The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) failure to hold manufacturers accountable for widespread anti-competitive repair practices has caused deep frustration — even for a United States senator. During an FTC hearing on April 20, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana presented his concerns:
“I’ve been farming since I was basically 15 years old. I used to be able to take a pair of pliers and a screwdriver and work on my tractor. Now, if my tractor breaks down I have to call the dealer because I don’t have the software or the programs. They have, I guess, a patent on that stuff so that I can’t fix my tractor,” said Sen. Tester.
Sen. Tester on his farm. Photo courtesy of Sen. Tester.
The senator from Montana isn’t the only farmer who is frustrated. Even after making a promise to expand access to necessary software tools in 2021, tractor manufacturers like John Deere commonly restrict farmers’ ability to fix their equipment.
“I’m wondering what the FTC has done to protect consumers from anti-competitive policies on right to repair since we spoke last August,” Tester continued.
Even though the FTC has enforcement tools to stop it, many industries — from refrigerators to cell phones and even medical equipment — commonly restrict their customers from making repairs to their purchased products. A recent U.S. PIRG Education Fund report showed that even clear-cut warranty protections for independent repair were commonly being ignored.
FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, confirmed to the FTC in 2018, agreed that the commission needs to step up:
“I think we need to start ramping up our enforcement there because clearly there are those [companies] who are breaking the law,” said Chopra. “This is not just about tractors. It’s about our electronics, it’s even about military equipment, and even manufacturing and service equipment in medical facilities. We have to take this on and we have to do it quickly.”
Commissioner Rohit Chopra says the FTC must act quickly on Right to Repair.
Commissioner Christine Wilson mirrored Chopra’s call to action: “Too frequently we have competition issues — efforts by manufacturers to limit downstream competition for the repair of vehicles and electronics — and those are dressed up as consumer protection issues. I think we need to pierce that veil and move forward with enforcement on the antitrust side and the consumer protection side.”
As they have for years, representatives from the manufacturing industry in the FTC’s “Nixing the Fix” 2019 workshop argued their repair restrictions were simply measures to protect consumers from poor experiences .
Today, Commissioner Wilson, who oversaw that workshop, now feels these reasons are just “dressed up” anti-competitive measures, and that the FTC needs to “pierce” these arguments. This gives an indication that the FTC won’t continue buying the manufacturers’ story indefinitely.
“We just need to do something. There’s so much consolidation going on in rural America right now,” noted Sen. Tester in response. “If we want to have people live in rural America, we’ve gotta stop crap like this or it’s just gonna further evacuate rural America.”
In the next few days, the FTC is expected to release the results of an investigation into the anticompetitive practices manufacturers use to block repair. U.S. PIRG and other Right to Repair advocates hope that this report will acknowledge the need to enforce existing laws and create regulations that empower repair markets. If comments by commissioners Wilson and Chopra are any indication, we expect the FTC report to bear good news for our Right to Repair.