Right-to-repair fight going national as FTC asked to lay down the law

Why shouldn't you be able to fix your own kit? Clue: Profit is involved

iFixit and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) have teamed up to go straight to the US Federal Trade Commission with a rulemaking petition urging it to implement national right-to-repair rules.

The petition [PDF], sent to the FTC on Tuesday, calls on the Commission to implement new regulations under its Section 5 powers, which gives the agency enforcement authority over "​​unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce." 

"The FTC has been a strong ally in protecting our right to fix everything we own," said Director of Sustainability for iFixit, Liz Chamberlain. "But for the FTC to be fully empowered to fix the things stopping us from fixing things, they need new rules. This petition for rulemaking aims to give the FTC the power they need to ensure that we can all fix all our things." 

Under the FTC's Section 5 authority, PIRG noted, the FTC could require that consumable components and parts that commonly fail are made readily available through a product's lifespan, ensure consumers have the right to repair devices how and where they see fit, that key functions remain enabled after a manufacturer ends support for a product, and that independent repair shops aren't required to share customer data with manufacturers. 

The pair are also asking the FTC to consider a repairability scoring system that could be included in existing device labels, a la energy efficiency stickers, to show how easy (or not) it is to fix. 

Most crucially for electronics - especially those made by Apple - the petition asks the FTC to implement rules such that "identical components from two identical devices ought to be interchangeable without manufacturer intervention." In other words, no more parts pairing. 

Apple tossed its weight behind limited national right-to-repair rules late last month, surprising many. As we pointed out then, Apple's negotiations with California on its right-to-repair rule passed in October resulted in a carve-out that allowed it and other manufacturers to carry on using parts pairing to restrict repairs. 

Parts pairing means Apple and other OEMs get final say on whether replacement parts are fully functional by requiring repair shops to call and verify serial numbers on swapped-in components. This hampers home repairs by making it impossible, for example, to simply pop an old screen from a dead iPhone into a working handset without calling an authorized Apple supplier to get the okay. 

As to why iFixit and PIRG have gone straight to the federal level, Chamberlain tells us they're not targeting the FTC at the expense of state right-to-repair campaigns, which have gained steam in recent years

"The FTC has stronger power to protect against unfair and deceptive acts and practices than many states. They're also well suited to deal with trade issues like exclusive parts dealing," Chamberlain told The Register. "The FTC can complement state action to protect repair … we're just trying to use all the tools in our toolbox."

What's next for nationwide right-to-repair in the US?

As Chamberlain pointed out in a missive, federal rulemaking takes time, so don't expect this to go anywhere very quickly. The FTC didn't respond to our questions on the issue.  

That said, Nathan Proctor, PIRG's right to repair campaign director, told The Register he believes the FTC is in favor of such rules, especially in the wake of the right to repair event held at the White House last month. 

"The FTC has taken multiple public actions that indicate strong support for the right-to-repair campaign," Proctor told us. "I can say with confidence they treat repair restrictions and consumer access as a very important consumer issue, and they're dedicated to seeing how they can improve repair markets."

Proctor told us the key test of the rulemaking petition will be whether the FTC considers it to be legally viable under Section 5 of the FTC act. "It's highly likely we've crossed that bar," Proctor assessed. 

Once the FTC determines the petition makes for feasible regulation, it will open the matter for public comment, likely in a few months, Proctor guessed. It's then that things could slow to a crawl. "The FTC is facing a lot of headwinds and has other issues on its plate, so right to repair rules aren't a sure thing," Proctor told us. 

When public comments open up "the public will have to tell the FTC how much of a priority this is or isn't," Proctor noted. "We're hoping the public will speak up once comments are open." ®

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