Right to Repair Fight Just Got Big Boost From Biden

By: Cherise Threewitt  | 

man fixing his car
President Joe Biden's sweeping executive order requires the Federal Trade Commission to establish rules that will ban companies like John Deere from establishing repair monopolies and from preventing DIY repairs to their products. Hirurg/Getty Images

Have you ever tried to work on your own car and run into roadblocks? Maybe parts weren't available at all (or they were ridiculously expensive). Perhaps you couldn't find the information you needed to do a fairly simple repair, even with the internet at your fingertips.

Make no mistake. That was all by design.

Auto manufacturers were deliberately blocking access to information, parts and tools that give owners the ability work on their late-model cars. Why? To ensure car owners had fewer choices for taking their cars for repairs. This has real implications for do-it-yourselfers.

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Massachusetts Right to Repair

But a "Right to Repair" movement, which advocates for a consumers' right to repair and modify products they own, put an end to this practice, in the auto industry anyway. The conversation had been ongoing since 2002, when various industry organizations were demanding more access from auto manufacturers, but were getting nowhere.

But the initiative gained momentum in 2013 when Massachusetts passed the first law in the U.S. ending the practice. The law states that auto manufacturers are required to sell the same diagnostic and repair information to consumers and independent shops. That information was formerly exclusive to franchised dealerships. The information is available now for 2002 and later model year cars. Once the 2019 model years rolled out that info became available online for a fee, as well.

That was good news for do-it-yourselfers in Massachusetts, but it also got the ball rolling elsewhere. A few months later in January 2014, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers agreed that the Massachusetts law would be voluntarily upheld across the United States. As a result, everyone in the U.S. (independent garages and consumers) now has fee-based access to auto manufacturers' service websites. Supporters of the legislation said the deal fosters competition and helps lower auto repair bills for consumers.

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Why Is Right to Repair Necessary?

Bozi Tatarevic is an automotive writer, mechanic and all-around tech expert with a knack for explaining complicated concepts. Via email, Tatarevic talked about how the automotive Right to Repair laws work.

"Modern vehicles have a variety of proprietary electronic systems that require manufacturer-specific tools for certain repairs, and while most individuals won't personally work on their own vehicles, they may choose to take the vehicle to an independent shop not owned by a manufacturer-affiliated franchise," Tatarevic says. "Without Right to Repair laws, manufacturers are not required to provide a way for independent shops to be able to diagnose these systems, which forces consumers to take the vehicle back to the manufacturer-affiliated franchise, or in the case of Tesla, back to the manufacturer for repairs."

If you're wondering why automakers would go to these lengths, it all comes down to money.

"The main issue that automakers had with Right to Repair legislation is stating that it would cost too much for them to adapt their diagnostic software in order to make it accessible to third parties," Tatarevic explains. "While there is some cost in adapting this software, the likely reality is that the manufacturers are looking out for their franchised dealers and their ability to bring in customers for out-of-warranty repair work."

John Deere hay baler
Farmers who may have been repairing their equipment for generations are expressly prohibited from making repairs to any John Deere equipment, like this massive hay baler.
Pixabay

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Biden Signs Executive Order on Right to Repair

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been a well-known advocate of consumer-friendly legislation. In March 2019, Warren proposed national Right to Repair legislation, specifically for the agriculture industry. She called it "un-rigging the rules" in her March 27, 2019, Team Warren post on Medium.com:

Farmers should be able to repair their own equipment or choose between multiple repair shops. That's why I strongly support a national Right to Repair law that empowers farmers to repair their equipment without going to an authorized agent.

Corporations like John Deere prohibit farmers from repairing their own tractors, or paying anyone other than an authorized John Deere agent to repair them. That can mean economic ruin for family farmers who have small windows to harvest their products (and who have spent decades repairing their own equipment).

And it's not just big tractors that are impossible to repair. Tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and AT&T explicitly block consumers from repairing to their own products.

But those rules could be changing. On July 9, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a sweeping executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy. The order aims to lower prescription drug prices, ban or limit noncompete agreements, and create Right to Repair rules for cellphone, agriculture and other electronics companies.

The order will, in part, direct the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish rules that will ban companies like John Deere from establishing repair monopolies and from preventing DIY repairs to their products. The order "encourages the FTC to limit powerful equipment manufacturers from restricting people's ability to use independent repair shops or do DIY repairs — such as when tractor companies block farmers from repairing their own tractors."

The historic order applies not just to tractor companies like John Deere, but also to consumer electronics companies.

From the White House fact sheet:

Cellphone manufacturers and others blocking out independent repair shops: 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.

In the Order, the President:
Encourages the FTC to issue rules against anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs of your own devices and equipment.
broken cellphone repair
Tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google have spent billions lobbying to prevent laws that would require them to provide genuine repair parts and device schematics to independent repair shops.
Vlad Teodor/Shutterstock

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Opposition to Right to Repair

But not everyone sees Right to Repair as the solution. U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) an independent, citizen-funded consumer rights organization, said the five tech giants — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook — all have lobbied against Right to Repair legislation. Other major companies also have contributed to the lobbying efforts, including Tesla, Johnson & Johnson, AT&T, T-Mobile, John Deere, General Electric and more, for a total of about $10.7 trillion. In spring and fall of 2018, General Electric, spent more than $200,000 to defeat the Right to Repair bill in New York state alone, according to U.S. PIRG.

"This is great news for farmers, and it's great news for everyone concerned with repair monopolies," U.S. PIRG Right to Repair Senior Campaign Director Nathan Proctor said in a press statement. "It also shows that the Right to Repair campaign is continuing to move forward, and win new support. Already, the vast majority of the American people agree with us. Now, it appears, the president also believes that people should be able to fix their stuff. It's time for manufacturers to wise up, because we're not going to stop pushing for our Right to Repair."

The jury is still out on whether a national Right to Repair law will ever happen. Two organizations, including U.S. PIRG and The Repair Association, a trade association representing independent repair workers, are pushing hard for one. And while a national law has support from Sen. Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), several other states are still introducing local bills similar to Massachusetts.

To date, more than 25 states have considered Right to Repair legislation in 2021.

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Originally Published: Aug 13, 2019

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