The Government Wants to Tackle Big Tech’s Repair Monopolies and Planned Obsolescence

For years, the “right to repair” movement struggled to gain widespread public attention. But that’s started to change as consumers, activists, and even Presidential candidates have highlighted how arbitrary tech repair restrictions are driving up costs, eroding consumer rights, and creating a mountain of unnecessary electronic waste.

Tuesday, the FTC held a hearing dubbed Nixing the Fix: A Workshop on Repair Restrictions, where experts testified how these restrictions are having a profoundly negative impact on consumers and businesses alike.

“Over the last 20 years, the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) have become increasingly hostile to my market and third party maintainers, doing anything in every way they can to try and stop and control the lifecycle of the equipment,” testified Jennifer Larson, CEO of Vibrant technologies, a reseller of IT equipment.

Larson explained in detail how licensing, firmware, and other restrictions prohibit her company from reselling hardware to corporate clients, often resulting in working servers being sent directly to landfills if they can’t be scrapped for parts.

Companies like Apple have also long attempted to monopolize repair to fatten their revenues, engaging in ham-fisted legal attacks on small third-party repair shops. Other companies like John Deere have similarly fought against third-party repair of tractors, forcing customers to drive hundreds of miles to a sanctioned repair shop at significant added cost.

Theresa McDonough, owner of an independent cell phone and computer repair shop, said these and other repair restrictions have a very real impact on the farmers, students, and blue collar workers she serves in Vermont, especially if their devices are out of warranty.

“With the average device costing anywhere between $500 to $1,000, this could mean a replacement cost of up to $6,000 a year for the average family if they can not repair their device,” McDonogh said. “That’s more than most people pay in property taxes.”

Nathan Proctor, Director of the Campaign for the Right to Repair at US PIRG, noted how Americans dispose of 416,000 smartphones every day. This unnecessary waste comes hand and hand with a steady erosion in consumer rights. Consumers no longer own the things they buy, and fine print routinely strips away many of the rights they once hand.

“Our relationship with electronics is kind of changing direction, and I think there are some serious things that if we don’t address, we’re going to lose fundamentally the democratic sense of maintenance and ownership of technology in our lives,” Proctor told attendees.

Proctor noted that in addition to devices being intentionally engineered to make repair difficult or impossible (a calling card of former Apple designer Jony Ive), there’s a universe of warranty restrictions that make sanctioned repair cumbersome, lengthy, and often expensive. All of these restrictions serve one real purpose: fattening revenues for the world’s biggest companies.

During his presentation, Proctor pointed to data suggesting the profit margin for John Deere tractor repair was five times higher than the sale of new equipment.

“I think an easy explanation for that discrepancy would be that repair is monopolized, the sale is competitive,” he said. “And I think repair should be competitive.”

Public backlash to these restrictions has resulted in a growing call for state or federal laws that protect the consumer’s right to repair. Gay Gordon-Byrne is the executive director of the Repair Association, a group forged in 2013 to help spearhead that effort.

“Monopolies on repair are unfortunately the new normal,” she told hearing attendees. “We used to always be able to fix our stuff, it was a right of ownership, it still is a right of ownership. We’ve lost it because we’ve failed to pay attention to all the nasty little things that were happening around us,” including the rise of highly restrictive end user license agreements (EULAs).

While more than a dozen states have now proposed right to repair laws, numerous companies, eager to keep repair monopolies intact, have fought tooth and nail against the proposals.

These companies are quick to claim, often without evidence, that such legislation poses a security and public safety risk. Apple, for example, declared one Nebraska proposal would make the state a “mecca for hackers,” and that users shouldn’t be repairing their own phones because they’d just hurt themselves.

Such concerns were the focus of hearing attendees like George Kirchner of the Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), which suggested to attendees that protecting the consumer right to repair would somehow result in the “mishandling” of batteries. Earl Crane of the Security Innovation Center similarly suggested such legislation could hamper security.

But Gordon-Byrne dismissed these concerns, suggesting they’re generally used to scare legislators away from productive right to repair legislation and increased repair competition. Industry opposition to such legislation is, unsurprisingly, driven by money, she said.

“Things have to get fixed,” she said. “And we can’t fix them now because we’re being told we can’t buy the parts, we can’t buy the tools, we can’t get the diagnostics, we can’t get the manuals, and oh by the way—we’re going to sell you things that are unsafe and are going to blow up, and therefore you shouldn’t be allowed to fix them.”

“I find this absolutely ludicrous,” she added. “The cure for unsafe products is more repair. The cure for getting rid of faulty parts is more repair, not less.”

While the FTC hearing shines some much needed light on the need for repair reform, there’s still a laundry list of companies with bottomless lobbying budgets and a vested interest in keeping repair monopolized and restrictive. But the more consumers and small businesses that realize there’s a problem, the more support reform efforts are likely to have.