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 prevented by the manufacturer or seller.

For starters, you might be led to believe that making DIY repairs or using an independent repair shop will void the warranty, which is prohibited by federal law.

Some manufacturers make it difficult to avoid using an authorized repair shop—even after the warranty has expired—by limiting spare parts, and refusing to provide instruction manuals and diagnostic software to unauthorized shops (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). Some smartphones need to be replaced when the battery dies because it’s glued in place, making it impossible to remove and replace.

Listen to audio highlights of the story below:

The Federal Trade Commission wants to fix this broken repair system that harms consumers and restricts competition. In a unanimous vote on Wednesday, the commission approved a policy statement that puts manufacturers on notice that the agency will focus its enforcement efforts on combating illegal repair restrictions.

“This is huge,” tweeted Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a company that sells open-source repair manuals, parts and tools to DIYers.

“For too long, manufacturers have been bullying consumers and driving local repair shops out of business. This landmark new policy changes that,” Wiens said in a blog post after the vote.

The FTC’s policy statement lists the many ways repair restrictions hurt consumers, the environment, and the overall economy:

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 FTC said it will devote more enforcement resources to combating unlawful repair restrictions and filing lawsuits, where warranted, against violators.

“Manufacturers be warned: It’s time to clean up your act and let people fix their stuff,” said Nathan Proctor, senior director of the U.S. PIRG Right to Repair campaign. “There’s a new sheriff in town. The FTC is ready to act to stop many of the schemes used to undermine repairs, while support is increasing for new legislation to further crack down.”

The commission’s action comes less than two weeks after President Biden signed an executive order encouraging the FTC to issue rules against “anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs on your own devices and equipment...”

But this policy change was in the works well before the president’s action. In May, the FTC submitted a report to Congress, Nixing the Fix, concluding it found “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” For some products—such as smartphones—the restrictions "may place a greater financial burden on communities of color and lower-income Americans.” The report noted that while car manufacturers have taken important steps to expanded consumer choice, “other industries that impose restrictions on repairs have not followed suit.”

How Companies Justify Limiting Repair Options

Tech companies, one of the industries most likely to be impacted by the new FTC policy, criticized the commission’s decision.

“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, senior vice president of TechNet, a trade group that represents tech giants, such as Amazon, Apple, Dell, Google, and HP, said in a statement.

In its report to Congress, the 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: The law is clear, if you or a third-party try to make a repair and damage the product, the manufacturer is not responsible.

The Legislative Route

Federal law (the 46-year-old Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act) prohibits companies from requiring the use of specific parts (“only use genuine ABC parts”) or repair companies (“must use authorized ABC dealer”) for the warranty to remain in effect, unless the part or service is provided for free.

But according to a U.S. PIRG Education Fund report released in April, all 43 major appliance manufacturers surveyed—including Bosch, Whirlpool, Samsung, Panasonic, LG, Dyson, and Krups—would consider voiding the warranty if a device had “unauthorized” repair. This is a violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, PIRG said.

Rep. Joe Morelle (D-NY) wants Congress to specifically give consumers and small businesses the right to repair broken products. His Fair Repair Act, introduced in June, would require manufacturers to make diagnostic repair information, parts, and tools readily available.

“This common-sense legislation will help make technology repairs more accessible and affordable for items from cell phones to laptops to farm equipment, finally giving individuals the autonomy they deserve,” Morelle said in a statement announcing the bill.

The bill is supported by various consumer groups, including Checkbook, Consumer Reports, U.S. PIRG, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Repair.org.

“Everywhere you go, people just want to be able to choose for themselves how to fix their stuff. You'd think manufacturers would wise up,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, Repair.org executive director.

Right-to-repair bills have also been proposed in 27 states in recent years. Some would cover all home appliances and consumer technology; others deal with medical or agricultural equipment. All the bills would require companies to provide tools, parts, and instruction manuals to enable independent repair shops and consumers to fix broken products without paying the higher prices typically charged by the manufacturer and its authorized repair shops.

One of the reasons most of these bills have failed, Bloomberg reports, is the opposition from tech companies that want to sell more new devices. Bloomberg reporter Mark Bergen writes:

Microsoft’s top lawyer advocated against a repair bill in its home state. Lobbyists for Google and Amazon.com Inc. swooped into Colorado this year to help quash a proposal. Trade groups representing Apple Inc. successfully buried a version in Nevada. Telecoms, home appliance firms and medical companies also opposed the measures, but few have the lobbying muscle and cash of these technology giants.

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 outrageous repair costs, many people replace items rather than fix them.

When consumers buy new items instead of repairing damaged ones, manufacturers make money on the backs of consumers who have to spend more. This is also bad for the planet because it takes more energy and natural resources to manufacture the additional products.

“Americans throw out 416,000 cell phones a day,” said Proctor, who’s leading the right-to-repair effort at U.S. PIRG. “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.”

The FTC Wants Complaints

The marketplace isn’t going to change overnight just because the FTC voted to focus on warranty repair issues. The commission is encouraging consumers who believe their warranty rights were violated—for example, being told warranty work must be done by specific companies or with specific parts—to file a complaint. You can do that at ReportFraud.FTC.gov

Additional Info: How to Safely Get Rid of Unwanted Electronics

 

 

Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.