Why the Tories should consider this right-to-repair bill — even if it did come from a Liberal

OPINION: A new private member’s bill from MPP Michael Coteau aims to drive down the costs of repairing electronics. If the PCs are smart, writes John Michael McGrath, they’ll give it a fair hearing
By John Michael McGrath - Published on February 26, 2019
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Bill 72 would require that manufacturers make documents, parts, and software available for consumer electronics — and do so at a “fair” cost. (iStock.com/Avalon_Studio)

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If it costs less to fix your cellphone next year, you may have Michael Coteau’s daughter to thank. The Liberal MPP has proposed a new bill at Queen’s Park that he hopes will give consumers greater control over their own electronics and make it cheaper and easier to repair electronics when they break — and his child is at least partly responsible.

“My daughter dropped my [Samsung] S8,” the Don Valley East MPP told TVO.org on Monday. “It made more sense to get a new phone than to get the screen replaced.”

Coteau’s Bill 72, the Consumer Protection Amendment Act (Right to Repair Electronic Products), would require that manufacturers make documents, parts, and software available for their phones, laptops, and other consumer electronics — and do so at a “fair” cost. In short, the bill seeks to create a “right to repair” for consumers.

While the bill would give consumers more choice by allowing them to bring damaged electronics to a wider selection of businesses for repair, it would also offer environmental benefits, Coteau says.

“I can’t believe the things we throw away,” he says. “Something’s got to give here if we want to help the planet.”

Bill 72 is, however, a private member’s bill, and one from an MPP whose party doesn’t even exist in the eyes of the legislature. It could go to second reading in April, at the very earliest; even then, there’s no guarantee that it would be scheduled for committee hearings or a third reading.

But the Tories should give Coteau’s bill a fair hearing, and, if they don’t want to give a Liberal MPP the credit, they could just steal the idea outright and fold it into one of their own bills. This is, after all, what being “for the little guy” looks like (when it looks like anything other than tax cuts).

Coteau’s bill is part of a much broader movement, one that goes beyond cellphones. More and more goods have proprietary electronics embedded in them, and the existing rules around patent, and especially copyright, law have given large corporations an increased amount of control over the products they sell us. The right-to-repair movement is, in part, about asserting the rights of consumers over the business models of large corporations.

And there are a surprising number of groups who could benefit from having greater control over the machinery we rely on every day. Auto mechanics are an obvious example: it can be lucrative for carmakers if they restrict the necessary tools for repairs to a smaller pool of preferred shops, freezing out independents — and driving up costs for consumers.

The Progressive Conservatives tend to be fond of policies that work for motorists, but there’s potentially an even more politically valuable demographic involved here: farmers.

A modern tractor is as much a computer on wheels as any car, but its complex electronics can make it harder to repair than an older model. (In 2016, TVO.org reported on the price premium for used tractors; some farmers prefer them specifically because they don’t rely on as many electronics.) A motorist with a car in the shop can find a rental reasonably enough; a farmer with a broken tractor at harvest time faces a basic threat to their livelihood.

This week in Ottawa, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture will hold a panel at its annual general meeting on the right to repair and what it could mean for farmers. (The CFA panel was scheduled long before Coteau announced his bill, and Coteau says that he wasn’t aware of it before this week.) Many of the U.S. states that have proposed right-to-repair legislation are farm states: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska. Naturally enough, such manufacturers as John Deere have lobbied strenuously against these kinds of laws, and we can expect to see the same kind of thing happen here if Ontario takes a serious look at the issue.

For now, Coteau’s immediate concern is getting his bill a hearing in the legislature.

“Ontario needs to prepare itself for the future when it comes to privacy, when it comes to digital technology,” Coteau says. “If you think about the big four companies — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple — we have to get to a point where we control our future. And ownership of our technology is part of that.”

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