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Oregon ‘right to repair’ bill draws conflicting reactions from big smartphone companies

Senator Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
FILE - Senator Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro.

Oregon lawmakers are once again considering a bill that would make it easier to repair devices made by tech manufacturers like Google and Apple. But those two companies — major suppliers of smartphones — are on different sides of the bill.

Senate Bill 1596 would require that device makers offer technical documents and specialty tools needed to fix broken phones, laptops, and appliances available to small repair shops or even tech-minded owners who want to make fixes themselves.

The so-called “right to repair” bill is a reaction to increasingly complex devices and manufacturers that only provide the tools and know-how to make fixes to a limited network of technicians. As a result, repairs tend to be more expensive.

Sen. Janeen Sollman, a Hillsboro Democrat who has been pushing the policy since 2021, argues making access to repairs more widespread will reduce costs for consumers, cut back on unnecessary waste as people keep their devices longer, and help small businesses interested in offering repair services.

“Right to repair is about lowering costs for hardworking Oregonians,” Sollman told reporters on Monday.

The bill marks the fourth time lawmakers have taken up a similar concept since 2019, but advocates believe this year’s bill has a better shot at passing because of a key ally: Google. A representative for the tech behemoth testified in January that the latest proposal is “an inclusive compromise” compared to past versions, saying Google already strives to make repairs of its Pixel phones accessible.

Not all smartphone manufacturers are so enthused, including the world’s largest. Apple has not signaled support for SB 1596, though it backed asimilar law passed by California lawmakers last year.

One key reason the company isn’t on board, the SB 1596′s supporters have testified, is that Oregon’s proposal takes aim at “parts pairing” software that ensures phones and other devices will only operate correctly if they are repaired with parts approved by the manufacturer.

In a January hearing, Kyle Wiens, CEO of the website iFixit, offered the example of two identical, brand-new iPhones. Even swapping their identical screens, Wiens said, could ensure that neither phone operated correctly because of Apple’s requirement that only components with a specific digital signature work seamlessly with an individual device.

The strategy has been employed increasingly by Apple, Wiens testified last month. The New York Times published an investigation in November that showed seven parts on new iPhones could cause issues during repairs, up from three in 2017.

But parts pairing software is not unique to Apple. Wiems said it has also shown up in video game consoles and even chainsaws. If SB 1596 is adopted, supporters say Oregon would be the first state in the nation to regulate the practice.

Under the bill, phone manufacturers wouldn’t be able to use parts pairing if it caused a device to operate with fewer functions or led to “unnecessary or misleading alerts or warnings.” The law contains carve-outs for certain products, such as video game consoles and medical devices. The bill’s focus, advocates said, is phones, tablets, laptops and many home appliances.

Charlie Fisher, director of the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group and an author of the legislation, called the parts-pairing element “one place where we would be more pro-consumer and better than [California’s law].”

But it appears to also be an element that has Apple working behind the scenes to alter or defeat the bill.

At a hearing Tuesday that specifically focused on the proposed regulations on parts pairing, Sollman said Apple had declined to testify in public about its concerns about the bill or to participate in a roundtable with advocates and other manufacturers.

Instead, Sollman said, the company has been meeting in private with individual lawmakers. “I know that they are meeting with colleagues; their executives are meeting with colleagues,” Sollman said.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, a member of the Senate committee taking up the issue, said in the hearing that Apple had requested a private meeting set for Wednesday.

A lobbying firm that represents Apple’s interests in Oregon didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry on Tuesday. The tech company told The New York Times last year that it supports customers’ right to repair their own products.

Apple is also among tech companies that paid for a group of lawmakers to travel to California in February to tour its headquarters, documents show. Google and eBay were also on the list of stops and helped fund what lawmakers called a “fact-finding mission.”

Under SB 1596, any manufacturer that refuses to make its repair processes and tools available could be sued by the Oregon attorney general and face fines of up to $1,000 a day.

Advocates of the bill say they’ve made changes that address concerns that surfaced in a bill that failed last year. That includes language to better protect device makers’ intellectual property and address security concerns, both points that opponentshighlighted in 2023. SB 1596 also did away with a provision that would have allowed consumers to sue manufacturers, relying instead on the attorney general to take care of enforcement.

At least four states — California, New York, Minnesotaand Colorado— have enacted right-to-repair bills in recent years.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.