An executive order that the Biden administration is imminently issuing will direct the Federal Trade Commission to create rules banning companies from establishing repair monopolies and from having policies that prevent DIY or independent repair, the White House said Friday. Crucially, a fact sheet for the order indicates that the executive order will apply not just to tractor companies like John Deere, but also to consumer electronics companies.
The order will address "cell phone manufacturers and others blocking out independent repair shops: Tech and other companies impose restrictions on self and third-party repairs, making repairs more costly and time-consuming, such as by restricting the distribution of parts, diagnostics, and repair tools," the fact sheet says.
"In the Order, the President: Encourages the FTC to issue rules against anti-competitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs of your own devices and equipment," it adds.
Simply put, this is a historic moment in the years-long right-to-repair movement, which has been working for years to make it easier for consumers and independent businesses to fix their things. Companies like Apple, John Deere, Microsoft, Google, and medical device and appliance companies have been lobbying for years to kill right-to-repair legislation that would require them to release internal repair guides, sell repair tools and parts, and prevent them from creating arbitrary software locks designed to prevent repair.
“Corporate consolidation even affects farmers’ ability to repair their own equipment or to use independent repair shops,” the fact sheet said. “Powerful equipment manufacturers—such as tractor manufacturers—use proprietary repair tools, software, and diagnostics to prevent third-parties from performing repairs. For example, when certain tractors detect a failure, they cease to operate until a dealer unlocks them. That forces farmers to pay dealer rates for repairs that they could have made themselves, or that an independent repair shop could have done more cheaply.”
Motherboard has been writing about this issue for years; the vast majority of independent repair businesses are small, locally owned companies who care deeply about their customers but sometimes struggle to repair devices because they can't get diagnostic equipment or the proprietary parts needed to perform basic repairs. Apple, for example, uses "pentalobe" screws to keep people from opening their iPhones or MacBooks. It also ties certain parts to certain devices, meaning the average person can't use third-party parts for some repairs without breaking the device.
The executive order doesn’t just cover repair, it’s a sweeping order that directs federal agencies to create consumer- and worker-protecting rules across the broadband, agricultural, transportation, and technology industries.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced the executive order earlier this week, but only mentioned that it would apply to farming equipment. The fact sheet makes clear that the Biden administration intends for the order to apply more broadly, to consumer products as well.
We don't yet know what the FTC will be able to do with any rulemaking process, which can be a months or years-long process. But we do know that the FTC is taking the repair problem seriously. In May, it issued a report called "Nixing the Fix," which "identifies certain types of repair restrictions—for example, the use of adhesives that make parts difficult to replace, limits on the availability of spare parts, and the unavailability of diagnostic software—and examines the reasons manufacturers gave for those restrictions. Based on the record before it, the FTC concluded that many of the explanations manufacturers’ gave for repair restrictions aren’t well-founded."
Rulemaking, generally speaking, is less permanent and less strong than actual legislation because the rulemaking process can be influenced by corporate lawyers during the rulemaking process and, like legislation, can be challenged after the fact in court. Rulemaking can also be undone by future presidents and administrations. Right-to-repair advocates will likely continue to push for state and federal legislation enshrining right-to-repair policies.
Biden’s executive order is just the latest in a string of wins for the right-to-repair movement. More than half the states in the country are considering some form of right to repair legislation, a federal bill that would protect people’s ability to fix their own stuff has been filed in Congress, and a similar bill recently passed the New York state senate.