If this policy push ultimately leads to “Right to Repair” laws being passed, you might be able to easily fix your own ailing gadgets with official repair manuals and parts. Not exactly the handy type? That’s okay — you may also have access to a wider array of third-party repair shops and technicians to help you instead.
Restrictions on repair 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,” said Commission chair Lina Khan in a statement on Wednesday. But it’s important to remember that, despite everything the FTC has said so far, we’re still very much at the beginning of a long road.
“It sends all of the right signals that the FTC is going to get more engaged around these issues,” said Aaron Perzanowski, a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University. “There are, of course, still lots of unanswered questions in terms of what specific enforcement actions would look like, how companies could respond and potentially what the courts have to say about those efforts.”
It’s also unclear how the FTC’s stance will evolve over time, but there is one change it is eager to embrace right now: It wants to start going after companies that illegally impose repair restrictions on the products they sell. And the best part? You can help. But before we get to that, it’s worth zooming out to see what this broader “Right to Repair” debate is about and what the FTC’s new approach could mean for people dealing with gadgets on the fritz.
What is the ‘Right to Repair’ debate about?
We live in a world of hardware — of steel and silicon — governed as much as software as it is by policy. Most of the time, that hardware, be it a car, a smartphone or a blender, works the way it’s supposed to. When that stuff doesn’t work, our first reaction is usually to seek out the companies who made it for support, repairs or replacements.
The problem lies in cases where those companies essentially restrict people who own their products from finding other ways to service them. You might have heard some of the horror stories: Some tractors need specific software and proprietary tools to be repaired, all but ensuring farmers and third-party technicians can’t fix issues on their own. Smartphones rely on highly specialized parts to function, but they’re often glued into place with adhesives, making some repairs needlessly difficult. And at least one camera maker has stopped the flow of replacement parts to third-party repair shops, putting their livelihoods at risk.
In the face of all that, “Right to Repair” advocates argue that manufacturers should provide independent technicians and the people who own their products — like you and me — access to the tools, parts and information needed to fix the things we own.
Some argue that forcing companies to abide by “Right of Repair” laws could compromise the very devices advocates are trying to fix.
“Allowing unauthorized third parties with access to sensitive diagnostic information, software, tools, and parts would jeopardize the safety and security of consumers’ computers, tablets, and other devices and put them at risk for fraud and data theft,” wrote Carl Holshouser, a senior vice president at Technet, an industry trade group composed of tech CEOs and executives.
The debate between both sides is still evolving, and we can’t blame you if you haven’t quite made up your own mind yet.
How can you help?
The FTC says it plans to “devote more enforcement resources” to going after companies that unlawfully restrict repair options, particularly those that violate the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. (Translation: The Commission will consider suing companies with demonstrably shady warranty tricks.) And that’s where you come in.
If you’ve ever had a warranty issue that never quite felt right — for instance, a company claiming you voided your computer’s warranty by letting a friend fix it — the FTC wants to know about it.
“People can submit a complaint to the FTC at reportfraud.ftc.gov,” said Juliana Gruenwald Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Commission. “And we encourage people to provide as much detail as possible.”
In this case, the FTC wants any information you have about the company you believe imposed an illegal repair restriction, when it happened and whether you paid any money along the way.
Of course, dealing with warranties can feel frustrating even on a good day, so it can be hard to suss out what an illegal repair restriction even looks like. Here’s one example:
Let’s say you own a blender that’s still within its one-year warranty period, and it suddenly stops crushing a perfectly normal amount of ice mid-daiquiri. (How tragic.) When you give the company’s customer support line a call, a too-cheerful representative tells you that a repair shouldn’t be a problem — you just have to bring the blender to an authorized service center and pay a few bucks for their brand name parts, or else you forfeit the rest of your warranty. That, to put it mildly, is not okay.
“What the company can’t do is say ‘Look, we have this part available, you have to pay for it, and if you opt for any other option, we will void your warranty’,” Perzanowski said. The heart of the issue here is that a company can’t require you to pay for official parts or service as a condition of keeping the rest of your product’s warranty intact.
Here’s another example: Your phone’s battery life isn’t quite what it used to be, so you screw up your courage, grab a tiny screwdriver, and discover a few of those pesky “warranty void if removed” stickers inside. Turns out, those aren’t okay either, since they “prevent or discourage consumers from using third-party parts or third-party servicers” as Perzanowski put it.
If any of these situations sound familiar, it’s worth reaching out to the FTC to share your story. With all that said, though, be sure to keep your expectations in check. I hate to say it, but it’s very unlikely that the FTC will resolve your specific issue — even if you wound up shelling out money that you didn’t need to. Still, each complaint submitted should help the Commission figure out what shady practices are still in play, which companies rely on them and how best to fight illicit repair restrictions over the long haul.
Who will the FTC go after?
Apart from companies with questionable approaches to warranties, the FTC said it would dig into companies’ repair restrictions to see if they ran afoul of antitrust laws or bans on “deceptive acts and practices” enshrined in the FTC Act. Put another way, the Commission is gearing up for a lot of behind-the-scenes scrutinizing.
While the FTC hasn’t publicly outlined the companies it plans to keep a closer eye on, there’s no shortage of potential high-profile targets.
A White House fact sheet summarizing President Biden’s executive order calls out cellphone manufacturers that “impose restrictions on self and third-party repairs,” and an FTC report presented to Congress earlier this year contains comments from a repair shop owner that call out Apple specifically. Apple didn’t address the issue but pointed to a page in its Environmental Progress Report where the company claims “customers should have convenient access to safe and reliable repair services.”
Meanwhile, Samsung smartphones are routinely given abysmal repair ratings by third-party resources like iFixit because the company frequently glues its batteries in place. That’s a potential example of what the legal community would call “exclusionary design” — if the FTC decides it is an example, it could violate laws that prohibit unfair methods of competition. Samsung declined to comment on the matter.
The conversation about unlawfully limit repairs isn’t just happening around people’s homes and offices, either. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana was one of many voices that urged the FTC this year to tackle repair restrictions on agricultural equipment, which are commonly attributed to companies like Caterpillar and Deere & Company.
“I used to be able to take a pair of pliers and a screwdriver and work on my tractor,” Tester said in April. “But now if my tractor breaks down, I have to call the dealer because I don’t have the software or the programs.”