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Opinion: Pennsylvanians deserve the right to repair

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, recently broke the charging port in his cellphone. (We won’t ask him how.) But when the manufacturer told him the part could not be repaired, he had no option but to buy a new phone. The replacement was more than a thousand dollars.

“Now, phones are a necessity, and especially so for residents in rural Pennsylvania,” Mr. Conklin said. “We cannot wait for manufacturers to take a long time to repair consumers’ devices at exponentially high costs.”

Mr. Conklin spoke outside a House Commerce Committee informational meeting discussing Senate Bill 744, Pennsylvania’s Right to Repair legislation. The Right to Repair movement argues, rightly, that because consumers own their products, they deserve to be able to get their products repaired (or to repair them themselves) at a reasonable price.

But as more and more products include proprietary parts, especially software, manufacturers have increasingly forced consumers to come to them for repairs and updates - or, as in the case of Mr. Conklin’s phone, to replace the product entirely.

SB 744 would require makers of “digital electronic equipment to make available to owners and independent repair providers, on fair and reasonable terms, documentation, parts and tools used to diagnose, maintain and repair digital electronic equipment.”

This is a good first step - and is worth passing into law - but the Senate’s proposal, sponsored by Mike Regan, R-Cumberland, can and should go further.

The legislation exempts some of the worst right-to-repair offenders: medical devices and agricultural equipment.

Medical devices may seem like a logical exception - after all, you don’t want a nonexpert tinkering with an MRI machine before getting a scan. But during the COVID pandemic, onerous requirements that devices like ventilators be serviced only by the manufacturer kept many lifesaving devices offline. Designing devices that can be fixed by anyone with the proper training on the ground could be a matter of life and death.

As for agricultural equipment, behemoths like John Deere have made big profits by forcing farmers - who used to be the ultimate tinkerers - to pay for expensive, exclusive maintenance. High-tech tractors will even lock out their owners until a manufacturer’s representative puts in the right code to get back to harvesting. In an industry where a day’s delay can mean spoiling a year of work, the right to repair is essential.

After the manufacturer declined to fix his charging port, Mr. Conklin should have had the right to see if anyone else could fix it, saving him money and the landfill from electronic waste. If you can’t get something repaired on your own, did you ever really own it to begin with.