One Person’s Trash is Another Person’s Treasure Part II: The Right to Repair Movement in the United States
September 15, 2021
By Noel Courage and Bonnie Hassanzadeh
As mentioned in Part I of this series, the right to repair movement is gaining traction in many industrialized countries. Governments appear to be following their own initiatives, as opposed to attempting to formally harmonize rules internationally. The principles driving the right to repair remain similar between jurisdictions, so identifying trends around the globe can help Canada develop best practices that are fair for innovators, independent repair shops and consumers. Our article series is going to provide an update on key countries of interest. First up is the U.S.
Federal Right to Repair
In early July 2021, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at promoting competition across industries in the United States.1 The executive order encouraged the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) to limit manufacturers’ ability to bar consumers from repairing their own equipment or seeking repair services from third parties. The fact sheet published by the White House specifically called on the FTC to establish rules that bar methods of blocking independent repair often used by large tech companies. Following the executive order, the FTC expressed its commitment to “root out” repair restrictions that may be illegal under U.S. antitrust laws and the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a federal law governing warranties on consumer products.2 The FTC’s commitment to ensuring consumers’ right to repair does not come as a surprise since the FTC published a report earlier this year addressing the hurdles that consumers face when they attempt to repair their purchased devices.3 In its report, the FTC identified some of the main obstacles that consumers face in repairing their goods: unavailability of parts and manuals, as well a lack of access to diagnostic software and tools.
The FTC also examined some of the arguments for and against lifting repair limitations. The main argument often made by those opposing the right to repair movement is to suggest that independent repair shops are more likely to compromise or misuse consumer data. The Commission largely found no empirical evidence to support this argument against independent repair shops. That said, all governments have to implement and enforce strong laws to protect consumer data and privacy.
The FTC report also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the difficulties that repair restrictions impose on consumers. The reliance on technology for work and school spiked, while on-site repair services by authorized providers declined as a result of lockdown measures.
An example of a federal legislative initiative is the bill for the Fair Repair Act (introduced in June 2021) that proposes requiring certain technology manufacturers to make product diagnostic and repair information, replacement parts, and tools readily available on reasonable terms.4
State Right to Repair
Currently, there are no uniform right to repair laws across states. The focus of the right to repair discussion also varies state by state. Over half of states had active bills in 2021.5 Some states such as South Carolina are focused on legislation targeting the agricultural sector while California is largely concentrating on big tech and manufacturers of medical equipment.6 As of now, Massachusetts is the only state with clear right to repair laws for automobiles, which was implemented despite strong opposition from automakers coalitions.7
Next Steps for the Right to Repair in the U.S.
With the FTC’s unanimous vote to ramp up law enforcement against repair restrictions8, and states’ efforts to bring momentum to the repair movement through introducing legislation, it is becoming more likely that U.S. consumers may gain additional access to the resources they need to repair the devices they purchased. Right to repair law should be implemented in a balanced manner that is not punitive on innovator companies or putting consumer data at risk.
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