,Creer stands with her puppy, Asa, outside the Portland, Oregon, headquarters of Free Geek, which provided her with a low-cost desktop computer for her new job. With services like Free Geek hampered in their ability to repair old computers, half the states are considering bills to make it easier to fix the devices. —Free Geek/TNS
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Colleen Creer, a 26-year-old customer service rep from Portland, Oregon, was in a bind at the end of last year. She'd just lost her in-person job with a major retailer due to a Covid-19 closure and wanted to do the same type of work remotely. One problem: Creer, who has lived on the edge of poverty for years, didn't have a computer.
Enter Free Geek, a nonprofit in Portland that salvages broken laptops, tablets and desktops, fixes them and provides them at low or no-cost to people who can’t afford new ones. But while the pandemic heightened the demand for Free Geek’s repaired computers, corporate policies preventing easy access to parts, manuals and equipment made it harder for the nonprofit to complete its mission.
“It’s made the difference between me being able to obtain my housing and put food on my table and obtain my puppy and have him here,” Creer said of her new desktop computer. “I just took my driver’s permit test. Things like that. I wouldn’t have been able to get them done if I hadn’t gotten the computer from Free Geek.”
The pandemic has made living without a computer harder than ever. Employees are working remotely, kids are going to school via laptop, and grandparents are visiting with their grandkids on screens. At the same time, the pandemic has made it harder to get broken devices fixed, as many big chain stores have ceased offering on-site repairs. As a result, people have been forced to send their devices to authorised repair facilities – often waiting weeks for them to be returned.
Many are powerless to avoid that inconvenience because small repair shops and do-it-yourselfers can’t get the parts or manuals they need to complete the job. The problem has become more pronounced in the past decade, as personal devices, appliances and machinery have become increasingly sophisticated. At the same time, brand-name manufacturers have become stingier with spare parts and maintenance information.
The resulting frustration has given new impetus to at least 39 so-called right-to-repair bills in 25 US states. The legislation would loosen restrictions on manufacturers’ information and parts and allow small repair shops and handy device owners to do their own fixing.
Manufacturers and distributors of brand-name products are opposed. They say unauthorised repairs are unsafe and compromise security by putting nonstandard components into machines which, they say, makes them more vulnerable to hacking.
Supporters of the right-to-repair bills dispute those assertions.