Manufacturers Are Making Repairs Too Hard for Consumers, FTC Says

Hard-to-fix devices drive up costs, according to a new report. But new "right to repair" laws could help.

The Federal Trade Commission seal next to the right-to- repair symbol Image: FTC, iStock

Manufacturers of everything from smartphones to cars are making it more difficult and expensive than necessary to repair their products, the Federal Trade Commission says in a new report.

The agency’s criticism comes as consumer advocates push "right to repair" legislation in a number of states that would give consumers more freedom to decide where to get their devices fixed.  

The FTC’s 54-page report, "Nixing the Fix," (PDF) says that repairs that require specialized tools, hard-to-obtain parts, and proprietary diagnostic software can hurt consumers and independent repair businesses. "Consumers whose products break have limited choices," for where to get them fixed, it says. 

More on Repairs

Reduced access to third-party repairs hurts low-income consumers and communities of color the hardest, according to the report.

 "The burden of repair restrictions may fall more heavily on communities of color and lower-income communities," the report reads. "Many Black-owned small businesses are in the repair and maintenance industries, and difficulties facing small businesses can disproportionally affect small businesses owned by people of color." 

A number of advocacy groups, including Consumer Reports, say that such practices should be curtailed. "It makes repairs more difficult and expensive, and can even lead consumers to throw out their old devices and buy new ones," says Maureen Mahoney, a CR policy analyst.

Among the problems cited in the report were products whose design seems to thwart easy repair. Many electronics makers use specialized screws and other fasteners that require dedicated tools to open up the devices. Manufacturers now often solder or glue components in place, making them difficult or impossible to replace.

In addition to design issues, the report cites business practices such as restricting the availability of parts as well as access to service manuals. In some cases, it says, companies program their devices in ways that unnecessarily prevent third parties from developing their own diagnostic software.

In the auto industry, where consumers are especially concerned about their personal safety and the validity of their warranties, manufacturers have actively tried to steer them away from third-party parts and repair shops, with a number of companies unfairly disparaging non-original parts ranging from oil filters to auto glass, according to the report.

Manufacturers, for their part, have long maintained that these design and policy decisions are meant to protect their intellectual property and keep consumers safe.

But the report questions that rationale. "Although manufacturers have offered numerous explanations for their repair restrictions, the majority are not supported by the record," it says.

Right-to-Repair Bills Are Pending

Since January, right-to-repair bills have been introduced in 27 states. While the individual bills vary, Mahoney says many of them take their cue from model legislation crafted by a collection of advocacy groups including Consumer Reports.

"The model legislation, it’s pretty simple," she says. "Manufacturers should give consumers and third-party repairers equal access to the information, parts, and tools needed to fix devices that they now give to authorized repairers."

State laws could spur a national right-to-repair law, Mahoney says. In addition, they could help encourage industries to change their practices. For example, a 2012 right-to-repair bill in Massachusetts prompted a group of car makers to get together and improve their consumer protections across the country. 

The FTC report says that the right to repair is especially important now because the pandemic has forced many workers and students to rely on their personal devices while working from home. That, coupled with recent disruptions in the supply chain for computer chips, which has made some replacement products scarce, has heightened the demand for access to inexpensive, easily accessible repair facilities. 

The report also suggests that consumers could be given more information on how easy it is to get devices fixed when they’re shopping, perhaps with a repairability score such as the ones recently mandated in France.  

Allen St. John

I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.