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Blair Horner: The Right To Repair?

We’ve all had some version of this happen: Your cellphone refuses to boot up.  You take it to your favorite repair shop, and they tell you that they can’t get the parts to fix it.  Your choices now are either to go to an authorized repair shop and pay a lot more to get your cellphone fixed or just bite the bullet and get a new one.

This problem is not unique to cellphones; almost every product has some digital core components these days.  Other devices can have problems, refrigerators go on the blink, washing machines go down, computers fail to perform, yet it’s nearly impossible to get a fix without going to the manufacturer.  Manufacturers have made it difficult to repair things, for instance by limiting availability of parts, by designing their products to make them difficult to fix, or by putting prohibitions on who gets to repair them.  It affects not only cars, kitchen devices and computers, but even hospital ventilators, which were critical for treating patients severely ill with COVID-19.

Why?  Electronics manufacturers increasingly design and build their products to force consumers to return to them or to authorized repair shops for service by refusing to share basic product information and access to replacement parts.  Some will void the warranty if Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts are not used or if the repair is done by an independent party—even if the repair caused no additional damage.

Generally, OEMs cite concerns over divulging proprietary information or the difficulty of formatting technical information for general usage.  Some companies go so far as to design products with sealants so internal repairs require cracking the outer casing, potentially damaging the device, and voiding the warranty in the process.  And of course, they make money by charging you for parts and repairs and getting you to upgrade instead of fixing your old device. 

In some cases, wait times for repairs as simple as a battery change are so long that customers will forgo a replacement and buy a new phone.  You will also pay more for manufacturer or authorized dealer servicing.  And remember they have an incentive to sell you something new, not fix your phone (unless it’s under warranty).

Manufacturers, on the other hand, argue that their products are repairable, and that they are protecting consumers’ safety, privacy, and security by restricting who does the repairs.  Apple, for example, has argued that they believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using genuine parts that have been properly engineered and rigorously tested.

Why does this problem exist and why are manufacturers able to limit independent repair of purchased products?  Doesn’t owning the device you paid for give you rights to fix it yourself or bring it to the repair shop of your choice?

That’s the issue the Federal Trade Commission recently examined.  In a report to Congress released last week, titled “Nixing the Fix,” the FTC detailed that manufacturers in the auto industry, and other industries, that are making repairs more difficult and expensive than necessary for independent shops.

The report found “there is scant evidence” to support manufacturer justifications for repair restrictions and stated that the FTC “stands ready to work with lawmakers, either at the state or federal level, to ensure that consumers have choices when they need to repair products that they purchase and own.”

If lawmakers in New York have their way, the FTC may soon be engaged in a legislative fight over enacting a “Right To Repair” law.  Senate Consumer Chair Kevin Thomas and Capital District Assemblywoman Pat Fahy have introduced legislation to force manufacturers to make their parts, tools, and technical information available to consumers and repair shops to keep devices from ending up in the scrap heap.  The New York legislation would allow independent repair shops to get diagnostic equipment and parts from OEMs so they can fix your digital equipment locally, quickly, and typically for significantly less money. 

Advocates argue that product makers’ rules restricting repairs interfere with the rights of consumers and businesses to use devices that they own and encourage a throwaway culture by making repairs too difficult.  If enacted, the legislation would grant consumers the right to repair their own electronic equipment—like smartphones, computers, and even farm equipment.

These advocates also argue that the underlying rationale for limiting consumers’ ability to fix their own products is that it’s part of a culture of planned obsolescence—the idea that products are designed to be short-lived to encourage people to buy more stuff.  In other words, if you buy something and it stops working, you toss it in the garbage and go out and buy something new.

It would be a lot cheaper and generate a lot less e-waste if people could repair their own devices, but that would cut into the profits of the big manufacturers.

The back-and-forth is what triggered the FTC investigation and its report.  With the FTC’s conclusions coming down on the side of right-to-repair supporters, there is new life in the New York legislation.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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