Tech by VICE

Elizabeth Warren Calls for a National Right-to-Repair Law for Tractors

It would apply only to farm equipment, but Warren becomes the most powerful national politician to support a consumer's right to repair the things they own.

by Matthew Gault and Jason Koebler
Mar 27 2019, 3:23pm

Image: Jason Koebler / Motherboard

Massachusetts Senator and Democratic Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren became the highest profile politician to support right to repair legislation in the United States. Wednesday, Warren outlined out a sweeping plan support family farms and diminish the power of corporate agriculture on Wednesday. At the top of the list, she supports a national right-to-repair law for tractors and other agricultural equipment. That means she supports the simple idea that people who own a tractor should be able to repair it without permission from John Deere or any other manufacturer.

“Farmers should be able to repair their own equipment or choose between multiple repair shops,” Warren said in a Medium post outlining her proposal. “That’s why I strongly support a national right-to-repair law that empowers farmers to repair their equipment without going to an authorized agent.” For now, Warren's proposal would apply only to farm equipment, not consumer electronics.

Most of us think of the right-to-repair in terms of our electronic devices. When our iPhone breaks, Apple wants us to take it to an authorized repair shop. Those shops are often more expensive than finding a third party dealer or repairing the phone ourselves. Worse, device manufacturers often design devices to be repaired with proprietary tools or push software updates that hurt devices repaired by third parties. Apple’s iOS 11.3 update blocked touch functionality on phones repaired with aftermarket screens.

It’s an issue that affects more than just consumer electronics. Farmers operating John Deere tractors have been fighting against John Deere’s repair monopoly for years. Device manufacturers don’t want people repairing their own stuff and they’ve taken pains to make it difficult to do so. Newer John Deere equipment comes loaded with software and firmware that make it impossible for farmers to fix their own equipment. Instead, they have to call an authorized dealer and wait for them to show up—a fix that’s too slow and too costly for a farmer.

“The national right-to-repair law should require manufacturers of farm equipment to make diagnostic tools, manuals, and other repair-related resources available to any individual or business, not just their own dealerships and authorized agents,” Warren said. “This will not only allow individuals to fix their own equipment — reducing delays — but it will also create competition among dealers and independent repair shops, bringing down prices overall.”

Broadly speaking, right-to-repair legislation would have a measurable impact on the average consumer’s life, from the farmers hacking their tractors to people suffering from sleep apnea who tweak their CPAP machines to folks who just want a decent price on a replacement iPhone screen.

While Warren’s proposal is certainly notable and an important boost for the stature of the right to repair movement, national legislation would represent a significant shift in strategy for the movement, which has thus far focused on getting state-level legislation passed. So far, 20 states have introduced right-to-repair legislation (most of which include both farm equipment and consumer electronics), but no laws have been passed thus far.

People within the movement believe that it would be easier to get legislation passed on a state level rather than a federal level. The thinking is that, rather than try to comply with a patchwork of different laws in different states, manufacturers would rather voluntarily roll out the changes required by such a law nationwide (for example, it would make little sense for Apple to sell replacement iPhone screens in Massachusetts and New York but not in other states.) Nonetheless, those involved in the movement are happy to have a new, powerful ally.

“Monopolies on repair hurt all Americans, and farmers can see their whole livelihood endangered by manufacturer gimmicks to block repair,” Nathan Proctor, the director of the right to repair campaign at consumer rights group US PIRG, told me in an email. “Right to Repair is a no-brainer, and with 20 states working on active legislation so far this year, it's no surprise that it's getting talked about on the national stage. We should be able to fix our stuff.”

Clarification: This article has been clarified to stress that, for the moment, Warren's proposal applies only to farm equipment.