New York State Set to Bring into Law “Right-to-Repair”

22-06-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, senate bill S4104 passed the Senate in New York State that would give customers the right to repair electrical equipment. What challenges does the current mindset of electronics present, what does this bill do exactly, and how will it help?

How Planned Obsolescence is Damaging the Environment

Imagine the shock and horror that most people would have if they saw a modern office space using large tower PCs using single-core CPUs and Window XP. Also, imagine the horror of those same individuals if they saw someone using an old indestructible Nokia phone from the early 2000s. 

Technology changes at a rapid pace, and it seems that as technology progresses, older technology quickly becomes outdated and unusable for modern-day tasks. Computers begin to slow down, electronics fail, and software requirements far exceed the capabilities of older hardware. 

While older devices may not be able to provide users with newer capabilities and services, they are still capable of performing the tasks that they were designed for. So why does it seem that devices fail and stop working after a number of years, conveniently around the time when a new version is released?

As it turns out, many electronic devices today are planned to become obsolete after a few years of their use, and this dates back to the first light bulbs. While those that incorporate planned obsolescence into their products use the excuse of trying to get customers to have access to the latest technologies, the truth is that manufacturers want to have a steady stream of product sales.

But planned obsolescence is having a major effect on the environment as it has led to a culture of throw-away electronics. Instead of trying to reuse and recycle older technology, most electronics find their way into dumpsters, resulting in toxic chemicals found in electronics leaking into the ground. These chemicals can make their way into underground water, resulting in their spread into rivers, oceans, and eventually into the food chain.

However, planned obsolescence also sees manufacturers encouraged to produce more goods. This may provide more employment opportunities, but this comes at the cost of requiring more resources, which requires the destruction of the environment via large-scale mining operations, extraction of minerals, and increased emissions of greenhouse gasses via increased energy usage.

New York State Set to Bring “Right to Repair” into State Law

It is clear that planned obsolescence is generally a bad thing, and a large number of devices thrown away as a result of failure can easily be repaired. But trying to repair modern electronics can be a challenging task as some parts cannot be purchased by individuals, design files are often withheld from the public, and specialist equipment needed to perform repairs is only available internally at the original manufacturer’s site. 

One example of such difficulties faced by repair shops was demonstrated by Louis Rossmann. He discovered that some Apple laptops fail as a result of their charging IC failing, and getting Apple to perform this repair can cost up to $1500. Upon contacting the IC manufacturer, he was told that he was not allowed to purchase the ICs. However, it turned out that the same IC was used in an Apple charger, and so Louis would purchase a charger, extract the IC, and install it onto the damaged laptop restoring it. 

The right to repair products is something that many have been perusing for years, and the state of New York in the US has announced that it will be the first state to provide such a law. The Digital Fair Repair Act has recently passed the state senate and will now move onto the assembly for approval. Once signed into law, manufacturers will be obliged to provide all repair documentation and parts to both individuals and repair shops that are already provided to authorized repair shops. 

This means that companies can no longer force the use of licenses or restrictions on spare parts and documentation on products they sell. It should be noted that all individuals have the right to repair products they have purchased by US law, but they do not have the right to anything that the manufacturer holds. This is has caused issues for anyone who owns an electrical device, and this includes farmers whose tractors and equipment are so computerized that they cannot repair their own equipment. 

Some have criticized the new bill *cough monopolized companies and authorized businesses cough*, stating that allowing anyone to repair products will lead to the theft and redistribution of proprietary code and unsafe repair of devices. However, this is easily disputable when considering that most individuals don’t actually repair their own devices, and this bill would actually empower small repair firms who are already experts in their field. This is already seen in the automotive industry where those working at a local garage are arguably just as qualified, if not more, than authorized garages chosen by the manufacturer.

How will this bill help?

Providing repair resources to the public will positively affect device longevity and see practices done by manufacturers to make devices obsolete faster hindered. For example, the use of batteries that age over time would now be more easily fixable as manufacturers would be required to sell the batteries to those who ask for one. 

Manufacturers may be able to develop more challenging methods for making devices obsolete, but what they cannot do is use software mechanisms to force device failure. Such practices have already been identified in Apple products which resulted in large fines and legal action. Manufacturers could use worse quality components such as poorly designed semiconductors or electrolytic capacitors, but this generally increases the number of failures at the manufacturer’s site (even before the device has been used). 

However, manufacturers could see this as an opportunity by recognizing the importance of device repair. As they are the manufacturer, they will have a better understanding of their devices, and thus could provide competitive repair services. While the local repairman is capable of repairing a device, the original manufacture could do it at a lower cost having direct access to parts.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.