For the first time, a bill that would expand the network of independent businesses that could work on everything from consumer electronics to tractors is heading for a vote in April on at least one floor of the Legislature.
“Our basic strategy is to show our progress in the House and put pressure on the Senate,” said Rep. Peter Fischer, D-Maplewood, a sponsor who also is still negotiating concerns of some electronics manufacturers.
The digital “Fair Repair” bill has been a goal of a consortium of independent repair shops, environmentalists, the Minnesota Farmers Union and others. They contend the manufacturers of everything from iPhones to computer servers and entertainment devices have violated rights of owners by increasingly restricting device repairs through licensing and restrictions on repair instructions and diagnostic tools, essentially, forming monopolistic cartels that also encourage product replacement.
In addition, advocates contend that too much electronic stuff is sent to recyclers or landfills, items that could be refurbished and available for use or resale in a growing market for secondhand equipment.
“The only people who don’t like this bill are large original-equipment manufacturers, who have become monopolistic and [are] abusing their market power,” said CEO Jennifer Larson of 20-year-old Vibrant Technology of Eden Prairie, which refurbishes and sells servers, networking and data storage hardware.
Larson, who runs a 75,000-square-foot operation, has been concerned for years that her technicians are still limited in their work.
“If you own it, you should be able to fix it,” she said. “The free market is being squashed. It’s easy for large trade groups that represent these massive companies to confuse legislators. It’s crony capitalism. They are running roughshod over property rights. And it’s controlled obsolescence. And we’re filling more and more landfills with this stuff.
“I’m making a conservative argument. I’m a Republican businesswoman. And the finance chair of the [state Republican] party.”
Larson has persuaded her Republican legislators, from the Lake Minnetonka area, Sen. David Osmek and Rep. Jerry Hertaus, to sign on as cosponsors of the respective bills. However, Sen. Gary Dahms, a Republican from Redwood Falls, said his commerce committee will not hear the bill this week, blocking its movement to the Senate floor.
“I don’t think this bill is ready for prime time,” Dahms said. “It needs a lot of work.
“This bill pits one business against another. The manufacturers are putting their warranties on the line vs. somebody who just wants to do the repairs. I don’t think we’re ready in Minnesota to fix everything from smoke detectors to commercial aircraft.”
A 16-member group of electronics manufacturers has lobbied against the repair legislation. They represent a broad range of businesses from makers of consumer electronics and home appliances to computer technology, security systems and toys. Farm-equipment dealers in several Midwest states oppose the bill over safety and quality issues.
“House File 1138 mandates that [manufacturers] provision any independent repair provider in much the same way as authorized network providers, but without any protections, requirements, or restrictions and in doing so, places consumers and their data at risk, undermines [existing manufacturer-authorized] networks and stifles innovations by putting hard-earned intellectual property in the hands of hundreds if not thousands of new entities,” the electronics manufacturers wrote to the House Judiciary, Finance and Civil Law Committee earlier this month. “The bill fails to account for the wide range of repair and refurbishment options available to Minnesota consumers, from both authorized and independent repair sources as well as advancements in sustainability by electronic-product manufacturers.”
The bill passed the committee, the last stop on the way to the House floor.
Fischer said last week he’s still working with some manufacturers on broadening the network of qualified business and nonprofit repair shops in order to increase options for Minnesota small businesses and consumers. The advocates said this will increase jobs and competition, stimulate the used-product market and cut waste.
The manufacturers have a functional monopoly on parts and repair information … in many industries,” said Tim Schaefer, chief executive of Environment Minnesota. “The … market should work this out if you give everybody the information on repairs.
“The system we’re proposing was the default before software. The manufacturers have used that to try and take over repair. If you have more people doing repairs, people have better options and don’t get overcharged compared to just a few authorized dealers.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.