“We’re really excited to hear this news,” says Kerry Maeve Sheehan, iFixit’s lead on US policy, in response to Biden’s executive order. “And we’re grateful that the Biden administration is stepping in with a strong endorsement for right to repair and really pushing the FTC to take action.” Both Sheehan and Nathan Proctor, who leads the US PIRG’s right-to-repair campaign, say this is the first time in the history of the grassroots repair movement in the US that a sitting president has weighed in on the topic.
Lobbyists and trade groups for big tech companies and equipment manufacturers have long argued that giving consumers more access to the tools required to fix products, whether a smartphone or a car, poses safety and security risks. The debate has gotten especially heated as more products become internet-connected, adding a software element to repairs that in the past might have just required swapping parts.
The links to news reports in the White House’s fact sheet that back up its claims of stymied competition specifically point to the issues around cell phone repair, but the language of the order itself urges the FTC to broaden the right to repair by restricting “tech and other” companies from discouraging DIY tinkering. Such language indicates that the FTC’s regulatory target will be much bigger than the device in your pocket.
In an emailed response to the executive order, a spokesperson from John Deere says the company “leads our industry in providing repair tools, spare parts, information guides, training videos, and manuals needed to work on our machines.” But the spokesperson also says that while less than 2 percent of tractor repairs require a software update, the company still does not support the right to modify embedded software “due to risks associated with the safe operation of the equipment.”
Turn of the Screw
Proctor, of US PIRG, notes that it could still be awhile before the FTC starts enforcing new repair laws, saying that the rulemaking process is “not always an expeditious one.” He cites as an example the FTC’s finalization of a rule around “made in the USA” labels that are falsely applied to products not manufactured in the US. (Congress first enacted legislation around “made in the USA” claims in 1994, but for years there was bipartisan consensus that this kind of fraud shouldn’t be subject to tough penalties. Just last week, the FTC codified the rules in such a way that violators would be penalized.)
“Right to repair is even more complex than that case, and if this is just a directive toward rulemaking, it might kick off another long process,” Proctor says. “Still, I’m hopeful that this is a mechanism that gets us to where we need to go a little faster.”
Sheehan from iFixit is more optimistic that the FTC might act quickly around the right to repair, partly because the agency recently introduced a series of changes designed to streamline rulemaking procedures—and partly because the order is coming directly from the White House. “Obviously we want the agency to move quickly on this, and pressure from the Biden administration does make that more possible,” Sheehan says.