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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Right to repair

It’s as American as shade trees July 23, 2021 at 3:12 a.m.

An old boy we know got confused one morning and, while thinking about the farm work to come that afternoon, put water in the fuel tank of his tractor. Thankfully, he knew a shade tree mechanic down the road who was able to drain the whole mess before our friend ruined a major piece of farm equipment.

His diesel mechanic knew how to repair. And the old boy had a right to it.

That's not always the case anymore. Not when manufacturers take steps to push consumers to use their offices or licensed dealers for repair jobs. The government is taking another look at such practices.

It's unusual to find much bipartisanship in Washington these days, but the five U.S. Federal Trade Commission members--three Democrats and two Republicans--voted unanimously the other day to address the "right to repair" goods and equipment.

Says Commissioner Noah Phillips, a Republican member: "While there are repair restrictions that are legitimate, whether it's smartphones or tractors, I absolutely agree that there are many unwarranted restrictions that make [repairs] excessively difficult and expensive."

So they're looking into things. We can only hope carefully.

Federal regulators are "reviewing" changes that might could make Americans freer to repair broken things--from tractors to cell phones to video-game consoles. According to the Associated Press: "The regulators maintain that restrictions have steered consumers into manufacturers' and sellers' repair networks or led them to replace products before the end of their useful lives."

One side says guiding (or forcing) Americans to the manufacturer's plant can significantly raise costs, close off business opportunity for independent repairmen, and put more electronic gadgets in the landfill before their time.

NPR reports that Americans dispose of 416,000 cell phones each day.

From the AP story: "Unavailable parts, instruction manuals and diagnostic software and tools, product design restrictions and locks on software embedded in devices have made many consumer products harder to fix and maintain, regulators and industry critics say. Do-it-yourself repairs often require specialized tools, hard-to-obtain parts and access to diagnostic software that's guarded by manufacturers."

That's part of the story.

But manufacturers say repair restrictions are needed to keep their intellectual property secure. Besides, the shade tree mechanic might repair something wrong, in which safety becomes a concern. "Manufacturers say they could face liability or harm to their reputation if independent repair shops make faulty equipment repairs."

We're not so sure about that last part. Every instruction manual we've ever read, or skimmed, has boilerplate in it against liability if the product is tinkered with.

"Let me be clear," the president said, using a phrase he learned from his former boss, "capitalism without competition isn't capitalism, it's exploitation."

Well, maybe. If you trust Joe Biden & Co.'s idea of capitalism. We better understand the frustrations of a iPhone repair shop owner quoted by NPR the other day on the matter: "If you can't fix it, do you really own it?"

If these right-to-repair rules are going to be changed, the government should make certain that manufacturers can still protect their intellectual property. It'd be un-American to do otherwise. And there should be a blanket rule (if there isn't already) to protect manufacturers if their products are repaired improperly.

If other issues must be addressed in the matter, then let's have the debate, and maybe have it out. Political sparring is as American as shade tree mechanics.

Print Headline: Right to repair

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