, the bill is picking up steam this session, with nearly 4,000 letters of support in Minnesota alone.

 


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