By Noah Rothstein
Federal regulators are eyeing certain actions to give consumers the freedom to repair their own electronic devices.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) believes certain restrictions that force consumers into manufacturers’ and sellers’ repair networks, leading them to replace products before the end of their usefulness, is a potentially anti-competitive practice.
On July 21, the five FTC commissioners unanimously adopted a policy supporting the “right to repair,” which aims to beef up enforcement efforts.
“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 vigor.”
This new policy commits the agency to prosecute repair restrictions that violate current antitrust or consumer protection laws.
Many consumer products are difficult to repair and maintain due to the unavailability of parts, instruction manuals, diagnostic software and tools, and product design restrictions and locks on software.
Regulators say the repair restrictions often fall most heavily on minority and low-income consumers. 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.
Since computers became essential for remote work, school, and telehealth during the pandemic, critics say COVID-19 exacerbated the effects of repair restrictions for all consumers.
“Manufacturers, be warned: It’s time to clean up your act and let people fix their stuff,” Nathan Proctor, a director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s right-to-repair campaign, said in a statement on July 21.
Manufacturers argue that repair restrictions are needed to safeguard intellectual property, protect consumers, and guard against cybersecurity risks. They also claim that they could be harmed and held liable for faulty equipment repairs made by independent repair shops.
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.
Measures to mitigate repair restrictions are active in 25 states, and the European Community is also weighing new right-to-repair regulations.
The repair directive was included in President Joe Biden’s expansive executive order signed earlier this month targeting anti-competitive practices in tech, healthcare, banking, and other key parts of the economy.