What has the U.S. Federal Trade Commission ruled? Are tech giants violating antitrust laws?
The story so far: On July 21, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted unanimously to make a push for the right of consumers to repair their electronic devices. All five FTC Commissioners voted in favour of a policy that seeks to know whether companies that are making it tougher for people to repair are violating antitrust laws. FTC Chairperson Lina Khan said its decision would help “root out unlawful repair restrictions” and move forward with “new vigour” against violators. The vote was seen as a big win for the ‘Right to Repair’ movement, which has been making the case for allowing people to fix the products they buy.
What happens in the era of mobile computing?
A new era of mobile computing and consumer culture was born after Apple co-founder Steve Jobs unveiled a phone with a touchscreen, 4GB storage, camera and web-browsing capability. Millions of consumers bought the device, and used it for gaming, social networking and browsing the web. In just five years after its debut, over 200 million iPhones had been sold globally. Its success spawned the mobile computing industry and nudged users into upgrading their devices instead of fixing them when something went wrong.
In the pre-iPhone era, certain issues in a mobile device could be repaired by the user themselves. It wasn’t the case any more. To get an Apple product fixed, a buyer has to take it to an authorised dealer as any warranty on the product would become null and void if they opened the back of the smartphone. Even after taking the device to an authorised store, the cost of repair could be high.
A New York Times columnist noted that to fix an iPhone X’s screen, Apple charges $279, while a repair shop in Washington D.C. quotes $219. Lack of Apple support makes such external repairs risky, the columnist writes.
What are the other issues?
Hardware is only one part of the problem. In 2018, an Australian court ordered Apple to pay a penalty of Australian $9 million ($6.6 million) after it told its customers it wouldn’t do free repairs for devices that stopped working due to a software glitch. “Error 53” occurred after some iPhone users downloaded the company’s updated operating system. Apple had turned down over 200 customer requests for repairs, citing devices were serviced at a non-Apple store, effectively voiding warranty.
Apple is a microcosm of the consumer tech industry itself. From home appliances to tractors, an increasing number of consumer products are run on software, and a technical glitch can only be fixed by an authorised technician. Tinkerers and large corporations are fighting to solve the issue of who owns the information needed to fix a device. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the U.S. are taking refuge in a two-decade old law framed to protect the movie industry from people breaking digital locks on DVDs. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), 1998, it is illegal to break a digital lock embedded in a product.
Why is the movement important?
A consortium of advocacy groups is trying to push repair-friendly laws in the U.S. and break the DMCA stronghold. The Repair Association’s premise is that consumers can maintain their products, provided tools and information on fixing is available to them. Since its founding in 2013, the group has put several ‘Right to Repair’ proposals in state legislatures. The FTC vote is a major win for the group.
The proposed legislation requires consumer electronics-makers to provide tools and information necessary to repair electronic products. This could change how companies operate by making them provide information and parts to unofficial repair centres, and, in the process, reduce costs for the consumer.
What is the stand of the tech giants?
Tech giants have been lobbying against the legislation, citing security concerns. TechNet, a trade group representing large tech firms, said allowing unvetted parties to access sensitive information, tools and components would “jeopardise safety of consumers’ device and put consumers at risk of fraud”. But the FTC had earlier concluded that there was scant evidence to support the companies’ claim for restricting repair.