Tech lobbyists say letting people fix their own stuff is too dangerous. The Federal Trade Commission isn’t buying it.
by Maddie Stone
For the past several years, as state legislators across the country have held hearings to consider “right-to-repair” bills that would make it easier for consumers to fix their electronic devices, lobbyists representing manufacturers have shown up to repeat the same arguments over and over: Letting people fix their own stuff is too dangerous. It creates cybersecurity risks. It infringes on intellectual property. It won’t help reduce electronic waste.
But while it remains to be seen whether these arguments will win over any of the dozen state legislatures currently considering a right-to-repair bill, one authoritative body isn’t buying them at all: the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC.
Last week, the federal consumer protection agency released a long-anticipated report to Congress examining the repair restrictions facing consumers, along with a summary of arguments for and against those restrictions. Its conclusion was stark: There’s “scant evidence” to support manufacturers’ justifications for restricting repair, while the solutions repair advocates have proposed are “well supported” by their testimonials. Advocates say that compelling companies like Apple and Tesla to release parts, manuals, and diagnostic information needed for repair will make fixing broken devices faster and more affordable. Ultimately, this will encourage us to maintain our stuff instead of replacing it, resulting in less environmental harm and electronic waste.
With the release of the report, the FTC has signaled that it plans to step up its efforts to enforce laws aimed at preventing manufacturers from restricting repair. But the symbolic nature of the report may be more significant than whatever punitive actions the agency takes next.
The right to repair movement — which promotes the idea that everyone should to be able to repair the devices they own however they want, whenever they want — has “just been given a huge shot in the arm,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of The Repair Association, a right-to-repair advocacy group.
Kerry Maeve Sheehan, the U.S. policy lead at the repair guide site iFixit, agreed. “[F]inally a government agency is saying what we’ve said all along — that manufacturers’ justifications for imposing repair restrictions aren’t backed by evidence,” Sheehan wrote in an email.
The report traces its origins back to a July 2019 workshop the FTC held to explore how manufacturers restrict repair of their devices. The workshop brought together right-to-repair advocates, groups representing manufacturers of everything from gaming consoles to home appliances, and independent researchers. It invited everyone to submit empirical research on the repair landscape. A year later, Congress directed the FTC to issue a report summarizing its findings, with a focus on cell phone and automobile markets.
Those findings amount to nothing less than a wholesale rejection of the anti-repair arguments advanced by lobbyists not just for cell phone and car companies, but home appliance industries, medical device makers, and more. In its 56-page report, the FTC lays out common manufacturer arguments in favor of restricting repair. For every single argument, the Commission reaches a similar conclusion: There’s little evidence to support it.
Take safety concerns. Companies will often argue that restricting access to the information and materials needed for repair prevents consumers, or mechanics that lack sufficient training, from hurting themselves. For instance, people attempting to swap the lithium-ion battery inside their phone might accidentally puncture it, causing the battery to experience a “thermal runaway event” — or in layman’s terms, overheat and explode. But aside from a single 2011 incident involving a cell phone that experienced a thermal runaway event on a plane after a faulty unauthorized repair, manufacturers provided the FTC no evidence of injuries tied to independent repair. Nor did they furnish any data demonstrating that their authorized repair shops are more careful. Meanwhile, decades’ worth of evidence from the auto repair industry shows that even the most dangerous consumer products can be safely repaired by an independent professional…