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Big right-to-repair win: FTC blasts tech giants for making it so difficult to mend devices

'There is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for restrictions'

America's consumer watchdog, the FTC, today scolded technology makers for their anti-repair practices, and signaled it will support new legislation that ensures people can mend their own stuff without penalty.

In short, the FTC said manufacturers were, among other things, regularly breaking or stretching warranty law, deliberately designing products that are hard to fix, keeping repair information secret, using patent and trademark law to thwart repair efforts, discouraging independent third-party repairs, and using software to lock out changes. This leads to a bad deal for buyers and the environment as stuff gets thrown away when it could have been mended and reused.

"We're glad to see the FTC acknowledge the scope of the problem, and the real harm to consumers,” Kerry Maeve Sheehan, head of US policy at repair biz iFixit, told The Register. “We're also happy to see the FTC's pledge to undertake enforcement and regulatory solutions to repair restrictions, and fully support them in doing so – these actions are long overdue."

Trying to fix smartphones or laptops on your own is a pain in the ASCII, for instance. Giants like Microsoft and Apple typically impose all sorts of roadblocks to stop people tinkering with their gadgets, such as using custom screws, locking parts in with special glue, or not making components readily available for replacement.

To avoid potentially voiding warranties or violating end user license agreements, owners resort to paying the tech titans high fees to repair the issues or just end up buying a new device altogether.

“There is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions,” the FTC concluded in its report [PDF] compiled from a workshop it held in 2019 into the whole mess. The regulator's findings have been passed to Congress for review.

Under Section 102(c) of America's Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a law that was passed in 1975, a manufacturer is not generally allowed to force a customer to buy parts and repair services from that company if they want to keep their warranty. The FTC lacks the authority to sue manufacturers who violate the act for damages on behalf of the consumer, though, and can only impose injunctive relief at best.

Now, the agency is exploring ways to further protect people's rights, either through today's laws and powers or through fresh laws, or both. “The commission will consider reinvigorated regulatory and law enforcement options, as well as consumer education," it said in its report.

"In addition to the FTC’s pursuit of efforts under its authority, the commission stands ready to work with legislators, either at the state or federal level, to ensure that consumers and independent repair shops have appropriate access to replacement parts, instructions, and diagnostic software.”

The right-to-repair movement has sparked various law bills in at least 20 states in the US; Rhode Island, Indiana, and California have passed legislation. You can find more analysis of today's report here, by iFxit. ®

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