By Jordan Strickler
Washington, D.C. — Just a couple of weeks after President Biden issued an executive order urging federal agencies to “promote competition in the American economy,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted in a unanimous 5-0 decision to go after companies which currently limit the rights of consumers and small businesses to repair the products they purchase. Importantly for farmers, this includes their ability to repair their own equipment.
While illegal repair restrictions have generally not been an enforcement priority for the Commission for a number of years, the FTC has now stated that it will devote more enforcement resources to combat the practices. In their statement, they stated that investigations into the unlawful repair restrictions under relevant statutes such as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act are now being moved to the front burner.
“These types of restrictions can significantly raise costs for consumers, stifle innovation, close off business opportunity for independent repair shops, create unnecessary electronic waste, delay timely repairs and undermine resiliency,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said during an open Commission meeting. “The FTC has a range of tools it can use to root out unlawful repair restrictions, and today’s policy statement would commit us to move forward on this issue with new vigor.”
In May, the FTC released a report to Congress which concluded that manufacturers have been using a variety of methods — such as using adhesives that make parts difficult to replace, limiting the availability of parts and tools or making diagnostic software unavailable — that have made consumer products harder to fix and maintain. The policy statement noted that such restrictions on repairs of devices, equipment and other products have increased the burden on consumers and businesses. In addition, manufacturers and sellers might be restricting competition for repairs in a number of ways that may violate the law.
The ability to repair one’s own farm equipment has long been a thorn in the side of farmers. Many say that they have to go so far as to hack their own tractors when repairs are necessary in order to avoid costly trips to the dealership. While the newer technologies do improve a producer’s ability to generate larger yields more efficiently, the cost associated with repairs often aren’t worth the price according to some.
“If there is an issue with the tractor … and we’re not able to use it, we may have to load it up onto a truck and drive it an hour, two hours to a qualified repair shop,” Terry Griffin, an agricultural economist with Kansas State University, told Kimberly Adams in a Marketplace podcast. “And that will take time out of the day, and we essentially may lose a half a day or a whole day. Then, agriculture is a biological process, so there is an optimal week of the year with which to plant corn, and if we have to wait till the end of the season to make up that day’s worth of planting, we’re at a relative disadvantage, such that the yields are lower.”
Unsurprisingly, large manufacturers opposed the measure, arguing that restrictions are needed for the safety purposes. Aside from safeguarding intellectual property, it is important to protect consumers from injuries which could result from fixing a product or using one that was improperly repaired, and guard against cybersecurity risks. Manufacturers also say that they could face liability or harm to their reputation if independent repair shops make faulty equipment repairs.
In a statement, the National Association of Manufacturers say that new right-to-repair laws and regulations “would create innumerable harms and unintended consequences for consumers and manufacturers alike, including by limiting consumer choice, impeding innovation, threatening consumers’ safety and wellbeing, (and) opening the door to counterfeits.”
“Equipment is a major investment on any farm, but technology restrictions can prevent farmers from being able to properly repair machinery themselves or have an independent contractor do the work,” said David Fisher, New York Farm Bureau President. “It also costs time and money to wait for an approved service provider to arrive and plug in a computer to begin a maintenance procedure in the field. Simply put, if a farmer buys equipment, they should have the right to repair it.”