being grilled by a Senate committee over the company’s foray into cryptocurrency, the Federal Trade Commission was hosting another tech-related panel a mile and a half away. This panel received much less attention and made far fewer headlines than the $5 billion fine slapped on Facebook the week before. But it raised similar questions about the influence of big corporations over the tech we use every day.
The FTC-hosted panel, called Nixing the Fix, asked whether consumers should be able to fix the gadgets they purchase or take them to an unauthorized repair shop without incurring a penalty. Today, customers who take repairs into their own hands often risk voiding their warranty.
The panel included both proponents of the right-to-repair movement—who say tech manufacturers are putting unnecessary restrictions on gadget repairs in order to perpetuate their market dominance—and those who believe thereshouldbe guardrails around personal electronics repairs, whether for safety or cybersecurity-related reasons.
As with many FTC workshops, it’s hard to say exactly what will happen in the weeks and months to come. But this event was particularly noteworthy in that it was the first of its kind held at the federal level. To date, right-to-repair legislation has largely been taken up at the state level. And proponents of right-to-repair bills say they felt bolstered by the FTC workshop, citing it as further evidence that this issue is becoming more relevant in the age of never-ending electronic updates and subsequent repairs.
“The FTC is paying active attention to the technology world, and whether we can repair our own devices is highly relevant to that,” says Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, who sits on the side of right to repair. “It’s part of the skepticism of technology companies on the Hill right now.”
Move Fast and Fix Things
At the heart of the issue lies the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, passed by Congress in 1975. The act was written in response to “widespread consumer dissatisfaction with both the content and performance of warranty obligations,” according toFordham Law Review.
In short, it’s the law that governs consumer product warranties, and it prevents manufacturers—from automakers to tablet makers—from denying warranty coverage on a conditional basis. Manufacturers can’t void the warranty on a product just because the consumer went and repaired it themself, swapped parts, or had it fixed by a third party.
But some manufacturers still use language suggesting that your warranty will be voided. Last April the FTC sent warning letters to six major companies: Asus, Hyundai, HTC, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. (Vice first obtained the list of manufacturers by filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act.) In some cases, as with Microsoft’s Xbox One warranty, the language is just iffy enough to butt up against the law. Others are more explicit, like HTC,
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