Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

‘Right to repair’ rules under study

Agency backs policy shift on do-it-yourself fixes for products

- MARCY GORDON

WASHINGTON — Americans would be freer to repair their broken cellphones, computers, video-game consoles and even tractors themselves, or to use independen­t repair shops, under changes being reviewed by federal regulators.

The regulators maintain that restrictio­ns have steered consumers into manufactur­ers’ and sellers’ repair networks or led them to replace products before the end of their useful lives.

As the Federal Trade Commission and the Biden administra­tion see it, that raises issues of anti-competitiv­e conduct. The FTC is moving toward writing new rules targeting the restrictio­ns.

On Wednesday, the five commission­ers unanimousl­y adopted a policy statement supporting the “right to repair” that pledges beefedup enforcemen­t efforts and could open the way to new regulation­s.

“These types of [repair] restrictio­ns can significan­tly raise costs for consumers, stifle innovation, close off business opportunit­y for independen­t repair shops, create unnecessar­y electronic waste, delay timely repairs and undermine resiliency,” FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan said. “The FTC has a range of tools it can use to root out unlawful repair restrictio­ns, and today’s policy statement would commit us to move forward on this issue with new vigor.”

The policy statement commits the agency to prosecute repair restrictio­ns that violate current antitrust or consumer protection laws. A 1975 law, for example, requires that if a product has a warranty — which is not mandatory — the warranty

must avoid using disclaimer­s in an unfair or deceptive way. It also prohibits tying a warranty to the use of a specific service provider or product, unless the FTC has issued a waiver in that case.

Unavailabl­e parts, instructio­n manuals and diagnostic software and tools, product design restrictio­ns and locks on software embedded in devices have made many consumer products harder to fix and maintain, regulators and industry critics say. Do-it-yourself repairs often require specialize­d tools, hard-to-obtain parts and access to diagnostic software that’s guarded by manufactur­ers.

The repair restrictio­ns often fall most heavily on minority and low-income consumers, the regulators say. An FTC report to Congress in May noted that many Black-owned small businesses make equipment repairs, and repair shops often are owned by entreprene­urs from poor communitie­s.

For minority-group and low-income consumers, the repair restrictio­ns are especially acute for cellphones, the report says. Those consumers often have cellphones but no broadband access for computers at home, increasing their dependence on the phones.

Industry critics say the coronaviru­s pandemic worsened the effects of repair restrictio­ns for all consumers as computers became essential for working remotely, teaching children at home and visiting relatives on screens — while many large chain stores stopped offering on-site repairs.

Allowing consumers to make their own repairs “saves money, and it keeps electronic­s in use and off the scrap heap,” said Nathan Proctor, a director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s right-to-repair campaign. “It helps farmers keep equipment in the field and out of the dealership,” Proctor said in a recent statement. “More repair choices will protect the environmen­t by cutting down on the amount of new electronic­s we make and old stuff we toss.”

MANUFACTUR­ERS’ CAVEAT

Manufactur­ers, on the other hand, maintain that repair restrictio­ns are needed to safeguard intellectu­al property, protect consumers from injuries that could result from fixing a product or using one that was improperly repaired, and guard against cybersecur­ity risks. Manufactur­ers say they could face liability or harm to their reputation if independen­t repair shops make faulty equipment repairs.

New right-to-repair laws and regulation­s “would create innumerabl­e harms and unintended consequenc­es for consumers and manufactur­ers alike, including by limiting consumer choice, impeding innovation, threatenin­g consumers’ safety and wellbeing, [and] opening the door to counterfei­ts,” the National Associatio­n of Manufactur­ers said in a statement.

Legislatio­n to ease repair restrictio­ns is active in about 25 states, and the European Union also is considerin­g new right-to-repair regulation­s.

BIDEN EXECUTIVE ORDER

The repair directive was included in President Joe Biden’s sweeping executive order issued earlier this month targeting what he labeled anti-competitiv­e practices in tech, health care, banking and other key parts of the economy. The order has 72 actions and recommenda­tions that Biden said would lower prices for families, increase wages for workers and promote innovation and faster economic growth. New regulation­s that agencies may write to translate his policy into rules could trigger epic legal battles, however.

“Let me be clear: Capitalism without competitio­n isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitati­on,” Biden said at a White House signing ceremony.

The order includes calls for banning or limiting socalled noncompete agreements to help boost wages, allowing rule changes to pave the way for hearing aids to be sold over the counter at drugstores, and banning excessive early-terminatio­n fees by internet companies. It calls on the Transporta­tion Department to consider requiring airlines to refund fees when baggage is delayed or in-flight services aren’t provided as advertised.

 ?? (AP) ?? Andre Monteiro works on a vehicle at Wilder Brothers American Car Care Center in Scituate, Mass. Independen­t repair shops like Wilder’s have been pushing to lift restrictio­ns that block access to computer codes needed to repair cars.
(AP) Andre Monteiro works on a vehicle at Wilder Brothers American Car Care Center in Scituate, Mass. Independen­t repair shops like Wilder’s have been pushing to lift restrictio­ns that block access to computer codes needed to repair cars.

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