Biden issues an executive order on the right to repair

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Lobbyists and trade groups for large technology companies and equipment manufacturers have long argued that giving consumers more access to the tools needed to repair products, whether smartphones or cars, poses security and safety risks. The debate has heated up in particular as more products connect to the Internet, adding a software element to fixes that in the past may have only needed to replace parts.

Links to White House news reports supporting her allegations of inconsistent competition point to problems repairing cell phones, but the language of the order calls on the FTC to expand the right to repair by restricting “technology and other” companies from discouraging themselves. Such language indicates that the regulatory goal of the FTC will be much larger than the device in your pocket.

In response to the executive order by email, a John Deere spokesman said the company “leads our industry in providing repair tools, spare parts, information guides, training videos and manuals needed to work on our machines.” But a spokesman also says that while less than two percent of tractor repairs require software updates, the company still does not support the right to modify the firmware “because of the risks associated with the safe operation of the equipment.”

Turn the screw

Proctor, the U.S. PIRG, notes that it could be some time before the FTC begins enforcing new repair laws, saying the rule-making process “is not always quick.” As an example, he cites the FTC’s finalization of rules regarding “Made in the USA” labels that are falsely applied to non-US products. (Congress first passed legislation on claims “Made in the USA” back in 1994, but for years there has been a two-party consensus that such fraud should not be subject to severe penalties. Only last week, The FTC has codified the rules in such a way that violators would be punished.)

“The right to repair is even more complex than that case, and if this is just a guideline for making rules, another long process could begin,” Proctor says. “Still, I hope this is the mechanism that brings us to where we need to go a little faster.”

Sheehan from iFixit is more optimistic that the FTC could react quickly regarding the Right to Repair, in part because the agency has recently introduced a number of changes designed to simplify rule-making procedures – and in part because the order comes directly from the White House. “Obviously we want the agency to move towards this quickly, and pressure from the Biden administration makes that possible,” Sheehan said.

An FTC spokeswoman declined to comment directly on the issue, instead pointing to a White House statement and a report already released by the Commission in May.

In that report, the FTC concluded that products had in fact become more difficult to repair and maintain, and that “repair restrictions … directed consumers to manufacturers’ service networks to replace products before the end of their useful life.” The FTC also noted that repair restrictions could also “put a greater financial burden on communities of people of color and lower-income Americans.”

But the FTC also warned in a May report that the Right to Repair is a complex issue and that expanding consumer repair options, either through industry initiatives or through legislation, “raises a number of issues that will require examination.”

Ultimately, the fight for the right to repair is likely to continue at the state level, and advocates plan to continue lobbying Congress for change.

“I think that, depending on the scope of the FTC rules, this may not be a substitute for what Congress can do and what states can do,” Sheehan says. As much as 25 states have considered laws on the right to repair this year, but that, of course, does not mean that bills in those states will be signed into law. Several states have what Sheehan calls “repair laws,” including California, Rhode Island, and Indiana. Currently, Massachusetts is the only state with an official car repair law that won the votes by a wide margin in 2012 and again in 2020, despite loud opposition from a coalition of major car manufacturers.

“Whatever rule the FTC makes, the FTC will enforce it,” Sheehan says. “While prosecutors can enforce state legislation, and occasionally have more free space or more resources to focus on these things than the FTC could in the context of all the other many priorities.”


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