Gay Gordon-Byrne Is the Ringleader of the 'Right to Repair' Movement

She's fighting against Apple and the video game industry to ensure you're allowed to fix the things you buy.

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Mar 17 2017, 8:04pm

Humans of the Year

Gay Gordon-Byrne has been a persistent thorn in the side of America's biggest companies. The person standing between the likes of Apple and John Deere in their eternal quest to monopolize the repair of the products they sell.

As the executive director of Repair.org—a grassroots trade organization made up primarily of repair companies with fewer than five employees—she is the most important advocate of "right to repair" legislation that would prevent manufacturers from implementing artificial hurdles that prevent individuals and small businesses from fixing electronics.

Gordon-Byrne has no background in politics and she shudders when I suggest she's a lobbyist, but over the last three years, she has become one of the most important political advocate for consumer rights.

With some help from concerned constituents—a computer repair shop in New York, a farmer in Nebraska—she has convinced eight states to take up legislation that is modeled on a Massachusetts auto repair law requiring manufacturers to sell replacement parts and diagnostic manuals to the masses. In fact, her background is in computer leasing, not repair—which actually made her the perfect person to lead the right to repair charge.

"I didn't have any relationships to burn, so i was able to be more vocal on behalf of the committee than those in the business," she said. For the last three years, she's been negotiating with potential allies—the Farm Bureau, for instance—learning the intricacies of each state's legislative process, and firing back against unsupported claims by massive corporations that independent repair is dangerous, illegal, or somehow against the best interests of consumers.

"I've learned by default because there was no one else to do it. I learned to read legislation, write legislation, how to research the concerns that have come up," she said. "I have to go through my own devil's advocate process—are the manufacturers' claims really wrong or am I not seeing the issue correctly?"

At the statehouse, one senator combed through a list of constituents who had written to his office to complain about not being able to fix their iPhones. To his great surprise, he knew many of them.

When she and Kyle Wiens, CEO of the electronics repair information and parts site iFixit, started pushing for this legislation three years ago, they had no idea if they could get other people to care about state politics. Today, more than 27,000 people in three states (New York, Massachusetts, and Kansas) have written letters of support to their legislators.

Gordon-Byrne forcefully strikes back against the arguments made by armies of lobbyists hired by trade groups to represent some of the company's largest corporations. At the end of the day, the only real argument against right to repair, she says, is one of greed: Companies are protecting their bottom line, not their consumers.

"We need to keep adding bills because manufacturers can keep playing whack-a-mole with lobbyists if there's only one or two states," Gordon-Byrne said. "But if there's 10, 12, 16 bills—that level of pressure is going to be hard to ignore."

After a day in Albany spent running from meeting to meeting with New York lawmakers and their staffs, I'm debriefing with Gay Gordon-Byrne, the woman who is fighting for your right to repair electronics.

"If you take something up and you feel like you're an army of one, you might be able to get a whole army behind you at some point."

At the statehouse, one senator combed through a list of constituents who had written to his office to complain about not being able to fix their iPhones. To his great surprise, he knew many of them. Later, though, Gordon-Byrne made her pitch to a staffer of a powerful lawmaker. She explained how most repair businesses are locally owned, how a bill to protect the rights of consumers to fix the things they buy would benefit the state of New York more than it would harm megacorporations that are largely headquartered elsewhere. The meeting was short; the staffer, disinterested.

I asked her if she has more or less faith in the democratic process after these trips to Albany.

"Oh, much more," she told me. "I really see the power of the individual. We're really just a handful of passionate individuals, and it can have a huge difference. If you take something up and you feel like you're an army of one, you might be able to get a whole army behind you at some point."

This spring, state legislatures around the country will consider the legislation she's worked on. If any of them get passed, you'll have her to thank.

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