As phones and other consumer devices have gained in functionality, they have also declined in the ease with which they can be repaired, with Apple leading this dastardly pack. The FTC took note, admitting that the agency has been lax on this front, but that in the future it will prioritize what could be illegal restrictions by businesses on how consumers can fix. , reuse and reuse their own property.
Devices are often built today without any concessions for easy repair or refurbishment, or even after routine upgrades like adding RAM or replacing a failing battery. While companies like Apple often support hardware for a long time in some ways, the tradeoff seems to be that if you break your screen, the manufacturer is your only real option to fix it.
This is a problem for many reasons, as right to redress 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 this topic in 2019, released a state of affairs report a few months ago, and now (perhaps emboldened by new president Lina Khan’s green light to all that does fear to big tech companies) issued a policy statement.
The gist of the unanimously approved statement is that they found that the practice of deliberately restricting repairs can have serious repercussions, especially among people who cannot afford Apple tax for what should be (and once was) a simple repair.
The Restoration Restrictions Commission report explores and discusses a number of these issues and describes the difficulties that repair restrictions create for families and businesses. The Commission is concerned that this burden may be borne more heavily by underserved communities, including communities of color and low-income Americans. The pandemic has exacerbated these effects, with consumers relying more on technology than ever before.
Although illegal repair restrictions have generally not been an enforcement priority for the Commission for a number of years, the Commission has determined that it will devote more enforcement resources to tackling these practices. As a result, the Commission will henceforth give priority to the investigations into the restrictions of illegal remedies under the relevant laws…
The declaration 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 remedy restrictions. The FTC doesn’t spontaneously go out and investigate businesses, it usually needs a complaint to set the wheels in motion, like people alleging Facebook is abusing their data.
Second, a surprising antitrust link, where the FTC says it will review said restrictions to determine whether monopoly practices such as tied selling and exclusionary design are involved. It could be something like refusing to allow upgrades and then charge an order of magnitude above market price for something like a few extra gigabytes of storage or RAM, or design products to be without competition. Or perhaps arbitrary warranty violations for actions such as removing screws or handing the device over to a third party for repair. (Of course, that would depend on establishing monopoly status or market power for the company, which the FTC has struggled to do.)
More in line with usual FTC business regulations, it will assess whether the restrictions are “unfair acts or practices,” which is a much broader and easier requirement to meet. You don’t need a monopoly to claim that an “open standard” is misleading, or for a hidden setting to slow down the operations of third-party applications or devices, for example.
And finally, the agency says it will work with states in their efforts to establish new regulations and laws. Perhaps this is a reference to pioneering “right to repair” bills like the one passed by Massachusetts last year. Successes and failures in this direction will be taken into account and federal authorities and policy makers will compare their scores.
It’s not the first move in this direction from afar, but it’s one of the clearest. Tech companies saw the writing on the wall and did things like expand independent repair programs – but arguably these steps were taken in anticipation of the FTC’s expected move towards establishing lines. harsh on the subject.
The FTC isn’t showing its full hand here, but it’s certainly hinting that it’s ready to play if the companies involved want to give it a shot. We’ll probably know more soon once it starts ingesting consumer complaints and painting a picture of the repair landscape.