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 work? Repairs through the manufacturer or an authorized dealer can be expensive and time-consuming - often leading to the need for a full replacement.
For years, advocates of the “right-to-repair” movement have been pushing for lawmakers to step in and give consumers the ability to repair or modify electronic devices: from cell phones to laptops, to appliances and the software in cars.
With greater access to replacement parts, tools, repair manuals, and diagnostic software, technology entrepreneurs say these devices could last longer while reducing electronic waste.
This month, right-to-repair advocates had their wish granted.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on July 9, 2021 instructing the Federal Trade Commission to develop new policies addressing repair restrictions.
In a public hearing on Wednesday, FTC commissioners unanimously approved new policy statements surrounding repair restrictions imposed on consumers, as well as a commitment to greater enforcement of “unlawful repair restriction practices.”
But while many support the rights of consumers to repair their products on their own or the freedom to take their product to a third-party repair service of their choice, manufacturers and opponents fear repair freedoms could do more harm than good.
What is ‘Right-to-Repair’ and How Did We Get Here?
For years, lawmakers have proposed legislation both on a state and federal level that would give consumers more rights when it comes to repairing their own devices.
Most recently in Dec. 2020, lawmakers requested the FTC to report back on anticompetitive practices related to repair markets. In May, the FTC released a report to Congress titled “Nixing The Fix”, which laid out how manufacturers have increasingly restricted independent and third-party repairs of goods over the last four decades.
The FTC found that manufacturers did this through “product designs that complicate or prevent repairs,” or “restricting access to parts, tools or manuals needed for repairs.”
Repair restrictions aren’t only limited to cell phones and computers, the FTC writes. Commissioners found the restrictions also apply to software in cars, tractors, military and medical equipment, along with 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 states, adding that, “the burden of repair restrictions may fall more heavily on communities of color and lower-income communities.”
But manufacturers who oppose repair freedoms say consumers will end up paying more, with less security, greater risk of permanent damage, or injury.
“Manufacturers explain that these repair restrictions often arise from their desire to protect intellectual property rights and prevent injuries and other negative consequences resulting from improper repairs,” the report states.
Advocates disagree with this line of thinking. Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple and technology entrepreneur, recently recorded a video voicing his support for the movement, saying it’s about time that repair freedoms are enacted broadly.
“It’s time to recognize the right-to-repair more fully,” Wozniak said. “I believe the companies inhibit it because it gives the companies power, and control over everything.”
The “Nixing The Fix” report eventually 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 limiting manufacturers from barring self-repairs or third-party repairs of their products.”
FTC Looking For Help From Consumers Spotting ‘Unlawful Repair Restrictions’
In a virtual public hearing on Wednesday, Federal Trade Commissioners discussed the “right-to-repair” topic for the first time since the president’s Executive Order weeks earlier.
All of the commissioners unanimously agreed that stronger enforcement on manufacturers is necessary. Commissioner Rohit Chopra added that repair restrictions not only can cost consumers more to make their tech last longer, but these restrictions can also have dire consequences.
“The right-to-repair movement also showed us how these problems can be matters of life or death,” Chopra said. “During the FTC’s review of this issue, we heard from hospitals worried that they would not be able to repair ventilators because a manufacturer was seeking to deny access to repair them.”
(You can watch the full FTC hearing on right-to-repair and other matters by clicking here.)
During the public comment, most speaking on the issue of right-to-repair voiced approval for the FTC’s position, but one man, commenting on lawnmower repairs, questioned whether the repair freedom could do more harm to consumers.
“It would allow for modification [and] tampering of safety controls. Right to repair fails to consider consumer safety," he said.
After receiving the feedback, the FTC chair and other commissioners moved forward with the proposal to dedicate more resources to the enforcement of unlawful repair restrictions.
“The FTC has a range of tools that it can use to root out unlawful repair restrictions,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said. “Today’s policy statement would commit us to move forward with new vigor.”
Khan also put a call out to consumers themselves, asking the public to file complaints if they believe businesses are unlawfully imposing repair restrictions.
(Click here to learn more about filing these kinds of complaints.)
One thing is for certain: the right-to-repair raises the stakes for manufacturers and consumers alike.