One of the weirdest and dumbest parts of modern digital life is how little control consumers have over products they “own.” Digital copies of movies can be lost forever if a subscription service ends. Books you purchased for one reader can’t be shared with someone on another platform. And when your cell phone breaks, there’s often nobody who can do anything to fix it except the manufacturer itself.
That last one in particular may change soon, thanks to a new executive order that President Joe Biden signed Friday afternoon. There’s a lot of room for debate about what regulations the government can and should issue when it comes to how businesses operate — but this seems like such a no-brainer of a policy move that it’s wild it hasn’t happened sooner.
It can be easy to forget how much of a quasi-scam it is that only Apple is able to repair Apple products. If the plumbing under your sink begins to crumble and leak, to use a hypothetical drawn from my recent experiences, you call a plumber who can just go out and buy parts to replace the failing ones. It’s not like Moen (or whatever manufacturer) made it so that only its trained technicians can open up your sink to swap out specialty pipes that only it makes that are compatible with your faucet.
Yet, for example, if your iPhone’s camera is cracked, that’s exactly what happens. The company restricts access to spare parts and diagnostics that would allow an independent repair shop to easily make that fix. Even the stores that are “authorized” to do repairs are still limited to a few basic tasks. Anything more complicated than a broken screen or dead battery still requires the store to ship that product back to Apple, Vice reported in 2017.
It’s not like Moen (or whatever manufacturer) made it so that only its trained technicians can open up your sink to swap out specialty pipes that only it makes that are compatible with your faucet.
Which brings us back to Biden’s new order, which is focused broadly on promoting competition between businesses, a much-needed initiative given how a few giant companies dominate their sectors of the economy. Among its 72 provisions is one that finds “tech and other companies impose restrictions on self and third-party repairs, making repairs more costly and time-consuming, such as by restricting the distribution of parts, diagnostics, and repair tools.”
Biden goes on to encourage the Federal Trade Commission to “issue rules against anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs of your own devices and equipment.”
As chance would have it, the FTC is already deeply invested in this issue. Earlier this year, the commission published a 54-page report to Congress that found that changes in the tech market have allowed companies to skirt a law that prohibits companies from making warranties void if repaired with “any article or service which is identified by brand name unless the article or service is provided for free.”
Instead, companies have “steered consumers into manufacturers’ repair networks or to replace products before the end of their useful lives,” the report continued. (The latter includes, for example, making the iPhone 6 unusable thanks to new software updates). In the end, the FTC found “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”
It may seem like I’m picking on Apple here, but that’s just because it’s the most easily identifiable offender. We also have the auto industry companies, the original target of laws against tying warranties to their products, using intellectual property rights claims to raise the cost of repairing newer cars by preventing competitors from making equivalent parts. And electronics companies broadly now include clauses in their end-user license agreements that mean consumers never really own their products thanks to bans on any modifications of software.
Even Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, thinks the current restrictions are bogus — and said if they’d existed in the 1970s, they probably would have smothered the company at birth.
"We wouldn't have had an Apple had I not grown up in a very open technology world," Woz said in a 9 1/2-minute Cameo video requested by a right-to-repair advocate.
"I didn't have to afford something I could never afford," he said. "I wasn't restricted from anything that kept me from building that computer and showing the world that the future of personal computers is going to be a keyboard and a TV. That all came from being able to repair things and modify them and tap into them yourself."
There’s no telling how long it will take the FTC to write its new rules — it’s not like federal bureaucracy is known for its lightning speed. But with the White House’s backing in place, there’s a better chance than ever that we might see a world where if your Macbook’s power port fries, you can just order the parts needed to do the repair yourself.