As phones and other consumer devices have gained feature after feature, they have also dropped in how easily they can be repaired, with Apple on top of this ignorable pack. The FTC has noted, acknowledging that the agency is lax on this front, but going forward it will prioritize what could be illegal restrictions by companies on how consumers can repair, rearrange and reuse their assets.
Devices are often built today, with no concessions made towards easy repair or refurbishment, or even once routine upgrades such as adding RAM or swapping out a bad battery. While companies like Apple often support longer hardware in some cases, the trade-off appears to be that if you do crack your screen, the manufacturer is your only real option for fixing it.
This is a problem for several reasons, as right-to-repair activist and iFixit founder Kyle Weins has argued indefinitely for years (the company proudly posted about the statement on its blog). The FTC asked for comment on the subject back in 2019, issued a report on the situation a few months ago, and now (probably from new chairman Leena Khan’s green light to all the things big tech companies fear) made a policy statement. has been issued.
The gist of the unanimously accepted statement is that they found that the practice of deliberately restricting repairs could have dire consequences, particularly among those who do not have the cash to pay Apple taxes (and once had ) a simple repair.
The Commission’s report on repair restrictions explores and discusses these issues and describes the difficulties repair restrictions face for families and businesses. The commission is concerned that this burden is more heavily borne by underserved communities, including communities of color and low-income Americans. The pandemic exacerbated these effects as consumers became more dependent on technology than ever before.
While illegal repair bans have generally not been an enforcement priority for the Commission for many years, the Commission has determined that it will devote more enforcement resources to combating these practices. Accordingly, the Commission will now give priority to the investigation of unlawful repair sanctions under the relevant laws…
The statement then makes four basic points. First, it reiterates the need for consumers and other public organizations to report and characterize unreasonable or problematic repair restrictions. The FTC doesn’t go out and investigate companies automatically, it usually requires complaints to set the wheels in motion, such as people alleging that Facebook is misusing their data.
The second is a surprising antitrust tie-in, where the FTC says it will look into the said sanctions, aiming to answer whether monopolistic practices such as tying and exclusion designs prevail. This could be something like refusing to allow upgrades, then charging an order of magnitude higher than market price for some additional storage or RAM, or designing products in such a way that it undercuts the competition. Or perhaps arbitrary warranty violations for doing things like removing screws or taking the device to a third party for repair. (Of course, this would depend on establishing a monopoly position or market power for the company, something the FTC has had trouble with.)
In line with the FTC’s general commercial regulations, it will assess whether the sanctions are an “unfair act or practice,” which is too broad and easy to meet the requirement. For example, you don’t need Monopoly to claim the “open standard” is misleading or to have a hidden setting to slow down the operation of third-party apps or peripherals.
And finally the agency mentioned that it would work with states to establish new rules and laws. It’s probably a reference to pioneering “right to repair” bills like the one passed by Massachusetts last year. Successes and failures along those lines will be taken into account and the Fed and state policymakers will compare notes.
This isn’t the first movement in this direction by a long shot, but it is one of the most obvious. Tech companies have seen the writing on the wall, and have done things like expanding independent repair programs – but it’s arguable that these actions were taken in anticipation of the FTC’s expected shift toward setting a hard line on the subject.
The FTC isn’t showing its full hand here, but it’s certainly indicating it’s ready to play if the companies involved want to push their fortunes. Once it starts to ingest consumer complaints and builds up a picture of the repair landscape, we’ll probably know more soon.