Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Now, we're just a few days from our big national birthday celebration, the 4th of July, and I've been thinking about some of the genuinely amazing rights we enjoy in this country. The right to speak our minds when we want to, the right to remain silent when we need to, the right to a speedy trial, and the right to be judged by our peers, but there is a right we don't enjoy, one that we're denied.
Hey, wait, Jay, did the player break? You see, one of the rights that we are cut off from, shut out of, we do not have the right to repair our broken stuff. Now, if you're anything like me, you didn't even know that you were being denied this right. Straight up, no joke. Thank goodness for the recording team here at The Takeaway because, without their intervention, I would not have even thought about this issue, but it turns out it's a big deal.
Let's say you break your smartphone, something I might have done once. Oh, okay, twice. Well, there's also that time it fell off the balcony. Oh, okay, so five times, but nearly every time I had to make an appointment with the retailer, wait in line, and either pay for a really costly fix or shell out for a new device. What if it didn't have to be that way? For years, right-to-repair advocates have been pushing for laws to provide consumers and independent repair shops with access to the information, parts, and tools required to fix products like iPhones and more.
Gay Gordon-Byrne: Computers, laptops, tablets, PDAs, any kind of home telephone system, home electronics, consumer electronics, TVs, household appliances, small appliances, large appliances, tractors. My name is Gay Gordon-Byrne, I'm the Executive Director of the Digital Right-to-Repair Coalition, much more easily known as repair.org.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Organizations like The Repair Association have been instrumental in getting right-to-repair legislation introduced at the statewide level, and the movement's finally gaining traction at the national level too. In June, federal legislation called the Fair Repair Act was introduced in Congress, and getting that passed would be a big step according to advocates like Gordon-Byrne.
Gay Gordon-Byrne: It's actually not so much about self-repair as it is about making sure that anybody that wants to fix something has the opportunity to do it. If you, as a consumer, want to fix your stuff, you can, but it's much more important that a small business be able to know that they can get the parts and the tools and the service documentation that they need to offer the service.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After learning about all of this, I was pretty convinced that right-to-repair is important, but I wanted to understand more, so I made a call to the first person I could think of.
Shalisha Morgan: My name is Shalisha Morgan, owner and founder of Geek In Heels Cell Phone and Computer Repair based out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Y'all got to understand that after I met Shalisha, I started handing over all of my repairs to this Geek In Heels. Here's why.
Shalisha Morgan: At my business, I charge 49.99 for iPhone 6 repair. If a client were to take their phone to the Apple Store, Apple would charge them $129 for that very same repair. This is absurd. Just as consumers have the right to take their cars to any dealership or mechanic to have it repaired, we all should have the very same right to do so with our devices.
Post-COVID, families are still scraping to get by, every single dime counts. I had to turn away a client yesterday who wanted to have their cracked TV screen fixed. Why? I literally could not locate the parts anywhere. Manufacturers are making these devices throw away devices, causing us the consumers to have to go back out and buy them and replace them again, grow Apple buy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've been talking about the Right-to-Repair Movement in the US and I have Matthew Gault, staff writer at VICE's Motherboard with me. Good morning, Matthew.
Matthew Gault: Hi, thank you so much. So wonderful to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk a little bit about why there's been an increased interest and momentum surrounding this?
Matthew Gault: Everyone has a cell phone that's broken that they couldn't get repaired. Everyone's broken a laptop and then over the course of the pandemic, I think we all came to rely so heavily on this stuff. So many people working from home, buying new computers, inevitably people had things break and then couldn't get them repaired. Not only couldn't find a repair shop that would take them but also found that Apple had closed down its Genius Bars and that even if they could get in there and make the repairs themselves, they didn't have the tools and the knowledge wasn't anywhere on the internet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is precisely what happened to me. I was trying to set up my quarantine home office, was moving my desk around and boom, my desktop fell off the desk and it was right at the height and all the Apple stores and Genius Bars were closed and it was like, "Where do we go now? What do we do next?" Let's talk about that Fair Repair Act, which was recently introduced in Congress. What would this legislation do?
Matthew Gault: It's very similar to other legislation that's passed in like Massachusetts around cars, where it makes it so that the manufacturer has to share very basic things with anyone else who wants to make a repair, and that could be an independent repair shop owner. It could be an individual who wants to make the repair, but they're calling for like, say, if you break your iPhone, then Apple would have to provide you with the tools and the diagnostics and any manuals that it had that would allow you to easily, say, replace the screen on your phone or the case if you shattered it. It has a provision that allows the FCC to find companies that are not compliant, and it's really that simple.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Does this not run afoul of intellectual property rights?
Matthew Gault: That is one of the big arguments and big pushbacks from companies like Apple and there is a caveat in the bill that says anything that involves trade secrets does not have to be shared, but I think you start getting into this tricky situation here where smarter people than me have already figured out how to go in and open up an iPhone and repair it and could replace a screen with an aftermarket screen that's much cheaper than Apple would charge through its Genius Bar or another one of its authorized repair techs.
The problem comes, and this has actually happened where people have gotten their screens replaced with aftermarket screens that were much cheaper, and then a few months down the line, Apple pushes in a software update, and then suddenly the touch function on the screens doesn't work. These right-to-repair laws are meant to prevent companies like Apple from stopping people from just getting other stuff repaired, frankly, wherever they want to or doing the repairs themselves.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These days I can no longer tell what is going to be a partisan issue. Things that I wouldn't expect to be partisan turn out to be. What about the right-to-repair, is this bipartisan in nature or has this become ideological in any way?
Matthew Gault: It really hasn't become ideological in any way. Obviously, you have lobbyists on Apple and John Deere, we can get into farm equipment later who are pushing against this, but this is one of those things where everybody has an iPhone, everyone's got a computer or laptop or know someone that has been affected by this. Everyone has busted a phone and taken it in to get repaired to the manufacturer and they're going to charge them $400 or just ask them to replace the phone.
When in reality, if they still had one of those little mom-and-pop shops that could do the repair, they could get replaced for $50 and be going about their day, and because of the ubiquity of our technology, I think everyone when you explain it to them, they really get it, it makes sense.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've all broken a phone, but we haven't all broken a combine. Can we go back to the farm equipment issue, what's going on with farm equipment?
Matthew Gault: This is what I think is another one of the reasons that this is so bipartisan and people really understand it just because this is affecting farmers. For hundreds of years, farmers have used tractors and they've generally repaired their own equipment, or they've had someone in their community that does all the repairs, and the system has worked fine.
Well, as technology has advanced, companies like John Deere, John Deere's one of the big drivers of this, have added onboard computers and GPS systems and all this fancy tech to the tractors. The way they work now is if something goes wrong in the computer system of the tractor, it'll start throwing an error code, and to authorize, John Deere tech has to come out there and clear that error code before any repairs can be made on the vehicle.
Even if it's a repair that the farmer knows how to do, if they don't have the specialized piece of equipment that allows them to clear that error code, they can't fix the combine or the tractor. This has led to this really bizarre aftermarket where you've got farmers trying to buy tractors that were manufactured before the onboard electronics being put on them because they know they'll pay double what it costs in the 1970s to get one, but then they know it's going to run for another 50 years and they aren't going to have to jack with all the computer stuff.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right, because what we shouldn't be doing is definitely making life harder for farmers.
Matthew Gault: Right.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, I get now on this sense. What else? We've got phones. We've got combines and tractors. Let me just say, I recently threw away what felt to me like a completely brand new vacuum because it ceased working. I was just recalling growing up as a kid, there was a vacuum repair place in our community. There doesn't seem to be one now. Is it all of these other small electronics as well?
Matthew Gault: Yes. It is. All these things have computer systems in them now that make it hard for people to access without a little bit of knowledge of how the electronic systems work. The big one for me, and again, another reason I think that this blew up so big during the pandemic is medical equipment.
There were ventilators during the pandemic that needed repairs. There weren't enough ventilators to go around. There certainly weren't enough repair techs to go around. The ventilator manufacturers, they wanted authorized repair techs to do the fixes on these machines in the hospitals. Simple fixes that they could have done, they had to put them by the wayside.
It's not just ventilators. There's some great testimony out of Colorado where they're trying to get similar legislation passed. You had people that had medical devices they were using too for mobility or to survive, sharing their stories about living in rural parts of Colorado. One gentleman had a wheelchair that had ceased functioning. He had someone in his local area that could make the fix, but the people who provided him the wheelchair said, "No, we need to send out our repair tech to do it or you'll void your warranty and we'll never work on the chair again." He ended up waiting four weeks before someone could come out and see his chair. There were several stories like that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Matthew Gault is a staff writer at VICE's Motherboard. I think he might have just turned me into the Paul Revere of the right-to-repair. Matthew, thank you so much for joining us.
Matthew Gault: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
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