The Federal Trade Commission decided overwhelmingly on Wednesday to uphold rules around the Right to Repair, ensuring that US customers can repair their own electronic and automobile products.
In approving the repair standards, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is not unexpected; the Right to Repair problem has been unusually bipartisan, and the FTC itself published a lengthy report in May condemning manufacturers for restricting repairs. In any case, the 5 to 0 vote indicates the commission’s commitment to enforcing both federal antitrust laws and the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, which controls consumer warranty rights and obligations.
The vote comes 12 days after President Joe Biden issued a sweeping executive order aimed at encouraging competition in the US economy, which was led by a new FTC chair and well-known tech critic Lina Khan. The directive impacted a wide range of sectors, including banks, airlines, and technology firms. However, a section of it urged the FTC, which is an independent body, to adopt new guidelines to prevent corporations from restricting consumers’ repair options.
“When you buy an expensive product, whether it’s a half-a-million-dollar tractor or a thousand-dollar phone, you are in a very real sense under the power of the manufacturer,” says Tim Wu, special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy within the National Economic Council. “And when they have repair specifications that are unreasonable, there’s not a lot you can do.”
A “visceral example” of the huge gap between employees, consumers, small firms, and larger corporations is the “Right to Repair” movement, says Wu. US Public Interest Research Group and commercial firms like as iFixit have been leading the Right to Repair campaign in this country.
iFixit sells gadget repair kits and publishes repair instructions. Proponents of the Right to Fix argue that consumers should have access to the tools, parts, documentation, and software needed to repair the products they own, whether it’s a smartphone or a tractor.
These organizations are also quick to point out situations in which major manufacturers restrict or prohibit independent product repair alternatives, or compel consumers to return to the manufacturer, who then charges a premium for the repair.
And it’s not only about replacing a smartphone’s cracked glass back or mending an incredibly tiny smartwatch: During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020, medical device engineers began warning about the hazards of not having access to key device repair equipment during times of crisis, such as ventilators.
As more items, from smartphones to refrigerators to automobiles, are constructed with internet connectivity, the problem of maintenance rights has gotten more difficult. Consumers should have access to all of the data collected by their personal devices, according to repair advocates, and independent repair businesses should have access to the same software diagnostic tools as “authorized” repair shops.
“I urge the FTC to use its rulemaking authority to reinforce basic consumer and private property rights, and to update it for the digital age, as manufacturers seek to turn hundreds of millions of owners of technology into tenants of their own property,” said Paul Roberts, the founder of Securepairs.org, during a public comments section of today’s FTC meeting. “A digital Right to Repair is a vital tool that will extend the life of electronic devices.”
Some major manufacturers, on the other hand, are opposed to the idea, claiming that it would make goods less secure and expose customers to safety concerns. One of the world’s largest tractor manufacturers, John Deere, has released comments stating that it “does not support the freedom to change embedded software owing to concerns connected with equipment safety, emissions compliance, and engine performance.”
During today’s FTC hearing, a representative for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute claimed that “Right to Repair legislation fails to consider consumer safety and environmental protection with respect to our industry’s products… for example, it would allow for the modification and tampering with safety controls of powered lawn mower blades required by law by the EPA.”
“The FTC’s decision to spend an effective and secure system for consumers to repair products that they rely on for their health, safety, and well-being, including phones, computers, fire alarms, medical devices, and home security systems,” Carl Holshouser, senior vice president at TechNet, a trade group that has represented companies like Microsoft and Apple, wrote in an emailed statement to WIRED.
And, before today’s decision, the Consumer Technology Association—which organizes the annual CES tech show in Las Vegas—sent a letter to FTC commissioners encouraging collaboration through a “long regulatory process,” noting intellectual property rights as a difficult issue at the core of Right to Repair.
It’s worth noting, though, that the FTC claimed there was “scarce evidence to substantiate manufacturers’ arguments for repair limitations” in its May report, which was the conclusion of data obtained when the commission convened a “Nixing the Fix” panel in 2019.
The research cited many cases in which manufacturers may have exaggerated the dangers of thermal runaway (i.e., batteries catching fire) or personal data breaches as a result of device repairs.
For the time being, the FTC’s policy statement serves as a big reminder of current rules, even as dozens of states debate Right to Repair legislation. The EU announced today that it will look into repair limitations as potential antitrust breaches as well as consumer protection concerns.
Warranty abuse is defined by the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act of 1975, which prohibits manufacturers from telling customers that their warranty is void if the product has been altered or tampered with by someone other than the original manufacturer. The FTC is encouraging the public to report warranty abuse.
Jessa Jones, an iPhone repair specialist who owns the iPad Rehab business in upstate New York and claims to have restored over 40,000 iPhones, encouraged the FTC to take enforcement of current laws seriously.
“Despite the anti-tying statement within the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, there’s still rampant disregard of the FTC rules,” Jones said during the public comments portion of the meeting. “Consumers and manufacturers alike still believe that you can void a warranty simply by opening a device.”
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