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Lawmakers to reconsider Digital Right to Repair Act

Joe Irizarry
Delaware Public Media

State lawmakers will consider a “right to repair” bill for a second time during this year's General Assembly — part of a growing national push to give consumers and independent repair shops more freedom to fix technology like cell phones, farm equipment or medical devices rather than relying on manufacturers' in-house technicians.

State Rep. Ruth Briggs King (R-Georgetown) first introduced a version of the bill ahead of the 2021 legislative session, assembling a team of bipartisan backers and support from both the Delaware Farm Bureau and some environmentalist groups. But the bill faced firm opposition from trade groups and lobbyists representing manufacturers, who argued that the bill could force them to share trade secrets and that loosening their rules for repairing technology like pacemakers or glucose monitors could be dangerous. The bill ultimately failed to reach House floor.

But Briggs King hopes that mounting federal support – beginning just as her original bill stalled – could give the proposal new life this year.

“There have been some really key things that happened on the federal level," she said, "[including] the Federal Trade Commission endorsing state right to repair laws. They did that in May of 2021.” Later that year, President Biden also issued an executive order directing the FTC to issue rules preventing manufacturers from imposing restrictions on independent device repair shops and DIY repairs.

Briggs King says that rather than waiting for further federal action, states like Delaware can take initiative on right-to-repair rules instead.

She also argues the pandemic underscored the need for right-to-repair reforms, most notably when hospitals had to wait for manufacturers to send technicians to repair broken equipment instead of using their own in-house teams.

“They weren’t allowed to get what they needed to fix ventilators or other equipment," she said. "I think that we see that with COVID, some of these things were really exacerbated.”

She also hopes that widespread public frustrations with the waste created by manufacturers' repair rules will translate into public interest in the bill.

"The hope is that people — who might already be having a hard time with cost-of-living increases — would be able to take things like a cell phone to a local shop and spend less to have it repaired than they would to buy a new one," she said. "With the added benefit that we don't wind up dumping things that can be repaired in a landfill."

But the latest version of the bill includes a notable carve-out, exempting farm equipment manufacturers despite the central role of farmers in advocating for right-to-repair reforms. For a farmer with a combine harvester in need of repair during harvest season, waiting for a technician from the manufacturer could mean losing a crop — an enormous financial risk, and one that prompted the Delaware Farm Bureau's support for the bill in 2021.

That change to the bill was in part a reflection of an ongoing pushback from major farm equipment manufacturer John Deere, which has long resisted pressure to give consumers and independent repair businesses access to the software, manuals and parts needed to repair their products.

But an agreement between the American Farm Bureau Federation and John Deere announced last weekend could enable Delaware's General Assembly to consider a version of the right to repair bill that covers farm equipment, Briggs King says.

The memorandum of understanding will allow farmers and independent repair shops to buy access to John Deere's software, manuals and other information needed to repair their equipment. However, the Federation also agreed to encourage state farm bureaus to "refrain from introducing, promoting, or supporting federal or state 'Right to Repair' legislation that imposes obligations beyond the commitments" in the memorandum of understanding. The private agreement also includes a provision allowing John Deere pull out of the memorandum if any right-to-repair legislation is enacted.

This year, the bill before Delaware's General Assembly has early bipartisan support once again, including two House Democrats as co-sponsors.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.