WASHINGTON—The Federal Trade Commission said it wants to give consumers more power to fix devices such as smartphones and home appliances, voting to step up efforts targeting manufacturers if the agency determines repair restrictions are illegal.
The FTC unanimously adopted a new policy Wednesday laying out concerns about device-repair restrictions and said it would investigate them. The bipartisan vote followed an executive order signed July 9 by President Biden directing the FTC to consider writing rules to address “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items.”
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
Should consumers have the ‘right to repair’? Why or why not? Join the conversation below.
Manufacturers restrict the repair of their equipment by limiting the availability of parts and repair information, steering consumers to their own repair networks, claiming patent and trademark rights and designing products in ways that make repairs more difficult, according to the FTC.
Consumer-advocacy groups and repair companies want policymakers to back what they call “Right to Repair.” They argue manufacturers in a range of industries, from
& Co. tractors, make it too hard for consumers to get the parts and information needed to fix devices. They also say that manufacturers design products in ways that make repairs difficult and restrict competition among repair technicians, which can make fixes more expensive.
Lina Khan, the new chairwoman of the FTC, backed those concerns Wednesday. “These types of restrictions can significantly raise costs for consumers, stifle innovation, close off business opportunities for independent repair shops, create unnecessary electronic waste, [and] delay timely repairs,” she said at a virtual public meeting.
TechNet, a trade association of technology companies whose members include Apple, criticized the FTC decision, saying it was unnecessary and could end up creating new risks to consumers.
“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,” said a statement from Carl Holshouser, senior vice president at TechNet. For instance, a repair technician could compromise information on a consumer’s smartphone.
The FTC has brushed aside those arguments. Earlier this year, it unanimously approved a staff report on the repair industry, dubbed “Nixing the Fix,” which identified “no empirical evidence to suggest that independent repair shops are more or less likely than authorized repair shops to compromise or misuse customer data.”
Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, a coalition of repair companies and consumer groups, said, “The context historically is that we did no enforcement for at least 20 years while all of these manufacturers ran around doing incredibly anti-competitive things, and then doing more, and not being stopped.”
“This is the first in my entire lifetime, and I’ve been in the tech industry since the 1970s, that the government has done anything.”
What precisely the FTC may do isn’t known. It has the power to write regulations, but developing those can take years and may face legal challenges. It can also bring lawsuits against companies for behavior it deems anti-competitive, unfair or deceptive. It also enforces the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which generally bars companies from conditioning product warranties on using their brand-name repair services.
Republicans on the FTC said they support stepped-up enforcement, though they added that not all repair restrictions are illegal. “I do not support blanket condemnation of exclusionary design choices,” Republican FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson said. She noted that sometimes design features benefit consumers even if they also make products harder to repair, such as when a manufacturer adopts a new innovation that makes its product incompatible with others on the market.
Right to Repair advocates are also pushing for legislation. A bill introduced in June by Rep. Joseph Morelle (D., N.Y.) would require manufacturers of equipment sold in the U.S. to make available “documentation, parts, and tools, inclusive of any updates to information or embedded software.” Lawmakers in a number of states have introduced Right to Repair bills, but none has become law.
Manufacturers say allowing unauthorized access to equipment could cause the device not to work properly and create security or other vulnerabilities. In the farm-equipment industry, Deere and other companies say allowing farmers or independent mechanics to access the software now embedded in tractors and harvesting combines could compromise emissions controls and wear down components. They say they support farms’ ability to repair their own equipment and that most jobs don’t require tinkering with software.
Apple declined to comment Wednesday. A spokesman pointed to a corporate environmental report published earlier this year, which said: “We’re constantly working to improve the convenience of our repair services as well as the durability of our devices. And we know there’s more work to be done on this journey.” In March, the company said it would expand into 200 countries a program that allows independent repair shops access to tools, repair manuals, diagnostics, and parts.
In other actions Wednesday, the FTC unanimously voted against rescinding a rule requiring clothing manufacturers to affix clothes with labels indicating how to care for them.
It also rescinded a 1995 policy statement that Ms. Khan said set too high a bar for the FTC to require companies to get prior approval for proposed mergers. Removing the policy will deter companies from attempting clearly illegal mergers, saving the agency’s staff time, she said. The move passed 3-2, with the agency’s two Republican commissioners opposed. They said the change could chill pro-competitive deals, among other concerns.
—Bob Tita contributed to this article.
Write to Ryan Tracy at email@example.com
Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8