Georgia DIYers stymied by big tech

By: - August 8, 2019 8:00 am

Nate Minor, owner of ScreenFixing.com in East Atlanta Village, holds a part from a newer model iPhone. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A combination of experience, leaked technical documents and internet-powered crowd-sourcing has helped Nate Minor find his way around the inside of an iPad Pro and other high-tech devices without the aid of an official manufacturer’s guide. 

But the owner of the East Atlanta Village Screenfixing.com repair shop, says he hopes tech companies like Apple will let a little sunlight in on the inner workings of products so anyone can more expertly repair pricey gadgets and keep them in use longer. 

Manufacturers have resisted such pushes so far, including a so-called “right to repair” bill in Georgia earlier this year designed to force companies to make available product information and tools needed for diagnosing and resolving problems. 

The companies cite the safety and security of consumers, who they argue can already find a trained repairman. And, they say, sharing the ins and outs of how devices work could violate their intellectual property rights. 

“We’re not trying to rebuild iPhones here,” Minor countered. “We’re just trying to fix them.”

Calls to return to a ‘fix-it society’

But a new report, from the Environment Georgia Research & Policy Center and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, says it’s not just the professionals who want more access to repair information. 

About 2.4 million Georgia consumers visited a site called iFixit.com last year in search of guidance or parts to repair their own electronics, according to the report. Most of them were trying to fix their cell phone, usually because of an exhausted battery or a cracked screen. 

Top 10 devices that Georgians try to fix
  • cell phones
  • automobiles
  • laptops
  • gaming consoles
  • tablets
  • desktop computers
  • smart watches
  • iPods
  • coffee makers
  • speakers

Source: Environment Georgia Research & Policy Center and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group

These do-it-yourself Georgians likely hit roadblocks, since several of the most popular manufacturers provide limited or no access to spare parts or technical service information, according to the report. 

Changing that could help tamp down America’s fast-growing stream of electronic waste, said Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia. 

“We need to make fixing common, we need to make it accessible, we need to make it second nature again so that people are not throwing away 12,000 cell phones every single day in Georgia,” Gayer said. 

“We need to tweak our society back to being a fix-it society,” Gayer said. 

Gayer’s group was among those who rallied behind the state measure requiring manufacturers to make service information, tools and parts, such as a cell phone battery, available to repair shops and owners of electronics. 

That proposal received an initial hearing but never got a vote in the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, where it remains alive for next year. 

The measure likely lost momentum after its main sponsor, Rep. Scot Turner, joined a small group of lawmakers who called for the resignation of one of the GOP’s most high-ranking state leaders, House Speaker David Ralston (R-7th District). 

Bill framed as property rights issue

Turner, a Republican from Holly Springs, has cast the repair issue as a private property rights quandary and argued that once people buy something, they should be able to maintain, diagnose and fix it. He also pitched his bill as a job creator that would encourage entrepreneurs to set up shop in rural areas of the state. 

Some of his fellow conservatives were wary of what they saw as meddling in the free market and resisted the proposal. The influential Georgia Chamber of Commerce objected to the bill on those grounds. 

But proponents have another important voice on their side: Farmers. The Georgia Farm Bureau has backed the legislation in hopes of creating more options for repairs when high-tech farm equipment breaks down. 

Some manufacturers bar third-party repairs and parts because they say it could open the door for someone to alter machinery in such a way that violates federal environmental regulations. 

Frustration over that limitation grew in the agricultural community last year when some farmers rushed to harvest as much as possible ahead of Hurricane Michael, only to be stuck waiting on a dealer-authorized technician to come get their equipment running again. 

Alex Bradford, state affairs coordinator with the Georgia Farm Bureau, said his organization continues to advocate for more flexibility in who can do repairs while respecting the manufacturers’ private property rights. 

Bradford compared the issue to one the automobile industry grappled with years ago. That industry has since agreed to a right-to-repair deal that enabled third-party shops to make repairs on modern vehicles. 

“Intellectual property should not be infringed on,” he said. “But we do believe that tools and ability to maintain, repair and diagnose your equipment is fundamental to your property. 

“And if you cannot do that, do you really own something?”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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