As phones and other consumer devices have been given feature at a time, they have also decreased the ease of repair, with Apple at the forefront of this unworthy package. The FTC has taken note of this and admitted that the agency has been negligent in this regard, but will in the future give priority to potentially illegal restrictions by companies on how consumers can repair, reuse and reuse their own property.
Devices today are often built with no concessions to simple repair or refurbishment, or even routine upgrades like adding RAM or replacing a battered battery. While companies like Apple often endorse hardware for long periods of time in some ways, the tradeoff seems to be that if you crack your screen, the only real option to fix the problem is that the manufacturer is the only real option.
That’s a problem for many reasons, as right-to-repair activist and iFixit founder Kyle Wiens has tirelessly argued for years (the company proudly posted the statement on its blog). The FTC asked for comment on the matter back in 2019, released a state-of-the-art report a few months ago, and now has one (perhaps encouraged by new chairman Lina Khan’s green light on anything big tech companies fear) Policy statement published.
The gist of the unanimously approved statement is that they found that the practice of deliberately limiting repairs can have serious repercussions, especially for people who don’t have the money to pay Apple tax for something that is supposedly easy should be (and once was). Repair.
The Commission’s report on Repair Restrictions examines and discusses a number of these issues and describes the hardship that repair restrictions create for families and businesses. The Commission fears that this burden is being borne more by underserved communities, including communities of color and low-income Americans. The pandemic exacerbated that impact as consumers relied on technology more than ever.
Although illegal repair restrictions have generally not been an enforcement priority for the Commission for a number of years, the Commission has decided to devote more enforcement resources to addressing these practices. Accordingly, the Commission will now prioritize investigations into unlawful repair restrictions under relevant law …
The statement then makes four basic points. First, it reiterates the need for consumers and other public organizations to report and characterize what they perceive to be unfair or problematic restrictions on repairs. The FTC doesn’t go out and investigate companies on the fly, they usually need a complaint to get the wheels going, like people who claim Facebook is misusing their data.
Second, there is one surprising antitrust bond where the FTC says it will look into those restrictions to answer if monopoly practices like bond and exclusive design are at play. This could be something like refusing upgrades, then asking an order of magnitude above market price for something like a few extra gigs of memory or RAM, or designing products to upset the competition. Or maybe arbitrary warranty breaches for things like removing screws or taking the device to someone else for repair. (Of course, these would depend on establishing monopoly status or market power for the company, which the FTC struggled with.)
In accordance with the FTC’s normal trade rules, it will assess whether the restrictions are an “unfair act or practice,” which is a much broader and easier requirement to meet. You don’t need a monopoly to make misleading claims about an “open standard” or a hidden setting to slow down the operation of third-party apps or peripherals, for example.
Finally, the agency mentions that it will work with states to enact new regulations and laws. Perhaps this is a reference to the groundbreaking “Right to Repair” bills passed by Massachusetts last year. Successes and failures in this direction are taken into account and the federal authorities and the political decision-makers of the federal states compare each other.
This is by far not the first sentence in this direction, but one of the easiest. Tech companies have seen the writing on the wall and done things like expanding independent repair programs – but it is questionable that those measures were taken in anticipation of the expected shift by the FTC to establish hard lines on the matter.
The FTC is not showing its full hand here, but it certainly suggests that it is ready to play if the companies involved are about to try their luck. We’ll likely know more soon once it starts to take in consumer complaints and get an idea of the repair landscape.