Americans will be more free to repair broken smartphones, computers, consoles, and other machinery under new laws being eyed by federal regulators.
The regulators maintain that restrictions have steered consumers into manufacturers’ and sellers’ repair networks or led them to replace products before the end of their useful lives.
As the Federal Trade Commission and the Biden administration see it, that raises issues of anti-competitive conduct.
The FTC is moving toward writing new rules targeting the restrictions. On Wednesday, the five FTC commissioners unanimously adopted a policy statement supporting the “right to repair” that pledges beefed-up enforcement efforts and could open the way to new regulations.
“These types of (repair) restrictions can significantly raise costs for consumers, stifle innovation, close off business opportunity for independent repair shops, create unnecessary electronic waste, delay timely repairs and undermine resiliency,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said. “The FTC has a range of tools it can use to root out unlawful repair restrictions, and today’s policy statement would commit us to move forward on this issue with new vigour.”
The policy statement commits the agency to prosecute repair restrictions that violate current antitrust or consumer protection laws. A 1975 law, for example, requires that if a product has a warranty — which is not mandatory — the warranty must avoid using disclaimers in an unfair or deceptive way. It also prohibits tying a warranty to the use of a specific service provider or product, unless the FTC has issued a waiver in that case.
Unavailable parts, instruction manuals and diagnostic software and tools, product design restrictions and locks on software embedded in devices have made many consumer products harder to fix and maintain, regulators and industry critics say. Do-it-yourself repairs often require specialized tools, hard-to-obtain parts and access to diagnostic software that’s guarded by manufacturers.
The repair restrictions often fall most heavily on minority and low-income consumers, the regulators say. An FTC report to Congress in May noted that many Black-owned small businesses make equipment repairs, and repair shops often are owned by entrepreneurs from poor communities.
For minority and low-income consumers, the repair restrictions are especially acute for smart phones, the report says. Those consumers often have smart phones but no broadband access for computers at home, increasing their dependence on the phones.
Industry critics say the coronavirus pandemic worsened the effects of repair restrictions for all consumers as computers became essential for working remotely, schooling children at home and visiting relatives on screens — while many large chain stores stopped offering on-site repairs.
“Manufacturers, be warned: It’s time to clean up your act and let people fix their stuff,” Nathan Proctor, a director of US Public Interest Research Group’s right-to-repair campaign, said in a statement Wednesday. “With unanimous support from commissioners, there’s a new sheriff in town. The FTC is ready to act to stop many of the schemes used to undermine repair.”
Manufacturers, on the other hand, maintain that repair restrictions are needed to safeguard intellectual property, protect consumers from injuries that could result from fixing a product or using one that was improperly repaired, and guard against cybersecurity risks. Manufacturers say they could face liability or harm to their reputation if independent repair shops make faulty equipment repairs.
New right-to-repair laws and regulations “would create innumerable harms and unintended consequences for consumers and manufacturers alike, including by limiting consumer choice, impeding innovation, threatening consumers’ safety and wellbeing, (and) opening the door to counterfeits,” the National Association of Manufacturers said in a prepared statement.
Legislation to ease repair restrictions is active in about 25 states, and the European Community also is considering new right-to-repair regulations.
The repair directive was included in President Joe Biden’s sweeping executive order issued earlier this month targeting what he labelled anti-competitive practices in tech, healthcare, banking and other key parts of the economy. The order has 72 actions and recommendations that Biden said would lower prices for families, increase wages for workers and promote innovation and faster economic growth. New regulations that agencies may write to translate his policy into rules could trigger epic legal battles, however.
“Let me be clear: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation,” Biden said at a White House signing ceremony.
The move to introduce more right to repair laws has also made waves in the United Kingdom and in Europe – to varying degrees of success. Europe’s legislation, which was introduced in March 2021, said that companies would need to ensure goods can be repaired for up to 10 years.
These rules should help reduce electrical waste, which has been increasing due to greater manufacturing. New devices will also have to come with repair manuals and be made in such a way that they can be dismantled using conventional tools when they really can’t be fixed anymore, to improve recycling.
Similar legislation was introduced in the United Kingdom, which left the EU but still requires that manufacturing standards match those of the 27 nation bloc in order for any trade to continue. Unfortunately, the law does not apply to smartphones and computers, some of the most expensive gadgets people own, with experts saying the law itself needs repairing.
Tech giant Apple has been generally against the right-to-repair movement, opposing legislation that would make it easier for users to repair their iPhones and Macs; yet Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has said that the principles behind the right to repair movement laid the foundation for the tech giant.
“When companies co-operate together with others they can actually have better business than if they’re totally protective and monopolistic”, Mr Wozniak said. “It’s time to recognise the right to repair more fully. I believe that companies inhibit it because it gives the companies power [and] control over everything. In a lot of people’s minds, power over others equates to money and profits.
“Is it your computer, or is it some company’s computer? Think about that. It’s time to start doing the right things”, Mr Wozniak concluded.
Additional reporting by Associated Press