Editorial: We should have the right to fix our own stuff
They don’t make ’em like they used to.
This oft-uttered complaint about modern products may be a cliché, but it’s largely accurate. Not long ago, most consumer goods and business products were analog and easily repaired with parts that were widely available. But, increasingly, all but the most basic appliances, electronics, medical devices and vehicles are constructed with some digital components. Even some cat litter boxes have microchips!
That wouldn’t be a cause for concern if these products were as easy to repair as, say, a flat tire. But they are not. It’s often costly and time-consuming (or even straight-up impossible) for consumers to have their malfunctioning goods fixed because of the various legal, digital and physical barriers that manufacturers use to keep consumers from doing DIY repairs or using independent repair shops.
These tactics include designing products with cases welded or glued shut, or with specialized parts and diagnostic tools available only through preferred dealers or repair networks, and installing digital locks that cannot be circumvented without violating copyright law, even when it’s done with the sole intention of restoring original function to a broken device.
As a consequence, consumers who need repairs must rely on either the original manufacturer or its authorized outlets, which can charge higher-than-reasonable fees because of the lack of competition. In too many cases, it’s easier and faster for consumers to simply toss out their broken cellphone, coffee maker, vacuum or whatever and buy a new one.
This is unfair, not to mention extremely wasteful and environmentally destructive. Everyone should have the absolute right to fix the stuff they’ve purchased, including the digital components within.
That shouldn’t be a revolutionary statement. But consumer advocates such as Repair.org and iFixit.com in California have been fighting for years to get state and federal lawmakers to establish this basic consumer protection in statute (including a bill targeting medical device repairs in California that died mysteriously this year in the Senate Appropriations Committee, despite widespread support). But politically powerful manufacturers and their trade associations have blocked these efforts, arguing that such measures threaten product safety and their intellectual property.
The real threat, however, appears to be to their bottom line. Repairing products extends their usable life, so consumers don’t have to buy a new one every few years. Controlling where and how devices can be repaired, as well how much it costs to do so, is the next best thing.
These arrangements have infuriated consumers and fueled right-to-repair proposals across the nation in recent years. This year alone there were bills in about half the U.S. states, though none has been made into law yet. Farmers in particular have pushed back against the proprietary repair schemes used by farm equipment manufacturers such as John Deere that can cost thousands of dollars for a simple fix and idle crucial equipment during harvest.
It appears that, at last, help for consumers is on the way. On Friday, President Biden signed a sweeping pro-competitive, pro-consumer executive order that, among other things, encourages the new chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission — whom Biden appointed — to adopt rules against “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.”
The president’s action follows the release of an FTC report in May that outlined a number of anticompetitive practices by manufacturers to keep people from tinkering with their products and found “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” The report also noted that the burden of these practices falls heaviest upon communities of color and low-income consumers.
FTC rules are a good start, but they’re just a piece of the solution. Congress needs to lay down a foundational right to repair that makes it clear that once you buy something, be it a smartphone or a coffee maker, you can fix it or hire someone else do it as you see fit.
This isn’t just a question of fairness but one of sustainability. Our disposable society is eating up finite natural resources at an alarming pace, and we can’t afford to keep making new products and tossing out old ones at such a rapid clip. Consumer advocates estimate that some 416,000 cellphones are discarded in the U.S. — every day. That’s an absurd waste, not to mention a serious hit to people’s pocketbooks.
Lobbyists for manufacturers such as Apple, Microsoft and, of course, John Deere argue that giving consumers control over their products opens the door to unsafe fixes that could bypass federal rules, such as auto emission limits, and open the door to digital piracy. That may be, though repair advocates say there’s no real evidence of that happening. Besides, legal experts say, courts have affirmed the basic principle that once you buy something you are free to repair it.
In any case, the manufacturers’ argument isn’t winning over lawmakers around the globe. The United Kingdom and European Commission are pursuing right-to-repair rules, as are Canada and Australia.
It’s not clear how far the FTC may be able to go to protect consumer rights in the U.S., but repair advocates say they will keep pushing for state and federal laws. “It isn’t over until people can fix their stuff, on their own,” said Nathan Proctor, who leads the right-to-repair campaign for U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy organization. That sounds about right.
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