FTC Rules On Right To Repair

A few days ago, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) came out with a 5-0 unanimous vote on its position on right to repair. (PDF) It’s great news, in that they basically agree with us all:

Restricting consumers and businesses from choosing how they repair products can substantially increase the total cost of repairs, generate harmful electronic waste, and unnecessarily increase wait times for repairs. In contrast, providing more choice in repairs can lead to lower costs, reduce e-waste by extending the useful lifespan of products, enable more timely repairs, and provide economic opportunities for entrepreneurs and local businesses.

The long version of the “Nixing the Fix” report goes on to list ways that the FTC found firms were impeding repair: ranging from poor initial design, through restrictive firmware and digital rights management (DRM), all the way down to “disparagement of non-OEM parts and independent repair services”.

While the FTC isn’t making any new laws here, they’re conveying a willingness to use the consumer-protection laws that are already on the books: the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair competitive practices.

Only time will tell if this dog really has teeth, but it’s a good sign that it’s barking. And given that the European Union is heading in a similar direction, we’d be betting that repairability increases in the future.

Thanks [deshipu] for tipping us off on this one!

59 thoughts on “FTC Rules On Right To Repair

    1. At that juncture, the up front lost cost on an item wouldn’t necessarily be made back through spying if we all could just toss whatever firmware and/or software on said device. It’s about time people start paying with their cash instead of their intimate details of every waking hour. That business model needs to be destroyed as it adds nothing to our society as a whole. it’s just a giant crap shoot. there is zero up side.

        1. Except it isn’t.

          One result of stricter application of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is that suppliers will stop applying general warranties on products, and instead write a whole laundry list of warranties on individual parts or assemblies, so they can have the parts they don’t wish you to fix or replace sold “as-is” which is permitted within the law. If they never promise to fix it, then they don’t have to provide any means to you either.

          Reminds me of a wrist watch I once had, which had a limited warranty, which went on to specify every single part of the watch as being outside of the warranty. It was literally a ribbon of paper with tiny print listing everything down to the nuts and screws. I could not for the life of me find which part of the watch I would be reimbursed if it happened to break.

          1. Yeah, but when was the last time a smartphone manufacturer actually honored a warranty (in the US)? They’re already limited. Sorry we don’t cover screens, batteries, jacks or cables. it’s more profitable just to wait for a potential class action.

          2. Well, that’s just the culture of pleasing the stockholders rather than the company bottom line, or its long-term interests in the society. By abstracting and removing the responsibility of the corporation away from the people it consists of, we have created a calculating monster akin to the sci-fi horror stories of AI factories that destroy humanity in order to produce more paper clips.

          3. I think you misunderstand why a warranty exists in the first place. A warranty is there to provide comfort to the customer and a sales advantage over someone without a warranty. If companies stop providing warranty’s at all in any way shape or form, i’m sure there will be backlash from consumers, which then translates into a decline in sales and/or regulatory action. ie: if a company wants to lose sales, they’ll stop providing a warranty. This bullshit about “third party components” is just an excuse… the primary reasons third party components fail is because a) the manufacturer builds in safeguards to make sure no third part parts are used. and b) they are no longer required to publish schematics. That second part is key to third party repair, and if you ever worked on a car, you’d know that right to repair already exists and works fine. Some components you’ll end up buying OEM because those components are better, many you wont. EXACTLY THE SAME AS THE CAR PARTS MARKET. Only an idiot buys idler pulley’s that are not oem and are cheap Chinese knock offs. but for various other parts, there is no discernible difference in quality. so the oems will still get parts orders, and if they fix their stupid turn around times, they’ll still get repair orders. until then, we need realistic options to keep our personal infrastructure running.

            besides, i’d much rather have right to repair than shit warranty that nobody honors half the time anyway… as a consumer, warranty’s are literally worth almost nothing. as a small business, they can carry more weight as a company is more likely to warranty an object that’s failed if they see more sales in the future. But then again, this is about consumers, not business.

          4. In Australia there is a basic ‘Fit for purpose’. If a phone screen breaks when it slips out of your shirt pocket ( a fall of about 1m), I don’t think that the phone was fit for purpose (it is after all a device to be carried around in your pocket). I’d love to see that tested in court.

          5. >a decline in sales

            A) if everybody drops their warranties, where else do you go to buy your stuff?

            B) warranties from a customer point of view protect from early failure (bathtub curve stuff), but not from late failure.

            The side effect is that you have spare parts which are used to repair stuff under warranty, where repairs are cheaper than replacement of the entire thing. If the company only gives limited warranties that do not cover all parts, only those that are likely to break early, they don’t have to provide all the spare parts that you might need later. It’s more cumbersome to manage, but more profitable than competing with your own products that are still in use 10 years later.

      1. Ugh, yes. I can’t do a proper dusting on my wife’s Mac because the screen and therefore inner access is glued shut. I tried the hot air gun and still got a small crack in the screen. Apple sucks.

        1. It’s not just Apple. I had to replace the battery in my Surface Pro a few years ago, and the strength of the adhesive holding the screen is was a level of excess that can only point to a deliberate intention to thwart repair. Like you, I also cracked the screen removing it, turning the replacement of a $50 battery into a $250 overall repair cost. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

          1. Chris and John,

            Heptane is your friend.

            Instantly releases most common adhesives, non-permanently, and usually without damaging surrounding materials.

            Sold under the brand name “un-du” in a nice container. Larger quantities are sold under “Bestine” brand.

      2. > it’s the price you pay for stiff chassis

        Not really. It’s the price you pay for a design that uses the shell as the support, whereas internally supported structures can have a loose removable shell.

        The problem is that everyone wants to use the PCB as a self-supporting structure, and they also want to skimp out on the PCB materials as much as possible, so they then have to build a rigid bubble around the thing to stop it from bending and cracking the components off. The alternative is to use a metal pan to take the strain off the PCB and hang everything else off of that, but it’s two pennies more expensive and adds a millimeter to the thickness of the device.

  1. What about replacement firmware chip? Often time firmware are proprietary and if your device has a bad chip after some 10 years, getting a new one can be hard. Most companies won’t release due to sensitive data and keeping replacement supply for many years is often costly.

    1. Firmware ICs are only written to when upgrading, so your firmware ICs are going to retain the data for about 10K years or until they are destroyed, whichever comes first.

      1. For simple devices, firmware is on the microcontroller and if that breaks due to e.g. overvoltage, there goes the firmware. And even the manufacturer specified retention times are only 20 to 50 years, and can get lower with high temperatures.

        For more advanced devices, a separate flash chip often has both the code and the filesystem for data. Write too many times and it can no longer be written. With bad luck, it might get corrupted bad enough that it cannot even be read out anymore so you could copy to new one.

      2. >10K years
        You are confusing the number of programming cycles vs retention. They are typically rated for 20 years or so and their write cycles depending on the FLASH technology (SLC, MLC etc).

        I have 2 devices failed on me around 10 years mark – Linksys and Cisco ATA. They both suffered from bit rot of their FLASH chips. They are non-recoverable as the bootstrap code is corrupted and the firmware image from the download doesn’t contain that.

    2. Plain PROM or EPROM with burnable fuses lasts practically forever, but flash memories have a typical data retention span of 20 years at 55°C or something like a century at room temperature.

  2. Where this is really most important has to do with large agricultural equipment. In particular, the meany has been John Deere. Imagine your 1/2 million dollar combine breaks down in the middle of your corn harvest. You can’t fix it because the man has, on purpose, made it impossible. So, you lay out $50k and wait for the repair person to show up to read her exclusive software (can you have a copy? are you kidding?) and resets the error after replacing a $0.25 fuse. Dead serious.

      1. It is bullshit. It’s also totally accurate. I used to work for them, in the new electronic reman facility. Some of the equipment used embedded linux (which info they don’t release in any way, shape, or form), and the encryption is pretty crappy, too. Since a lot of functionality is enabled only in software (and they will gladly turn it on, for $20K), they keep a database of which options are enabled per unit serial number. They spend a lot of time and effort to lock out their customers.

        Multiple times I suggested that they should at least sell a dev kit to the customers, giving them at least a controlled pathway into the devices. But I wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool JD executive, what the hell did I know.

  3. @Elliot Williams said: “While the FTC isn’t making any new laws here, they’re conveying a willingness to use the consumer-protection laws that are already on the books…”

    What the FTC is also doing here is sending a strong message to both Congress and the American People about what the right thing to do is here. If you are an American Citizen, immediately contact your Representatives in Washington about this FTC Policy Statement and urge them to enact laws that stop manufacturers from taking away our ability to actually own what we buy. Congress should be able to act quickly on this Right-to-Repair problem, there’s bipartisan agreement on this issue.

    Then there are two more related problems that need attention: 1. Planned obsolescence, and 2. premature cessation of firmware and security updates, especially when it comes to mobile phones and “smart” TVs.

    1. >“smart” TVs.

      Manufacturers literally have dozens of variants of the same television all with little hardware and software revisions, and each of them has to support again dozens of different competing services which change their APIs all the time, which makes keeping up support for many years an exercise in futility. This was perfectly apparent when the first smart TVs rolled around the corner. Their built-in web browsers couldn’t keep up with the web standards and a year later were perfectly useless.

      The very concept of a “smart TV” is doomed to obsolescence. To keep up, you need a real computer with a real operating system and real software that can update itself as needed.

    2. Also with mobile phones, the same heterogeneity of the hardware between different implementations and the lack of common standards means that every model has to be supported separately, including all the carrier locked phones that don’t receive firmware updates directly from the OEM, so they can’t keep pulling a whole dragnet full of 10-year-old models behind them to the distant future.

      It’s partially a situation caused by the ARM business model, where they don’t sell a standard range of CPUs to anyone but license the core, which then results in a myriad of custom SoCs with different features that in principle are cross-compatible at some level, but not really. Hence Google’s choice to stick a virtual machine between the phone and your apps, which is simply not needed in the PC/Mac world because the hardware is standard. This is also why ARM can’t get market share in the desktop/laptop market – nothing supports ARM, not even software made for ARM – except when you turn your machine into a large smartphone and hang yourself in the tree of Google’s app ecosystem.

      1. Nice explanation!

        However, I don’t have much sympathy for manufacturers that release a barely-working PoS and continually “upgrade” the design to actually make it what it should have been in the first place. Yes, I realise its’ “the thing” to do, but if they were forced to provide upgrades to all the barely-working models, they might think twice and do it right the first time. (not having a go at you here – I’m having a whinge about marketing & product release cycles).

  4. I consider John Deere’s statement references to be rather spurious — they do not allow people the tools to diagnose the tractors they purchased, and reset the error codes once a repair is completed; which requires a certified JD mechanic to flip the bit. The only way that people were able to do this themselves was to used hacked firmware to reset the error codes. Very few people by comparison want or need to tweak the engines performance. It is one reason why I will never purchase another John Deere again.

      1. I for one really hopes JD goes bust.

        Surely the only people buying their stuff now are farming corporations that have enough money that even the intern has authority to sign-off on the $1M order.

    1. Lol what? Easily solved with a thermal cutoff switch. In fact I would be shocked if they didn’t already have that.

      But also, plenty of fools already bypass those in things like furnaces but that doesnt make the furnace manufacturer liable.

    2. The manufacturer if the design of the machine is wrong, such as a thermal cutout not actuating quickly enough.
      The repair shop if the repair has obviously been done in a wrong way, like removing/shunting a thermal cutout, which is such an obviously dumb thing to do that only the stupidest of stupid people would do it.

      However, standard thermal dryers are very simple devices. The chance of a repair on a dryer causing a fire is incredibly small, compared to the chance of misuse (such as not cleaning the filter, allowing the exhaust pipe to plug up, using it while there is an intermittent fault) causing a fire.

  5. How about amending “42 U.S. Code § 14322 – Rechargeable consumer products and labeling” to eliminate references to the specific battery types of nickel cadmium and lead acid and replace with rechargeable battery? The easiest workaround for companies to keep making stuff with non-removable or non-replaceable batteries was simply to switch to types other than those two, since by that law they were not required to be replaceable. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/14322

    1. while this doesn’t fix everything it would be helpful. Batteries are consumables. While everything has a lifespan, having the part that is guaranteed to fail glued in with no easy way to replace is just screaming throw me away and buy a new one.

  6. I was surprised to learn some time ago, that the Warranty Act often mentioned in regards to “warranty void if opened” stickers, at least on its surface excludes any “enterprise” devices – anything not typically used in a home. So yes, you can void a lifetime warranty on network equipment by opening it to inspect a fan. Seems like problem to me.

  7. Many product designs that disallow repair are the result of greed, avarice, and insular thinking.

    BUT, there are some modules in electrical equipment where repair and return to service should be regulated and restricted. A division of a former employer made power conversion equipment for industrial and medical equipment. About once per year, we were hauled into court because a customer’s technician had ‘repaired’ and it eventually failed again, but in an unsafe state (fire or shock hazard). While I was an employee, all except one of these cases were dismissed with prejudice. There was one instance so onerously negligent and incompetent that the company’s counsel referred the court documents for the tort to the local DA.

    The mother company grew weary of customer shenanigans and shut down that part of the corporation (the division was wildly profitable but considered extremely high risk) – 250 people out of work because some people thought they knew better than the engineers that designed the stuff.

    1. Gonna need some references for your claims. You sound like an astroturfer. No company passes up “wildly profitable” unless it’s wildly illegal and easily prosecuted.

      1. Japanese corporations tend to look at risk vs profit differently than most western companies. Neither one is the company being referenced, but in the previous 10 years there have been several Asian companies that shut down their U.S.-based companies or divisions due to perceived risk levels – most were Japanese. The two examples that come to mind (these are not the company being referenced) follow.

        1. Taiyo Yuden. Shut down the San Diego power products division it bought from Xentek, then shut down its American Bluetooth component division. Per the VP of engineering, their power products’ margins were never less than 15% net.

        2. Tamura. Shut down its specialty power conversion systems division, but retained the local sales force to represent their distribution transformers and components in North America. Moved the large transformer production to India and Mexico. Per the director of engineering, typical industrial power supply margin was net 17%.

        Are you going to now admit to your ignorance and (typical) American arrogance? Otherwise please stop spreading FUD and realize that the risk levels are ignored for the greed and avarice in US-style capitalism.

    2. >The mother company grew weary of customer shenanigans

      Japanese companies are not used to the ambulance chasing culture where you always sue first, especially when at fault yourself.

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