President Biden is preparing to issue an executive order on the right to repair, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. This would be the first time a president has weighed in on the ability for consumers to fix their own things; it would also be the first time that a president has taken concrete steps on the issue.
At the White House press briefing today, Psaki said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission, at the direction of Biden, is working on new rules to increase competition in the farming industry, allow for greater competition between small farmers and big businesses, and “give farmers the right to repair their own equipment how they like.” Psaki said this would be part of an executive order that the Biden administration will sign that is focused more broadly on helping farmers. Bloomberg reported the news earlier Tuesday.
Broadly speaking, the right to repair is a set of policies that would make it easier for consumers, farmers, and small businesses to fix the things they own. Over the last few decades, big companies have formed repair monopolies by artificially locking “unauthorized” people out of their own machines through the use of software locks, the use of proprietary parts which are only sold to dealers or authorized repair companies, onerous end-user license agreements, and copyright law. Small businesses, consumers, and activists have been pushing for state-level legislation that would make it easier for the average person to fix their things by requiring companies to sell repair parts and tools to the general public, make internal repair guides public, and ban software locks that prevent repair. No state has passed this legislation yet, but the New York state Senate passed a bill earlier this year (the bill has not yet passed the state Assembly and thus has not become law).
Psaki did not provide many specifics, but it seems as though this specific executive order would be focused on farmers, who for years have struggled to repair their tractors and other farm equipment due to software used by companies like John Deere that lock farmers out of their own equipment. John Deere and its competitors have used agricultural trade groups to lobby against right to repair legislation and eventually agreed to offer a watered-down version of it in hopes of killing the movement altogether. Deere did not follow through with its obligations under even that watered-down agreement, which gave the movement new urgency, as Motherboard reported earlier this year.
During the last election cycle, national politicians cautiously weighed in on the right to repair debate, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren saying that they supported national right to repair legislation for farmers specifically. Biden’s executive order is the first time he has addressed the issue.
“We’re thrilled to see the Biden administration step up to protect farmers from repair monopolies," Nathan Proctor, a right to repair advocate with consumer protection group US PIRG said. "This order should be the first step in giving farmers a choice for who repairs their equipment. This is great news for farmers, and it’s great news for everyone concerned with repair monopolies. It also shows that the Right to Repair campaign is continuing to move forward, and win new support."
Federal agencies, however, have been interested in right to repair for a while. The Librarian of Congress is responsible for issuing exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a copyright law that bans certain hacking or bypasses required to fix electronics, including tractors. The Librarian of Congress has repeatedly given an exemption to this law, making this type of repair legal. The Federal Trade Commission has also studied right to repair, specifically how big tech companies are “nixing the fix” by creating repair monopolies.