During an open commission meeting Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission voted unanimously to enforce laws around the Right to Repair, thereby ensuring that US consumers will be able to repair their own electronic and automotive devices.
The FTC’s endorsement of the rules is not a surprise outcome; the issue of Right to Repair has been a remarkably bipartisan one, and the FTC itself issued a lengthy report in May that blasted manufacturers for restricting repairs. But the 5 to 0 vote signals the commission’s commitment to enforce both federal antitrust laws and a key law around consumer warranties—the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act—when it comes to personal device repairs.
The vote, which was led by new FTC chair and known tech critic Lina Khan, also comes 12 days after President Joe Biden signed a broad executive order aimed at promoting competition in the US economy. The order addressed a wide range of industries, from banks to airlines to tech companies. But a portion of it encouraged the FTC, which operates as an independent agency, to create new rules that would prevent companies from restricting repair options for consumers.
“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.”
Wu added that Right to Repair has become a “visceral example” of the enormous imbalance between workers, consumers, small businesses, and larger entities.
The FTC vote is another win for the Right to Repair movement in the US, which has been led by advocacy groups like the US Public Interest Research Group, as well as private companies like iFixit, the California-based company that sells gadget repair kits and publishes repair manuals for DIY tinkerers. Proponents of the Right to Repair have long argued that consumers should have access to the tools, parts, documentation, and software required to fix the products they own, whether it’s a smartphone or a tractor.
These groups are also quick to call out instances in which large manufacturers block or limit options for independent product repairs, or force consumers to go directly back to a manufacturer, who then charges a premium for a fix. And it’s not just a matter of fixing a broken glass back on a smartphone, or repairing an impossibly small smartwatch: During the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020, medical device engineers began speaking out on the dangers of not having access to repair tools for critical devices, such as ventilators, during times of crisis.
As more products are designed with internet connectivity—from smartphones to refrigerators to cars—the issue of repair rights has become increasingly complicated. Repair advocates say consumers should have access to all of the data that their personal devices collect, and that independent repair shops should have access to the same software diagnostic tools that “authorized” shops have.
“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.”
But some large manufacturers oppose this notion, arguing that it will make products less secure and could expose consumers to safety risks. John Deere, one of the world’s leading tractor makers, has issued statements saying that it “does not support the right to modify embedded software due to risks associated with the safe operation of the equipment, emissions compliance, and engine performance.”
During the comments portion of the FTC hearing today, 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 … as an example, it would allow for modification of and tampering with safety controls of powered lawn mower blades required under law by the CPSC, as well as emissions controls required under law by the EPA.”
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 that “the FTC’s decision to upend 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, will have far-reaching, permanent impacts on technology and cybersecurity.”
And ahead of the vote today, the Consumer Technology Association—which hosts the annual CES tech bonanza in Las Vegas—sent a letter to the FTC commissioners urging collaboration, rather than an “extensive rulemaking process,” citing intellectual property rights as a thorny issue at the heart of Right to Repair.
It’s worth noting, however, that in the FTC’s report in May, which was the culmination of data gathered after the commission hosted a “Nixing the Fix” panel in 2019, the FTC said there was “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” The report detailed a number of instances in which manufacturers may have overstated the risks of thermal runaway (read: batteries catching fire) or personal data breaches tied to device repairs.
For now, the FTC’s policy statement is a giant underscore for existing laws, while dozens of states consider Right to Repair bills at the state level. The commission said today it would investigate repair restrictions both as potential violations of antitrust laws and from a consumer protection angle. The FTC is also encouraging the public to report warranty abuse—as defined by the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act of 1975, which prohibits manufacturers from telling consumers that a warranty is voided if the product has been altered or tampered with by someone other than the original manufacturer.
Jessa Jones, a repair expert who runs a business in upstate New York called iPad Rehab, and who claims to have fixed over 40,000 iPhones, urged the FTC to take the enforcement of the existing regulations 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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