Letter to the Editor: Question 1 was a Bigger Deal, and Victory, than You Thought

December 28, 2020

Submitted by Neil Luczai

Amid the enormity of this year’s election and an exhausting four years, it’s hard to argue with political fatigue. It can also be safe to say the down-ballot from this year’s election was far from the front of our minds on election night.

Bay Staters have seen all sorts of mundane and surprisingly niche ballot measures over the years, so no one would be blamed for missing the seemingly small victory that occurred this election day in Massachusetts.

But Ballot Question 1 was a big deal. The successfully-campaigned initiative will now require manufacturers that sell vehicles with telematics systems in Massachusetts to equip them with a standardized open data platform. A mouth full, I know, but millions of dollars poured into the state from both auto manufacturers on one side and auto-parts manufacturers on the other—all for this esoteric policy.

The right to repair revolves around a fundamental consumer right, to simply be able to repair goods rather than buy new ones. Although Question 1 only dealt with vehicle manufacturers, a similar problem is faced by many industries.

Anyone with a smartphone knows how much of a battle keeping a trusty device around can be. As is the case with many goods, companies often own rights to their hardware’s parts and to the repair process itself. These are known as exclusive agreements. In the early 20th century, things used to be built to be repaired; now, it may feel they are built to break instead—“planned obsolescence” as it is sometimes known. I believe this makes this policy relevant both to consumers and those concerned with waste at large.

So far, Massachusetts is unique with this policy. Still, as we enter a new Presidential age, the state may prove a laboratory for these laws nationally.

The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, has the potential power to ban all kinds of these “exclusive agreements” and related laws, but it is not yet clear what position President-elect Biden favors. His transition teams for various departments represent various positions on the issue, with former highly-positioned Silicon Valley executives and their critics sharing seats at the table.

Bedford residents should keep an eye on how this measure pans out and potentially add it to the list of the state’s trailblazing ballot efforts.

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