When you buy a product and it breaks, your ability to fix it yourself—or send it to an independent repair shop—is often limited or thwarted by the manufacturer.

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Although the practice is prohibited by federal law, some companies still try to warn their customers that making DIY repairs or using independent repair shops will void warranties.

Some manufacturers make it difficult to avoid using an authorized repair shop—even after the warranty has expired—by limiting the availability of spare parts, refusing to provide instruction manuals and diagnostic software to unauthorized shops, or designing products that are difficult or impossible to repair.

“It’s a widespread problem,” said Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of sustainability for iFixit, a company that sells open-source repair manuals, parts, and tools to DIYers.

Many technology companies insist their devices are too complicated for others to fix, but iFixit helps thousands of people repair their gadgets every day.

“It really isn’t that hard to do the vast majority of repairs on consumer electronics,” Chamberlain said on Checkbook’s Consumerpedia podcast. “Manufacturers are trying to make it more difficult, absolutely, by using proprietary screws and gluing things in.”

(Worth noting: Checkbook’s ratings of computer repair shops and appliance repair services indicate independent repair services, on average, rate far higher than manufacturers’ facilities and “factory-authorized” companies).

There Ought to Be a Rule

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to fix this broken repair system. In 2021, the commission unanimously approved a policy statement that put manufacturers on notice that it would focus enforcement efforts on combating illegal repair restrictions.

In its policy statement, the FTC said:

“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.”

Consumer advocates at U.S. PIRG have teamed with iFixit to petition the FTC to do more. The deadline for signing their petition is February 2, 2024.

The petition asks the FTC to create a rule that would require manufacturers to build products that are easy to repair, provide reasonably priced parts and service manuals, and make right-to-repair restrictions an unfair business practice.

“If you sell a product, the person who buys it owns it, and they should be able to do what they want with it. It’s not yours anymore,” said Nathan Proctor, senior director of U.S. PIRG’s Campaign for the Right to Repair.

Some consumer technology companies have decided to make some repair information and parts available, but they’re still finding ways to “frustrate people’s ability to fix their own stuff…what we call malicious compliance,” Proctor told Checkbook. “And that’s why I think the FTC needs to come in with its broad rulemaking power.”

The petition also recommends requiring “repairability scoring labels” at the point of sale, so consumers can tell how easy it is to fix that product. This score, it suggests, could be part of the Energy Guide labels required on many appliances.

Consumers Want the Right to Repair

American consumers are dissatisfied with their inability to fix products that break themselves or have them repaired at a reasonable price, according to PIRG’s polling.

“Everything is disposable, and people don’t like it,” Proctor said. “But manufacturers are going to keep doing it because the money is too good. We have to find a way to create new incentives.”

Public comments filed with the FTC as part of the petition drive show that dissatisfaction:

“I support Right to Repair because it gives me, as a consumer, more control over my devices and is better for the planet. Recently I broke my iPad screen. The only solution was to go to Apple or an authorized repair site, Best Buy, to have it replaced at a cost higher than purchasing a new device. I’m an electrical engineer and quite handy, but I have no access to buy the parts and make the fix myself.” – Alex Roschli, Tennessee

“Companies got us into this problem by making things unfixable on purpose so they could sell us $900 appliances instead of $9 parts, they can damn well get us out of it. Please, protect us from predatory companies who are fleecing Americans & filling landfills with their unfixable crap.” – Maryann Rogers, Washington

“It is vital for US citizens to have the right to maintain, repair, modify, and resell items they purchase. If I can’t rescue a $1,000 device that’s turned into e-waste because of a 50-cent part, that’s a loss for me, for the environment, and for the country.” – Miguel B., New Mexico

Legislative Action at the State Level

In recent years, right-to-repair bills have been proposed in more than two dozen states. Some would cover all home appliances and consumer technology; others deal with medical or agricultural equipment. Most of the bills failed or were watered down after industry opposition.

Minnesota, New York, and California have digital right-to-repair laws. California’s new law, which takes effect in July, is considered the strongest so far. It requires manufacturers of electronics and appliances to provide parts, tools, and documentation to product owners and independent repair shops.

While these state laws are an important first step, PIRG wants the FTC to create a federal rule to protect all consumers. According to the petition: “A federal rule would complement state action, address gaps, and provide consistency across the country—benefiting both consumers and manufacturers.”

Tech Companies Oppose More Regulation

Tech companies are opposed to a federal right-to-repair rule. The industry criticized the FTC’s 2021 decision to focus on the issue.

“By upending an effective and secure system for consumers to repair products that they rely on for their health, safety, and well-being, including phones, computers, fire alarms, medical devices, and home security systems, the FTC will instigate far-reaching, permanent impacts on technology and cybersecurity,” Carl Holshouser, executive vice president of TechNet, a trade group that represents tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, Dell, Google, and HP said in a statement at that time.

In its report to Congress, FTC staff examined the reasons manufacturers say they want to control who fixes their products:

  • Providing parts, tools, and repair manuals would disclose trade secrets and undermine intellectual property rights.
  • Only they or their authorized service centers can safely make repairs.
  • Independent repair shops are more likely to compromise or misuse consumer data.
  • Faulty repair work by third-party companies could harm a manufacturer’s reputation and result in added liability.

The report concluded that there was “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”

Note: If you or a third party try to make a repair and damage the product, the manufacturer is not legally responsible.

Why This Is a Big Deal

Tech products, such as laptops and smartphones, are expensive. Repairing them is also costly—higher than it should be in a competitive marketplace, consumer advocates argue. Faced with exorbitant repair costs, many people replace items rather than fix them.

Even worse, some new products are being designed so they cannot be repaired. Most of the earbuds being unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month were made so that batteries could not be replaced when they died, iFixit’s Chamberlain told Checkbook. The customer would have to throw them out and buy new ones.

“That’s terrible,” Chamberlain said.

It’s not only costly to consumers, but contributes to the growing global problem of e-waste.

“Americans throw out 416,000 cell phones a day,” PIRG’s Proctor said. “We buy these $1,000 computers, and then we treat them as if they’re disposable. It’s patently absurd. We need to start using things for longer and we need manufacturers to get out of our way so that we can do that.”

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Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.