Biden to sign exec order calling for right-to-repair rules for farmers, maybe rest of us

I've got a brand new combine harvester an' I'll give you the firmware update key


President Joe Biden is expected this week to sign an executive order directing the formation of rules that ensure Americans have the right to repair ... their farming equipment, at least.

Though this effort may well extend beyond agriculture, the White House today chose to focus on the farming side of things, presumably because a right-to-repair for farmers was a core Democrat policy in the 2020 US presidential race. As such the order, when it arrives, will reportedly tell the FTC, with support from the government's agriculture dept, to look into cementing people's right to fix their gear.

The order is also expected to tackle competition in US military contracts, the world of cellphone companies, and delayed airline baggage.

"As part of the President’s forthcoming executive order on competition," said Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday, "the US Department of Agriculture announced it will engage in a series of rulemakings to increase competition in agricultural industries to boost farmers’ and ranchers’ earnings, fight back against abuses of power by giant agribusiness corporations, and give farmers the right to repair their own equipment how they like."

For those not aware, modern tractors and other farming equipment, such as those from John Deere, are embedded computers on wheels that may require proprietary software tools and updates to repair them. Farmers would like the freedom to carry out that work themselves, including running their own firmware to fix issues or bypass their tractors' DRM, or get an independent place to do it for them. Said farmers would rather not be waiting in a field for a dealer to show up with the necessary software if something goes wrong.

"John Deere does not support the right to modify embedded software due to risks associated with the safe operation of the equipment, emissions compliance and engine performance," a spokesperson for the agricultural machinery behemoth told The Register, claiming the majority of repairs can be done by farmers themselves and "less than two percent of all repairs require a software update."

Right-to-repair campaigners have an answer to that. "It's none of Deere’s business to protect you from yourself regardless of whom you trust to repair your property," said the repair.org association.

Signs of hope for personal tech

Though things are looking up for farmers, what about those of us who want to do our own repairs, or use a third-party shop, to keep broken phones, computers, and other hard-to-fix kit going?

An anonymous source briefed on the upcoming executive order told Reuters, which had the first handle on this story, that the FTC will be left to define the scope of Americans' right to repair their devices – from tractors to perhaps even smartphones – and the regulator will be encouraged to strip away limitations that prevent people from fixing their stuff.

EFF senior staff attorney Kit Walsh told us: "Farmers certainly do need the right to repair, and we look forward to seeing how the administration hopes to protect it. Of course, farmers aren't the only ones: we urgently need the right to repair to cover medical devices, cars, and personal electronics in order to ensure that these devices are functional and secure and don't wind up in a dump when they could be refurbished."

iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens said: "Big tech has been taking advantage of consumers for too long, at the expense of local small businesses. We're very encouraged that the Biden administration is planning to use the rulemaking power of the FTC to restore competition."

Don't forget that the newly appointed head of the FTC Lena Khan is dead set on taking on abusive monopolies, and injecting more competition into America's technology world, so much so that Amazon has petitioned to have her recused from any judgements on the internet juggernaut.

And there are further possibilities for change coming up this fall, since that'll be the time for the Copyright Office, with the assistance of the Librarian of Congress, to add any exemptions to the United States' Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has been used to thwart repair work.

These rulings come every three years, with the latest proclamation, in 2018, allowing the jailbreaking of phones and some smart home devices, and added broad exemptions for security researchers. Tinkering with copy protection systems for games "no longer reasonably available in commercial marketplace" was also allowed.

Last year the Copyright Office held hearings for fresh exemptions, expected to be published this October. iFixit, the EFF, and friends called for a right to repair hardware and software to be enshrined in a DMCA exemption. Unsurprisingly there were equally passionate arguments against such proposals from manufacturers and vendors. ®

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