Capitol building
Photo courtesy Dreamtime

FTC shows support for the right-to-repair movement

The document is critical of OEMs’ explanations for repair restrictions the FTC says disproportionately affect lower-income communities and people of color.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a report on repair restrictions to Congress May 6 called “Nixing the Fix: An FTC Report to Congress on Repair Restrictions.” The 56-page document outlines several topics related to the repair and refurbishment of electronics, particularly mobile phones. 

The report, drafted after the FTC’s 2019 “Nixing the Fix: A Workshop on Repair Restrictions,” shows that repair restrictions disproportionately affect people of color and lower-income communities.

“Many Black-owned small businesses are in the repair and maintenance industries, and difficulties facing small businesses can disproportionately affect small businesses owned by people of color,” the report states. “This fact has not been lost on supporters of prior right to repair legislation, who have highlighted the impact repair restrictions have on repair shops that are independent and owned by entrepreneurs from underserved communities.”

The report references Pew Research that states that Black, Hispanic and low-income Americans are more likely to depend on smartphones in light of their lack of internet access at home.

These issues have been made worse because of the COVID-19. The report says the pandemic has made it harder to get broken devices fixed, as many big chain stores have ceased offering on-site repairs. As a result, people have to send their devices to authorized repair facilities, which could take weeks.

“This smartphone dependency makes repair restrictions on smartphones more likely to affect these communities adversely,” the report states.

The FTC also highlights how original equipment manufacturers (OEM) make it harder for independent repair in a number of ways:

  • product designs that complicate or prevent repair;
  • unavailability of parts and repair information;
  • designs that make independent repairs less safe; 
  • policies or statements that steer consumers to manufacturer repair networks; 
  • application of patent rights and enforcement of trademarks; 
  • disparagement of non-OEM parts and independent repair; 
  • software locks and firmware updates; or 
  • end-sser license agreements.

Some reasons why manufacturers have pushed back against the right to repair include intellectual property protection, safety and cybersecurity. However, the FTC has found little evidence that justifies these concerns.

“Repair restrictions have diluted the effectiveness of Section 102(c) and steered consumers into manufacturers’ repair networks or to replace products before the end of their useful lives,” the report states. “Based on a review of comments submitted and materials presented during the workshop, there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”

The FTC says solutions right-to-repair advocates have proposed addressing manufacturer repair restrictions, such as access to information, manuals, spare parts and tools, are well-supported through its study.

The commission says it is considering boosting enforcement of the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which affects how OEMs write and use warranties to prevent independent repair of products. However, the commission also is considering new regulations to ensure the law is up to date with the evolving consumer goods repair market.

“To address unlawful repair restrictions, the FTC will pursue appropriate law enforcement and regulatory options as well as consumer education, consistent with our statutory authority,” the FTC says in the report. “The Commission also stands ready to work with legislators, either at the state or federal level, to ensure that consumers have choices when they need to repair products that they purchase and own.”