The FTC has published its final report on manufacturer-imposed repair restrictions in the United States and whether citizens are being treated fairly. It concludes they very much are not in a far-ranging 56-page document that evaluates every explanation various companies have provided for why they limit the right of Americans to repair products they’ve legally purchased.
“Although manufacturers have offered numerous explanations for their repair restrictions, the majority are not supported by the record,” the FTC writes. This is a polite way to end the document, considering how many holes get punched through manufacturer arguments on the previous 55 pages.
Companies restrict repair rights in eight ways: They may physically restrict access to the product by using special fasteners or screws, withhold both repair tools and diagnostic software, deliberately design a product in a way that makes it less safe to fix, or restrict access to telematics (when applicable). Companies also sometimes use trademarks and patents to make third-party repair more difficult, install software locks, or wield EULAs against customers.
The FTC clearly did its homework. The report covers everything from the recent laptop trend towards soldered SSDs and RAM to farm and military equipment. The document notes many of the arguments manufacturers make for why citizens shouldn’t be allowed to repair products they legally purchased are based on problems the manufacturers themselves create.
For example, manufacturers have argued that battery replacements should only be performed by licensed techs in authorized shops because battery pouches are fragile and difficult to remove when glued into a chassis. Additionally, a customer who attempts to swap the lithium 18650 battery cell inside a device may replace it with a battery that meets the physical form factor requirement but utilizes a different battery chemistry than the original cell.
The FTC report notes, however, that manufacturers “can choose to make products safer to repair when considering a product’s design.” Swapping one type of 18650 cell for another could legitimately cause thermal runaway, the FTC acknowledges, but “[t]his risk could be significantly reduced if the chemistry of an 18650 appeared on its label and manufacturers identified the particular 18650 chemistries used in their devices… such disclosure would impose an arguably minimal burden on manufacturers and would likely serve a valuable purpose.” It may well be dangerous to remove a glued-in battery, the FTC affirms, but why is the battery in such a fragile pouch and secured with glue as opposed to sturdy and user-serviceable?
Here are the FTC’s official findings for each of the various reasons manufacturers give for why we can’t repair our own devices.
Intellectual Property: “In many instances intellectual property rights do not appear to present an insurmountable obstacle to repair.”
Safety: “Other than citing to the mobile phone thermal runaway occurring in Australia in 2011, manufacturers provided no data to support their argument that injuries are tied to repairs performed by consumers or independent repair shops… Nor have manufacturers provided factual support for their statements that authorized repair persons are more careful or that individuals or independent repair shops fail to take appropriate safety precautions, or that independent repair workers who enter homes pose more of a safety risk to consumers than authorized repair workers.”
Cybersecurity: “The record contains no empirical evidence to suggest that independent repair shops are more or less likely than authorized repair shops to compromise or misuse customer data.”
Liability and Reputational Harm: “Manufacturers provided no empirical evidence to support their concerns about reputational harm or potential liability resulting from faulty third party repairs.”
Manufacturers also attempted to also argue that they designed products to be irrepairable because customers don’t care about the capability. Here’s the FTC’s response: “Apple’s experience with its battery replacement program also suggests that, given a choice between a low-cost repair and buying a new mobile phone, many consumers will opt for the low cost repair.” Tim Cook may regret his decision to blame Apple iPhone owners for choosing to buy replacement batteries, since his letter announcing such is now evidence against this particular line of argument.
Quality Control: “The record does not establish that repairs conducted by independent repair shops would be inferior to those conducted by authorized repair shops if independent repair shops were provided with greater access to service manuals, diagnostic software and tools, and replacement parts as appropriate.”
In contrast, the FTC found significant evidence to support the arguments of right-to-repair advocates concerning customer desire for device reparability. Third-party repair services help people save money and prevent OEMs from gouging customers. When investigating this question, the FTC found “none of the comments or empirical research submitted before or after the Workshop rebuts the right to repair advocates’ argument that repair restrictions increase the price consumers pay for repairs.”
There is no “other side” to this argument, as evidenced by the fact that manufacturers literally could not provide evidence to support their claims as to why we should be denied the right to fix our own stuff or pay a third-party independent repair shop to do it for us. Every manufacturer likes to cite the same incident — a 2011 fire in which a small screw left inside the phone punctured a battery and led to thermal runaway. When asked to provide additional evidence of similar events, not one of them could do it.
Allowing third-party independent resellers to operate does not risk manufacturer reputations or open them to cybersecurity issues. The right-to-repair movement is not fighting to eliminate OEM repair networks as an option, it’s fighting to keep OEMs from locking customers into what amount to mandatory service contracts in direct violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975. The MMWA explicitly forbids companies from tying warranty service or repairs to the use of its own facilities. It’s the reason why Toyota can’t void your car warranty just because you took your Camry to Bob’s Car Repair as opposed to a local dealership.
The FTC has pledged to take action against companies abusing their market power in this way. It promises to work with legislators at either the state or federal level to create legislation that curbs the damaging practices that limit American’s ability to repair their own products or pay a reasonable price to a third party for the same.
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