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Microsoft named as stopping "Right to Repair" in Washington

By Nathan Proctor
Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

Legislator Jeff Morris sheds some light on how tech companies blocked the popular measure

When something breaks, you fix it. It’s common sense.

Repair saves consumers money, and it reduces the amount of waste that goes on the scrap heap.

But when only the manufacturer has the ability to fix your electronics, they can charge whatever they want for repairs. They can also push you into buying a brand new product altogether, adding to our waste problems.

That’s why WashPIRG has supported “Right to Repair” reforms which prevent manufacturers from monopolizing repairs. Earlier this year, Washington’s Right to Repair bill passed out of committee for the second session in a row with strong bipartisan support. But also for the second year in a row, the bill was put on ice before it went to a full floor vote.  

We know most people agree that we should have the freedom to repair our own stuff. When Massachusetts residents were given the chance to vote on whether they should have the right to repair their cars -- stopping automakers from forcing that certain repairs be done at dealerships -- it passed with more than 87 percent of the vote. That number is even more impressive given that less than 87 percent of people in Massachusetts have cars.

That Massachusetts law became the framework for Washington’s proposed Right to Repair law for all electronic products.

How does such a popular, bipartisan idea -- which enjoyed support from consumer groups including WashPIRG, environmental and waste groups and small repair businesses --  get blocked from getting a floor vote?

Looking at Microsoft’s role

According to Rep. Jeff Morris, Microsoft played a leading role.

In an interview on iFixit’s Repair Radio, Rep. Jeff Morris, who was the original sponsor of the bill last year, claimed that “word on the street” was that big tech companies, specifically Microsoft, “marshalled forces to keep the bill from moving out of the House Rules committee.”

Rep. Morris further claimed that, while he didn’t see the “smoking gun,” “there was a tax proposal here … to pay for STEM education.” Furthermore, “in exchange for Microsoft support[ing that tax,] having Right to Repair die…” was a condition, as well as another privacy policy Microsoft wanted to advance.  

He shed some light on the kinds of things Microsoft lobbyists were doing, saying that last year, “Microsoft was going around telling our members that they wouldn’t sell Surface Tablets in Washington any longer if we passed the bill.”

In our own conversations about the opposition to Right to Repair in Olympia, Microsoft’s full-throated opposition was often brought up by legislators, and it was to clear to us that the company was lobbying extensively against the bill, and was the most high-profile opponent.

Across the country, large manufacturers like Microsoft and Apple tend to do much of their public opposition to Right to Repair through trade associations. Microsoft is among the manufacturers represented by trade groups like CompTIA, Consumer Technology Association, Information Technology Industry Council and the Entertainment Software Association, which are all active opponents to Right to Repair reforms. These trade associations can mask the role of an individual company, but are one of the key ways the opposition works to defeat pro-consumer Right to Repair legislation. But the behind-the-scenes targeting of Right to Repair by Microsoft seemed to play a more significant role in the bill’s demise.

Microsoft has complicated recent history on repair

Last year, electronics recycler Eric Lundgren went to prison for duplicating Dell restore discs, software meant to help fix old computers and that is free to download. Microsoft faced intense scrutiny for their actions in that case.  

In response to the case, U.S. PIRG delivered more than 11,000 petitions to Microsoft offices, calling for greater accountability for electronic waste disposal and easier access to the tools and information needed to repair products.

The case also brought attention to several other ways Microsoft makes it difficult for people to reuse its products: lobbying against Right to Repair laws, violating warranty regulations by attempting to forbid independent repair in warranty clauses and “void warranty if removed” stickers, and making several products which are notoriously difficult (if not impossible) to repair.

On the other hand, Microsoft has taken steps to help computer recycling and reduce waste, making a new operating system that  runs smoothly on older devices, reducing the need for new upgrades. That’s no small step, and iFixit praised it at the time.

But Microsoft can do more, and has a chance to be a leader on reducing electronic waste. To fully realize that leadership role, Microsoft must stop blocking our Right to Repair.  

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