The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is taking steps to ensure consumers can repair their devices, including expensive farm equipment and hardware. The move comes as the agency's new chair, Lina Khan, takes a swing at Big Tech companies.
All five of the commissioners voted on Wednesday to issue a policy statement on repair restrictions as part of the agency's new series of open meetings. At Wednesday's meeting, the FTC's three Democrats also opened up a path to impose new disclosure and pre-approval requirements on companies that have previously pursued unlawful acquisitions.
While the development of new policy statements like the one on right-to-repair might seem like a small step, such statements tell businesses which actions the agency will allow and which it might try to stop.
"While efforts by dominant firms to restrict repair markets are not new, changes in technology and more prevalent use of software has created fresh opportunities for companies to limit independent repair," Khan said.
In May, the FTC told Congress in a report that there was "scant evidence to support manufacturers' justifications for repair restrictions" and suggested more "access to information, manuals, spare parts, and tools." A recent sweeping order from President Joe Biden also urged the FTC to issue rules boosting consumers' rights to repair devices and equipment themselves or at third-party repair shops.
In principle, manufacturers like Apple can't condition warranties on consumers' use of particular brands for repairs, but the FTC found in its report that manufacturers have used a variety of other techniques to effectively curb consumers' rights anyway. They have, for instance, imposed limits on sharing parts and information, steered consumers toward their own repair shops or partners, and enforced software rights.
Consumer groups have long argued that manufacturers' limits on users' ability to repair items drive up costs and force consumers to buy new products before their old ones break down. Manufacturers say they are trying to protect intellectual property and device integrity.
The policy statement said the FTC "will devote more enforcement resources to combat these practices" and look for violations of the laws on warranty requirements, deceptive practices and anti-competitive behavior.
Both Republican and Democratic commissioners celebrated the united vote. Following the adoption of the statement, some members of the public also applauded the decision, including the head of a group representing companies that service electronic devices.
"We've been waiting 25 years for today," said the group's president, Joe Marion.
During Wednesday's session, the FTC's three Democrats also voted to rescind a prior statement from 1995. In that statement, the FTC said it would largely stop imposing certain requirements on companies that settled with the agency after pursuing deals the FTC moved to stop.
Khan and her fellow Democratic commissioners, Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter, said that settlements that require companies to seek pre-approval for, or give notice of, certain future deals help save FTC resources and indicate which mergers it considers illegal. The Republican commissioners, Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson, objected that rescinding the statement risked creating too many costs for businesses and discouraging legal mergers.
While much of the antitrust scrutiny on Big Tech has focused on the companies' conduct, the bread-and-butter of competition law actually focuses on deals, and there's been bipartisan interest in limiting the mergers and acquisitions that have allowed giant companies like Facebook and Amazon to grow to their current sizes.
The Wednesday changes come after a series of votes earlier in July, when the FTC, which has faced a series of stinging court losses recently, opened the way to pursue a broader range of competition cases and issue rules that govern entire sectors such as food-delivery apps.