Policy

There’s a new push for a right to repair enterprise software

If you want to fix your phone without going back to the manufacturer, you’re increasingly in luck. Not so much if you’re a company that’s keeping up old software.

Teddy from Bob's Burgers with a toolkit

The right-to-repair movement is coming to enterprise software.

Photo: FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

A group of companies that fix enterprise software and servers is banding together to push Washington to protect the practices at the heart of the industry.

The trade group, FreeICT USA, wants to build on successes in Europe, mostly through an explicit bill ensuring that it’s not just the big sellers like Microsoft or IBM that can easily repair the software that businesses use.

FreeICT, whose name refers to the information and communications technology sector, knows that most sophisticated companies use one of the big three cloud vendors. The convenience of having AWS, Microsoft Azure or Google handle everything from hardware to software is the point for businesses with elite IT budgets. But Shannon Mahaffey, who is leading FreeICT, told Protocol that other companies — from financial services to health care — and government agencies need to be able to keep their software suites in good shape, even while running old versions of Windows.

“It's the organizations that we call, ‘The Fortune 1000 that were around at the year 2000,’” said Mahaffey, who is also president of Origina North America, a founding member of FreeICT that specializes in support for IBM software. “It's not the latest, greatest, high-flying company out of Silicon Valley.”

Mahaffey said that many of those businesses that are relying on older versions of on-premises enterprise software feel they have little choice for repairs right now, which leads to higher prices and contributes to the 40 million tons of annual e-waste.

“They want to have [existing IT systems] stay right here,” Mahaffey said. “It works fine.”

The group is hoping to piggyback on the successes of the movement that’s trying to enshrine a right for consumers to fix their own electronic devices. In the U.S., companies can’t condition warranties on stopping consumers from using outside repairs, but manufacturers of goods ranging from cars and farm equipment to smartphones have found ways to claim safety or IP exceptions, suppress information about third-party fixes and withhold manuals and parts.

Consumers who don’t want to replace expensive devices regularly have been pushing back, however, and the right-to-repair movement has seen some bipartisan wins. State lawmakers have introduced several measures to ensure repair rights on devices and equipment, and Federal Trade commissioners from both parties have slammed manufacturers’ limits. In this environment, OEMs including Apple and Samsung have made concessions, with Apple reversing course and creating a way for consumers to repair their phones just this year. Samsung followed Apple’s announcement with similar moves for Galaxy devices.

FreeICT — which estimates the software maintenance and repair market is worth more than $175 billion — is hoping to broaden the concept of repair rights to its own industry. Mahaffey said his member companies have to deal with original vendors that restrict resources or try to raise concerns about the security of outside fixes, even as those software companies increase prices for maintenance. (Mahaffey insisted it’s his fellow repair firms that are providing the latest security patches when the big software companies stop providing support.)

The group has some reason for optimism it can get policy wins: Last year, in Europe, where the original FreeICT Europe group has been working for several years, the EU’s highest court ruled that software licensees can essentially reconstruct the source code for software in order to fix a bug.

On this side of the Atlantic, though, FreeICT feels that the legal status quo, while increasingly favorable to the right-to-repair movement, won’t be sweeping enough to protect third-party repairs in enterprise software. The FTC, for instance, is trying to ensure repair rights by bringing cases against one company at a time, such as a recent complaint against Weber grills.

What FreeICT is seeking, instead, is a bill that would protect the right to repair enterprise software in particular. Mahaffey said he’s not sure what member of Congress could introduce such a bill, but he said Sen. Ted Cruz, who is likely to become the top Republican on the Commerce Committee next year, is “kind of in this camp” of lawmakers who might be interested. Mahaffey added that he felt that staff for Cruz’s fellow Texan, Sen. John Cornyn, agreed with the importance of this issue in recent meetings.

The push for a stand-alone measure represents a recent shift in tactics for a group that, Mahaffey admitted, is still finding its footing in Washington. During its planning, FreeICT had been aiming to get behind a bicameral vehicle that, especially in the Senate version, would focus more on making OEMs’ manuals and tools available to fix hardware devices. But in the preparatory meetings on the Hill about extending the language to more clearly incorporate enterprise software, Senate staff advised FreeICT members they “do not want to try and tack this on,” according to Mahaffey

“The more you add to something like this, the harder it's going to be for it to pass,” he said. “You need to craft and suggest separate legislation that's around enterprise software.”

In addition to lobbying Congress, the group plans to work in states and stay in touch with the right-to-repair groups focused on consumer goods, Mahaffey said. Once it gets someone to introduce its bill, which Mahaffey said he hopes will happen this fall, FreeICT is also planning an education campaign to persuade other lawmakers — and the companies that may not be happy with the cost of tuning up their software and servers.

“Our job isn't to replace anything being done with right to repair in that general category, but to expand that conversation,” he said.

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