What Biden’s ‘right to repair’ order could mean for Apple and Tesla

President Joe Biden signed an executive order today, asking the Federal Trade Commission to force tech companies to let consumers repair their own devices—or use the technician of their choice—instead of having to use authorized repair technicians.

The President wants to require large manufacturers—including Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, John Deere, General Electric, and Tesla—to make available to everyone their repair manuals, tools, and components and parts, as well as proprietary software code that allows components to function. (Biden specifically called out cell phone makers and tractor manufacturers in the White House’s fact-sheet.) This may even force manufacturers to rethink how products are made to ensure they’re more durable and more easily repairable.  

Biden’s executive order is part of growing recent movement to let consumers repair their own devices. Since 2019, Arkansas and Tennessee have passed such laws for farm equipment; Massachusetts passed a right to repair law for cars; and more than a dozen states have introduced new legislation this year that would force companies to provide necessary materials for repair. The FTC launched an investigation into the issue, and last month U.S. Rep. Joe Morelle of New York introduced a national right to repair bill in Congress.   

For proponents, the issue is largely an environmental one. Americans spend $1,480 per household on new electronics and discard 6.9 million tons of electronic waste, which can leak toxic elements like lead, mercury, and cadmium into landfills, according to a report by the Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group campaigning for the right to repair. 

Today’s products are made to be manufactured easily but not made to be pulled apart, relying on glue or tiny screws, said Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, a trade group that has pushed for right to repair laws since 2013. “We need products that are more durable and repairable,” she said, “as opposed to just shinier and prettier.” 

Tech companies counter that such mandates could ultimately pose a security risk for Internet-connected consumer devices. Forcing manufacturers to provide unrestricted access to digital keys and proprietary information would jeopardize the safety of thousands of Internet-connected products, said Carl Holshouser, senior vice president at TechNet, a national association that represents tech CEOs and senior executives. He said that allowing unvetted third parties to access sensitive diagnostic information, software, tools, and parts, also creates more risk for fraud. Authorized repair specialists, he said, help ensure appropriate manufacturer training, qualification, and vetting for dealing with sensitive software, parts, and diagnostic information.

Tesla has fought back against previous right to repair initiatives, arguing they threaten data security and cybersecurity. The carmaker also avoided inclusion in Massachusetts’s 2012 right to repair legislation covering vehicles, because it didn’t have franchised dealerships. Last year, however, Massachusetts citizens approved a measure to expand the scope of that law, which could force Tesla to comply with provisions to give consumers access to and control of their vehicle mechanical data, including the ability to direct that data to independent repair shops where they have their cars repaired. 

Already this year, Apple, which has been criticized for its lack of repairability, has taken some steps on its own to reduce its contribution to e-waste and to extend consumer access to repairs. In March, it expanded its free, independent repair provider program to more than 200 countries and opened access to genuine parts, tools, repair manuals, and diagnostics for out-of-warranty repairs.

Apple and Microsoft also point to their respective annual sustainability report to demonstrate their efforts to make more durable, reusable, and repairable products. Microsoft, for instance, improved the battery and hard drive of its third-generation Surface Laptop after repair tool company iFixit complained that replacing batteries for previous versions was impossible, calling it “a glue-filled monstrosity.”

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