By Nathan Proctor, U.S. PIRG
Tired of getting ripped off by companies overcharging you for repairs and pushing you to upgrade to a new item instead?
You’re not alone. Frustration over repair restrictions has helped create a burgeoning Right to Repair campaign. Our campaign had bills in 20 states this year, and now federal regulators are taking a hard look.
Last April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent letters to six companies, warning them that the “void warranty if removed” stickers were prohibited by federal law. Our own research followed up on that, and in October found that 45 of 50 appliance manufacturers had similar policies — automatically voiding warranties in the case of independent access or repair. Our survey looked specifically at members of the trade association, AHAM (Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers), which is noted for their opposition to Right to Repair.
In March, the FTC followed up on their earlier action and announced a new workshop called “Nixing the Fix,” which will investigate how companies “limit repairs by consumers and repair shops and whether those limitations affect consumer protection, including consumers’ rights.”
If I were a manufacturer, at this point I’d probably start to clean up my act, and get ahead of any coming regulations or possible federal enforcement. At the least, I’d stop violating the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act as brazenly as was documented in our report “Warranties in the Void.”
Last week, the FTC posted submitted comments for it’s Nixing the Fix workshop, and by reviewing those comments, it’s clear that manufacturers and their lobbying associations are doubling down on their arguments.
So what are the reasons that industry lobby groups give to federal officials as to why you shouldn’t be allowed to fix products outside of their control?
1. They think of the product as “theirs,” even after you buy it.
Reading the letter that AHAM sent to FTC regulators was revealing. AHAM notes in their letter that 100 percent of their surveyed “member companies indicated they require specific company certification for independent affiliated service providers (repairers) before handling their products.”
Well, I have no objection to a company requiring a process before allowing folks to handle their products, the problem is when I buy that product, I tend to think of it as mine. If I want to fix it myself or hire a repair technician of my choice, that’s my choice to make.
Manufacturers often argue that restrictions on repair information and parts are meant to limit who can repair things to those the manufacturer decides are qualified, which they justify as improving quality and safety. From the AHAM letter: “Home appliance manufacturers take monumental strides to ensure their customers are satisfied not only at the time of purchase, but throughout the life [of] the product.”
This is the “benevolent monopoly” argument. Yes, they maintain monopoly control of the repair market, but they do it to prevent bad consumer experiences and protect their brand.
But if consumers weren’t having a bad experience right now, they wouldn’t be demanding reform, and Right to Repair wouldn’t be incredibly popular (regardless of political leanings).
2) They claim new devices are better.
An Apple executive recently commented that people using 5-year-old computers was “sad,” as he debuted new Apple iPad Pro. AHAM also tries to make the case that new is better: “Home appliances also are a success story in terms of energy efficiency and environmental protection. New appliances often represent the most effective choice a consumer can make to reduce home energy use and costs.”
Of course it’s terrific that new appliances are being made to run more efficiently, but any such gains in efficiency are undercut if the devices break down quickly. Building a new device — mining the raw materials and manufacturing it — often takes more energy than operating that device (for example mining and manufacturing materials for a washing machine represent 57.1 percent of its lifecycle carbon footprint, for a cell phone it’s more like 85-90 percent). The problem is not that we are replacing devices at the end-of-life, it’s that appliances are breaking faster and sooner than ever before.
Also, it’s not the older devices we aren’t fixing — those tend to be easy to service. It’s the new ones we are throwing away, fueling the growing global electronic waste crisis.
3) They assert that modern things are complicated, fundamentally different than older devices.
From the AHAM letter: “The home appliances of today are so innovative, they provide so much more than their primary function. For example, refrigerators / freezers do more than simply store food to last longer. Product features now include, temperature control compartments within the unit, customized lighting, electronic displays, as well as connected features.”
Similar arguments are made by many device makers (though it’s a harder point to make when it comes to refrigerators). The argument goes “Our modern devices are so complex, that fixing them isn’t like it used to be!”
Our argument is not to force people to fix things themselves, it’s to prevent repair monopolies from denying consumers a real choice about the matter. If the manufacturer can train a technician to fix the device, than another qualified person with the requisite service information, software and spare parts could do it as well. It’s not like different compartments in a fridge is an insurmountable level of complexity.
A consumer might still opt for a manufacturer authorized technician, and in many cases likely will. But the suggestion that the complexity means there should be no choices for consumers is not credible.
4) They claim if anyone else fixes it, it will become dangerous.
AHAM: “Both product safety and consumer safety are always top of mind for manufacturers. The fact that service technicians may have to enter consumers’ homes to conduct repairs presents a different set of circumstances regarding the repairing of electronic equipment.”
Their argument is that you, as the consumer, cannot decide for yourself who to hire as a technician because you might hire someone unsafe. But again, isn’t that my choice to make?
Other times, manufacturers raise safety concerns about new technology, for example The Rechargeable Battery Association, which also submitted a comment. “A lack of understanding of these critical safety components that can be damaged during repairs by consumers or poorly trained service centers could ultimately jeopardize the safety of consumers and the public in general.”
Apple reportedly demonstrated ways in which batteries could hurt consumers during legislative debate in California to scare legislators away from Right to Repair reforms in that state. Other companies argue that repair undercuts cybersecurity, but our allies at Securepairs.org did a terrific job at debunking Microsoft’s comments to the FTC along those lines.
Safety and cybersecurity are things to be concerned about, but completely irrelevant to whether or not repair operates in an effective monopoly. Just as you should take your car to a quality mechanic, you should likewise go to a quality repair technician to repair a washing machine or cell phone. For some repairs, you might be totally comfortable doing the repair yourself. For others, you want a professional. You might choose to take your car to the dealership, but if you want to hire another mechanic, you should be allowed to do so.
When companies can decide what gets fixed and what doesn’t, and how much to charge, it’s very bad for consumers. A Chicago business magazine found that John Deere dealerships have a five times larger profit margin on repair than the sale of new equipment — repair that many times only the dealer can provide due to the software locks on the equipment.
It’s no wonder AHAM writes: “An FTC workshop intentioned to expose repair restrictions is a major concern for home appliance manufacturers…”