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FTC’s “Nixing the Fix” Workshop hears concerns raised by Right to Repair advocates

By Nathan Proctor
Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

Repair is such a commonsense idea. When something breaks, you should get what you need to fix it. But the companies that make our modern products aren’t giving us what we need to fix the products anymore. That’s bad for consumers and it means more electronic waste. 

Yesterday, I delivered 7,900 petition signatures to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in support of action to address how manufacturers block repair. I was also featured on a panel at the FTC’s “Nixing the Fix” workshop, which explored restrictions on repair, how consumers experience those barriers, and how manufacturers argue against repair. 

This workshop is another step forward in our efforts to empower repair. 

My takeaways from “Nixing the Fix”

Nixing the Fix included three panels: one on the consumer experience, one on safety and cybersecurity concerns, and the final panel on what efforts are underway to address restrictions to repair. 

Throughout the course of the afternoon, manufacturer representatives tried to make the case that restrictions to repair are necessary and good for consumers. They tried to argue that manufacturer “authorized” repair technicians are the only people properly qualified to repair technology without damaging the product, or causing cyber-security or safety issues. 

Pushing back against the “security” argument, Gary McGraw, Representing Securepairs.org, and a leading national voice on cybersecurity, asserted: “We can design things to be secure; we can design things to be repairable. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.” He rejected the idea that there are tradeoffs involved in engineering with both objectives based on his experience in the field. Cybersecurity problems, which he cautioned are real and must be addressed, are unrelated to repair. 

Those making claims the “safety” argument struggled to explain why, if that was the case, manufacturers don’t make safety and technical information available, or sell genuine manufacturer parts. Kyle Wiens of iFixit.com pointed out that some companies make all information available to protect themselves from liability -- knowing that if people have the correct information there will be fewer incidents. Aaron Lowe, a representative for independent auto mechanics, which has a Right to Repair agreement with car makers, noted independent car mechanics have been doing repairs on some of the most dangerous products consumers own, their cars, without the risks the manufacturers claim. 

Industry representatives talked extensively about the value of “authorized” service providers, touting the technical training given to shops in their authorized networks. I pointed out that these “authorized” relationships are not training programs -- they are contractual relationships that dictate the terms of operation for a repair shop. Many repair shops deem those contracts to be a bad deal for their business. Requiring customers only to go to shops with those contractual agreements is in effect requiring a monopoly. 

Gay Gordon-Byrne of Repair.org summed up the day with this: “It’s not about safety. It’s not about security. It’s just about money.” 

It remains to be seen what the FTC will do next, but there is reason to believe that manufacturers are starting to wake up to the reality that consumers aren’t about to stop demanding a Right to Repair. 

My presentation to the FTC

Each panelist was given time to present an overview of their perspective. This is how I presented the interests of the public:

Hello, my name is Nathan Proctor, and I am the National Director For U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign. U.S. PIRG is a national, member-based organization which aims to put the public first. We believe that repair is good for consumers and the environment, and want to address barriers to repair. 

Photo by Metroid

Americans dispose of 416,000 cell phones everyday. 

I love Star Trek, they literally have 6 devices on Star Trek to do what one sartphone does. We buy these incredible $1,000 handheld super computers and treat them as disposable, (hopefully) recycling them for commodity value? That’s absurd and shows that something is going wrong here. 

One of the factors in our absurd relationship with electronics are ways in which the repair and maintenance of the devices are severely limited by the manufacturers. And it's not just cell phones, it's everything from tablets to tractors. This has become an issue with significant public attention and consumer frustration. 

I thought it would be helpful for me to describe the different barriers to repair consumers experience. For products that actually are repairable, I think it’s probably good to first distinguish warranty repair, and post warranty repair. 

For warranty repair, the most significant problem is convenience, although consumers are sometimes surprised by costs included. For example, a consumer might have to wait several weeks before a warranty service provider for their LG fridge can come by, which is a long time to be without a fridge. The short length of warranties is at times surprising to consumers. For example, major appliances like a Kenmore washing machine might only be warrantied for a year

Last year, I did a survey of 50 appliance manufacturers and found some significant issues with their warranty service restraints. 45-50 of the companies informed the customer -- either in the warranty or in clarifying interactions with the customer service departments -- that a warranty would be automatically voided if the owner engaged in independent repair. 

Considering the FTC sent warning letters that “void warranty if removed” stickers on devices were a violation of federal consumer rights, we feel that further action against such warranty policy is warranted. 

When a consumer is led to believe that any repair removes warranty coverage, it reinforces the idea that the manufacturer holds all the cards and if you take an active role in the repair of the device, it breaks a relationship with the manufacturer. This is a serious disincentive to repair.

But there are a lot of problems that have to do with post warranty repair.

Many durable products come with the option for manufacturer repair, or manufacturer authorized repair. Appliances, smart phones, etc. Manufacturer repair techs are provided with the following tools to do that repair: 

  • Repair documentation or schematics.
  • OEM spare parts.
  • Diagnostic software to more quickly determine issues.
  • Access to reset firmware or apply patches.
  • Special tools to open or disassemble the device.
  • The keys to software locks, or reset codes.

A huge barrier to post warranty repair is the lack of access to these things by anyone but the OEM. 

For some products, the lack of OEM information is more of a delay than a flat out block. For example, here’s the market breakdown from a few years ago of iPhones, as you see about 60% is the last 4 iPhones. 

There are a lot of crowdsourced guides for repairing those phones -- maybe not always enough info, but you aren’t in the dark either. Here are android phones though. 

Imagine you are a small repair shop and someone brings in one of those of the right side .... without a way to get the documentation, you might have to refuse to fix something you could otherwise handle. 

Another thing is special tools. These are a sampling of screw heads out there in the wild. Some make sense, some effectively operate as keys. 

They might not block repair, but they do interfere with it. 

Finally, I want to talk about software locks. This is a special problem with tractors. Tractors are kind of the lead example of how software can effectively create repair monopolies. There are a lot of issues with these tractors that only the dealer can provide service to, because the software on that tractor requires the dealership computer to finish the repair. 

We think that if manufacturers create repair resources for their own premium service rates, there should be access to those tools for the owners of the device to prevent monopoly pricing of repairs. The Crain’s Chicago Business Magazine reported that repair at a John Deere dealership has five times bigger profit margins for repair than for the sale of equipment. One explanation? The equipment is sold in a competitive market, the repair offered in a monopolistic one. 

I’m really glad that we can have this conversation and ensure that we don’t ignore increasing monopoly issues around repair. 

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