US may revise Right to Repair laws for phones and consoles – but by how much?

iPhone 11 Pro
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In the coming days, US President Joe Biden may take action on a topic near and dear to gadget fans’ hearts: the freedom to fix their own devices. He’s expected to ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to revise the country’s Right to Repair rules, according to a Bloomberg report.

The presidential directive will instruct the FTC to draft new rules that will stop manufacturers from restricting consumers from fixing their own devices, and will specifically mention mobile phone manufacturers and Department of Defense contractors as “possible areas for regulation,” a source familiar with the plan told Bloomberg. Farmers, who buy tractors and other equipment that need proprietary repair tools and software can also expect to see some relief. 

To be clear, this is a directive, and doesn’t guarantee any certain action from the FTC. But it does show regulatory attention on an issue that’s forced consumers into following manufacturer protocols to repair their gadgets instead of fixing them on their own. This affects many kinds of devices, but especially those from big tech companies like Apple and Microsoft that have made it tough for consumers to repair devices themselves through software and hardware restrictions.

In Apple’s case, this has meant taking devices in (or shipping them to) the company’s retail and repair locations, or to authorized third-party shops. The FTC went so far as to blast Apple with a report published in May that condemned its repair restrictions as anti-competitive, like limiting access to service manuals and requiring unannounced inspections of those third-party shops, explained 9to5Mac. Even hardware design was criticized, like tying components to logic boards and making battery replacement so tough and cost-inefficient to encourage going through Apple’s channels, if not simply buying a new device.

Anyone who’s cracked their screen has faced the dilemma of either paying Apple’s high repair fees or going with a cheaper independent shop and running the risk that the phone will reject the display. This is reportedly more serious with the iPhone 12 series, which requires proprietary tools to reset serial numbers of replaced parts or the repaired phone won’t turn on, per a leaked Apple repair manual. 

The case for Right to Repair, and why big tech resists

US President Joe Biden’s executive order to the FTC is designed to drive “greater competition in the economy, in service of lower prices for American families and higher wages for American workers,” White House economic adviser Brian Deese said, per Bloomberg.

It’s easy to see that logic follow out, as it could enable third-party repair shops to more easily and affordably fix gadgets, while the increased competition would drive down the cost of fixing devices for consumers. It would also make life a lot easier for owners of devices and gadgets who can’t easily access first-party repair networks or don’t want to go through the rigmarole for smaller breakdowns, like farmers who can’t fix their tractors in the field or phone owners in rural areas.

Gadget manufacturers have maintained that their rigid control on repair networks and protocols is a form of quality control that protects consumers from faulty fixes and abuse. And there is some protective sense in design choices like attaching Touch ID-specific components to the logic board to protect sensitive authentication data.

In any case, the atmosphere around Right to Repair has pushed back against corporate tech’s paternalistic attitude, with the EU announcing its own plans to overhaul its rules for device fixing. And Apple has slowly loosened its hold on its repair network, expanding the number of independent businesses in its repair program in Europe and Canada. But that’s still a far cry from enabling consumers and shops to fix devices by making service manuals and parts widely available – something that could be on the table depending on how the FTC chooses to carry out Biden’s directive.

David Lumb

David is now a mobile reporter at Cnet. Formerly Mobile Editor, US for TechRadar, he covered phones, tablets, and wearables. He still thinks the iPhone 4 is the best-looking smartphone ever made. He's most interested in technology, gaming and culture – and where they overlap and change our lives. His current beat explores how our on-the-go existence is affected by new gadgets, carrier coverage expansions, and corporate strategy shifts.