US regulators are vowing to make it easier for consumers and independent service shops to repair commercial products like smartphones without having to rely on those products’ manufacturers, effectively backing a principle known as “right to repair.”
On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission led by Chair Lina Khan voted unanimously to condemn restrictions imposed by manufacturers on products that make them more difficult to repair independently. The decision commits the FTC to investigating restrictions that may be illegal under both the nation’s antitrust laws as well as a key consumer protection law governing product warranties, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.
In a statement, FTC Chair Lina Khan vowed to use the agency’s full range of tools to “root out” illegal repair restrictions.
The move is a shot across the bow of companies like Apple (AAPL), which for years has been criticized by right-to-repair advocates for shipping products with unremovable memory or batteries, or sealing devices with special glue. Apple (AAPL) didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the vote.
Beyond the use of adhesives that make it harder to access the insides of a device, the policy statement calls out restrictions that limit the availability of spare parts only to a manufacturer’s preferred servicers. It zeroes in on “software locks” and copy-protection technology as well as restrictive user licensing language. And it blasts “unlawful, overbroad” patent and trademark lawsuits that have allegedly been weaponized to restrict independent repairs.
“Restricting consumers and businesses from choosing how they repair products can substantially increase the total cost of repairs, generate harmful electronic waste, and unnecessarily increase wait times for repairs,” the FTC’s new policy statement said. “In contrast, providing more choice in repairs can lead to lower costs, reduce e-waste by extending the useful lifespan of products, enable more timely repairs, and provide economic opportunities for entrepreneurs and local businesses.”
Wednesday’s vote doesn’t just place more pressure on the tech industry. Makers of everything from tractors to hospital equipment have been accused of similar tactics.
In remarks ahead of the vote, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra said the agency had received reports of hospitals that were prevented from fixing ventilators during the pandemic as a result of manufacturer restrictions, making the right-to-repair issue a matter of life and death.
“The nation started this school year with a vast laptop shortage; we were reportedly five million short at one point,” Chopra said in prepared remarks. “The start to remote learning, already so astoundingly difficult, was worsened by unnecessary repair restrictions on refurbishing computers, leaving those students without computer access unable to learn.”
The vote follows an FTC report published in May that addressed the right-to-repair issue, finding that most of the justifications put forward by manufacturers for repair restrictions are “not supported by the record.” Companies defending repair restrictions have cited the need to protect their intellectual property, promote safety and cybersecurity, and provide better quality of service.
Right-to-repair advocates have made strides globally in recent months, with the European Parliament voting to back the movement last year (after the European Commission introduced a right-to-repair proposal a few months earlier). Even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak threw in his support in a recent video message.
The FTC’s vote also comes after the Biden administration issued a sweeping executive order this month on competition. The order specifically addresses right-to-repair and encourages the FTC to limit manufacturers’ ability to restrict independent repairs.
“Powerful equipment manufacturers—such as tractor manufacturers—use proprietary repair tools, software, and diagnostics to prevent third-parties from performing repairs,” said an accompanying White House fact sheet. “For example, when certain tractors detect a failure, they cease to operate until a dealer unlocks them. That forcers farmers to pay dealer rates for repairs that they could have made themselves, or that an independent repair shop could have done more cheaply.”
For its part, John Deere has said in a statement that it “supports a customer’s right to safely maintain, diagnose and repair their equipment. When customers buy from John Deere, they own the equipment and can choose to personally maintain or repair the product.” The company has added 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.”
Wednesday’s policy statement also commits the FTC to working with states “to advance the goal of open repair markets.” Dozens of states are considering so-called right-to-repair legislation, according to the advocacy group US PIRG.
“Manufacturers, be warned: It’s time to clean up your act and let people fix their stuff,” said Nathan Proctor, senior campaign director for the group’s right to repair initiative, in a statement. “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, while support is increasing for new legislation to further crack down.”