from the you-don't-own-what-you-buy dept
Back in 2015, frustration at John Deere’s ham-fisted repair restrictions and draconian tractor DRM helped birth a grassroots tech movement dubbed “right to repair.” The company’s crackdown on “unauthorized repairs” turned countless ordinary citizens into technology policy activists, after onerous restrictions not only significantly drove up repair costs, but forced owners to often haul their equipment hundreds or thousands of miles to an authorized repair location.
John Deere’s multi-year promise to do a better job providing access to tools, documentation, and repair options simply never materialized. And of course John Deere is just one of numerous companies engaged in this kind of behavior across numerous sectors, driving major public support for proposed legislation in more than a dozen states that would put a major dent in technology repair monopolies.
In a small win for farmers and right to repair advocates, Biden is apparently planning to include some right to repair mandates in an upcoming executive order on competition. The order itself will urge the FTC to craft tighter rules to address the problem:
“U.S. President Joe Biden wants the Federal Trade Commission to limit the ability of farm equipment manufacturers to restrict tractor owners from using independent repair shops or complete some repairs on their own, a source briefed on the matter told Reuters Tuesday. Biden’s planned executive order on competition, expected to be released in the coming days, will encourage the FTC to address the issue, the source said. Some tractor manufacturers like Deere & Co use proprietary repair tools and software to prevent third parties from performing some repairs. Deere and the FTC did not immediately comment.
The problem is that the FTC’s rule creation and enforcement authority is arguably narrow under the FTC Act (not to mention limited by funding and staffing constraints). Most of the agency’s enforcement authority rests on whether something is clearly “unfair and deceptive.” But most repair monopolies, like Apple, obfuscate their greed by insisting onerous repair restrictions are necessary to protect consumer safety and security. Ideally you’d prefer clear and well crafted state and federal laws, but companies like Apple have worked overtime to insist such legislation would also harm the public.
In 2017, Apple insisted that passing a right to repair law in Nebraska would turn the state into a “mecca for hackers.” More recently, the auto industry tried to claim that expanding Massachusetts’ existing consumer tech law, to make sure that independent garages could access tools and diagnostic gear, would result in a “boom in sexual predators.” Sony, Microsoft, and others eager to monopolize repair options for their game consoles can routinely be found making the same or similar arguments about how better consumer protection would create a parade of unforeseen horribles.
But a recent bipartisan FTC report found that the majority of the claims coming from companies like Apple were false (the company bullies independent repair shop owners to protect revenues, not out of some broad altruism). The report went on to note that stricter state and federal laws and tougher antitrust enforcement would go a long way toward addressing this kind of behavior. In other words, even the FTC acknowledges it’s going to take more than just an EO punting the problem to the FTC if right to repair reform is to be taken seriously.