old smartphones

US gears up to pursue right to repair with ‘new vigour’

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has unanimously adopted a policy statement supporting consumers' 'right to repair' for electronic products, with the intention of putting in place new rules and regulations targeting any restrictions.

The FTC restated the growing impression that restrictions imposed on repairs to consumer electronics by the original manufacturers, whether through warranty clauses or by limiting the availability or compatibility of parts, have increasingly obliged customers to use manufacturers' and sellers' own repair networks or, in many case, simply abandon the item entirely and purchase a new replacement long before the end of its useful life.

The FTC's 'Right to Repair for small businesses, workers, consumers and government entities' policy statement is the Commission's first step towards actively addressing this issue. The FTC has invited the public to submit complaints about offending companies.

If the FTC acts as is expected, it would mean consumers in the US would be free either to repair popular gadgets such as smartphones, tablets, computers and games consoles themselves or to use independent repair shops, which are typically cheaper than the official service channels.

The policy statement comes after years of discouragement by companies of all sizes that produce consumer electronic equipment from users repairing their devices themselves. This has unintentionally encouraged the concept of built-in obsolescence for often very expensive gadgets, which filters down to consumers viewing them ultimately as disposable within just a few years of purchase.

“While efforts by dominant firms to restrict repair markets are not new, changes in technology and more prevalent use of software has created fresh opportunities for companies to limit independent repair,” said Lina Khan, FTC chairperson.

"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.

"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 vigour."

According to many industry critics, the lack of freely available replacement parts for specific devices; the use of proprietary screws to discourage disassembly; complex instruction manuals; arcane diagnostic software; product design or warranty restrictions, and other hurdles presented by devices have made a vast swathe of consumer products hard to fix and maintain on a DIY level and even for suitably equipped independent service personnel.

Regulators have said that these repair restrictions often fall most heavily on minority and low-income consumers: an FTC report to Congress in May this year noted that many black-owned small businesses are concerned with equipment repairs, with repair shops often owned by entrepreneurs from poor communities. Repair restrictions are especially acute for smartphones, the report said, as low-income households often have no broadband access at home, thereby increasing the individual's dependence on their phone. A broken smartphone thus requires more urgent attention - or potentially replacement, if no repair is apparently possible or is cost-prohibitive.

A relevant 1975 law already exists in the US, with requires that if a product has a warranty, said warranty must avoid using disclaimers in an unfair or deceptive way. The law also prohibits tying a warranty to the use of a specific service provider or product. The latest FTC statement regarding right to repair indicates a renewed commitment to the principles of this law, with the option to prosecute companies over any restrictions that violate antitrust or consumer protection laws.

Manufacturers maintain that repair restrictions are necessary in order to safeguard their intellectual property; to protect consumers from injuries that could result from using a product that has been repaired in a substandard fashion, and to continue to protect the user from cyber-security attacks. Tech companies are also concerned, not unreasonably, about the potential for liability claims to be made against them by aggrieved consumers, following unofficial repair of a device.

A statement from the National Association of Manufacturers said that 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".

US president Joe Biden has already endorsed the right to repair movement, with the repair directive being a part of a 72-point executive order issued earlier this month targetting alleged anti-competitive practices in technology, healthcare, banking and other key areas of the economy. "Let me be clear: capitalism without competition isn't capitalism. It's exploitation," Biden said, during the White House signing ceremony.

In the order, Biden singles out smartphone manufacturers who “impose restrictions on self and third-party repairs, making repairs more costly and time-consuming, such as by restricting the distribution of parts, diagnostics and repair tools.”

According to a recent Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) report, the inability to economically repair products results in US consumers wasting approximately $40bn a year, or around $330 per household. Nathan Proctor, a director of PIRG's right-to-repair campaign, when speaking to CBS Moneywatch earlier this year, said that allowing consumers to repair items themselves "saves money and it keeps electronics in use and off the scrap heap. More repair choices will protect the environment by cutting down on the amount of new electronics we make and old stuff we toss."

The US move to support right to repair follows similar policies enacted in the EU and the UK. In March this year, the EU announced its new 'Ecodesign Directive', which requires manufacturers of electrical goods such as fridges and televisions to make their products repairable for at least 10 years after first coming to market. The rules are designed to enshrine circular economy practices into law and reinforce consumer rights to repair products. This new rules followed sustained pressure from eco-oriented consumer groups, such as Right to Repair.

Manufacturers or importers will now be obliged to make a range of essential parts such as motors, pumps, shock absorbers and springs available to professional repairers for up to ten years after the last unit of a specific model has been placed on the EU market.

Meanwhile, the UK's own right to repair laws came into effect on 1 July. Similar to the EU, these laws require manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers and other appliances to provide spare parts for purchase. The new rules also include energy efficiency rules and provisions to tackle premature obsolescence. A study from 2020 showed that Britons are the second-largest producers of e-waste in Europe, generating around 55kg per person each year.

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