Modern technology can be both a blessing and a curse. When it works, it can streamline our most tedious tasks, but when it doesn’t? Repairs performed by the manufacturer or an authorized dealer can be expensive and time consuming, often resulting in the need for a complete replacement.
For years, advocates of the “right to repair” movement have pushed lawmakers to step in and give consumers the ability to repair or modify electronic devices: from cell phones to laptops to home appliances. and car software.
With better access to replacement parts, tools, repair manuals and diagnostic software, tech entrepreneurs say these devices could last longer while reducing electronic waste.
This month, defenders of the right to reparation saw their wish come true.
On July 9, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission to develop new policies dealing with repair restrictions.
In a public hearing on Wednesday, FTC commissioners unanimously approved new policy statements regarding repair restrictions on consumers, as well as a commitment to greater enforcement of “illegal practices of restriction of repair”.
But while many support the rights of consumers to self-repair their products or the freedom to have their product delivered to a third-party repair service of their choice, manufacturers and naysayers fear that repair freedoms will do more harm than good.
What is the “right to reparation” and how did we get there?
For years, lawmakers have proposed legislation at both state and federal levels that would give consumers more rights when it comes to repairing their own devices.
Most recently, in December 2020, lawmakers asked the FTC to report on anti-competitive practices related to repair markets. In May, the FTC released a report to Congress titled “Nixing The Fix,” which explained how manufacturers have increasingly restricted independent and third-party repairs of products over the past four decades.
The FTC has found that manufacturers have done this through “product designs that complicate or prevent repairs” or “restrict access to parts, tools or manuals needed for repairs.”
Repair restrictions aren’t limited to cellphones and computers, writes the FTC. The commissioners found that the restrictions also apply to software in cars, tractors, military and medical equipment, and household appliances.
These facts, the commission found, were painfully highlighted during the pandemic when access to a working laptop or phone was a barrier for many.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the effects of repair restrictions on consumers,” the report said, adding that “the burden of repair restrictions may fall more heavily on communities of color and low-income communities.”
But manufacturers who oppose repair freedoms say consumers will end up paying more, with less safety, a greater risk of permanent damage or injury.
“Manufacturers explain that these repair restrictions often stem from their desire to protect intellectual property rights and prevent injury and other negative consequences resulting from improper repairs,” the report said.
Lawyers disagree with this line of thinking. Apple co-founder and tech entrepreneur Steve Wozniak recently recorded a video expressing his support for the movement, saying it is time for freedoms to repair to be widely adopted.
“It is time to recognize the right to redress more fully,” said Wozniak. “I believe companies inhibit it because it gives them power and control over everything.”
The “Nixing The Fix” report has finally made its way to the White House.
On July 9, Biden’s executive order included initiatives to “make it easier and cheaper to repair items you own by preventing manufacturers from banning self-repairs or third-party repairs of their products.”
FTC seeks help from consumers who spot “illegal repair restrictions”
In a virtual public hearing on Wednesday, federal trade commissioners discussed the subject of the “right to redress” for the first time since the presidential decree weeks earlier.
All commissioners unanimously agreed that stricter manufacturer enforcement is needed. Commissioner Rohit Chopra added that repair restrictions can not only cost consumers more to extend the life of their technology, but these restrictions can also have dire consequences.
“The right to redress movement has also shown us how these issues can be matters of life and death,” Chopra said. “During the FTC’s review of this issue, we heard from hospitals about not being able to repair ventilators because a manufacturer sought to deny access to fix them.”
(You can watch the full FTC hearing on the right to redress and other issues in click here.)
In public comments, most of the right to repair questioners agreed with the FTC’s position, but one man, commenting on lawnmower repairs, questioned whether the freedom to repair could do more than harm consumers.
“This would make it possible to modify [and] tampering with security controls. The right to redress does not take into account the safety of consumers, ”he said.
After receiving the comments, the FTC chairman and other commissioners moved forward with a proposal to devote more resources to enforcing the illegal repair restrictions.
“The FTC has a range of tools it can use to eliminate illegal repair restrictions,” said FTC President Lina Khan. “Today’s policy statement would commit us to moving forward with new vigor.”
Khan also appealed to consumers themselves, asking the public to file complaints if they believe companies are illegally imposing repair restrictions.
(Click here to learn more about filing these types of complaints.)
One thing is certain: the right to repair raises the stakes for both manufacturers and consumers.