The FTC Says If You Break It, You Should Be Able to Fix It

By now, even the most ecologically minded person has probably had their fill of Earth Day articles and blog posts. Bear with me, though, because this post is only tangentially related to Earth Day and eco-sensibilities. Instead, it's more about getting your hands dirty with the innards of an electronic gadget or component after you've removed or cut the "WARRANTY VOID IF SEAL BROKEN OR REMOVED" sticker on the device's outer casing. I've done it plenty of times before—sometimes just because I'm curious, but most often it's been because the device is no longer working properly—and even when the broken gadget is years out of warranty, I still feel a little guilty slicing through that bold, ominous "WARRANTY VOID" warning message. I shouldn't have felt that way, though, and neither should you if you feel adventurous enough to repair, modify, or otherwise enhance a piece of electronics you already own—because doing so is neither immoral nor illegal.

As a matter of fact, despite many manufacturers' vociferous protests to the contrary, it's never been legal for companies to void a warranty simply because the owner of a product looked inside the hood and performed repairs. Earlier this month, on April 10 to be specific, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent "letters to six major companies that market and sell automobiles, cellular devices, and video gaming systems in the United States" warning them that "it is illegal to condition warranty coverage on the use or specified parts or services." From the FTC's press release on the issue:

The letters warn that FTC staff has concerns about the companies’ statements that consumers must use specified parts or service providers to keep their warranties intact. Unless warrantors provide the parts or services for free or receive a waiver from the FTC, such statements generally are prohibited by the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a law that governs consumer product warranties. Similarly, such statements may be deceptive under the FTC Act…

“Provisions that tie warranty coverage to the use of particular products or services harm both consumers who pay more for them as well as the small businesses who offer competing products and services,” said Thomas B. Pahl, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC didn't identify which six companies it sent warning letters to, but the ruling isn't limited to those anonymous half-dozen corporate ne'er-do-wells. Based on the current administration's outlook on business regulation, it's not difficult to predict the FTC's actions in this matter aren't likely to extend beyond licking the stamp and sealing the envelope containing the consumer-friendly warning letter. Fortunately, as of January of this year, 17 states have introduced "Right to Repair" or "Fair Repair" bills in their individual legislatures to enshrine this particular consumer right in their states' legal frameworks.

The Repair Association (previously the Digital Right to Repair Coalition) "represents everyone involved in repair of technology—from DIY hobbyists and independent repair technicians, to environmental organizations and the aftermarket." The Association describes "Right to Repair" and "Fair Repair" legislation thusly:

Right to Repair is simple. It requires manufacturers to provide owners and independent repair businesses with fair access to service information and affordable replacement parts. So, you can fix the stuff you own quickly—and get back on with your life.

You can find out more about the Repair Association's legislative work here. You can find out more about your particular state's proposed legislation—and how to help support it—here.

The Earth Day connection is probably obvious to most of you, but I'll point it out anyway. If you can fix the electronic devices you already own, you can greatly expand their usefulness—and make it more likely you won't need to buy a new device to replace the old one. Of course, recycling the old, broken-down gadget helps reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing and disposal of electronics; but it looks like recycling is going to be more difficult in the future. Last year, China, for example, announced a ban on "imports of mixed paper, post-consumer plastics (including difficult-to-recycle types #3 to #7) and vanadium slag." Last month (March 2018) they set "a prohibitive contamination limit of 0.5 percent on all other waste imports." Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are some of the smaller countries that are stepping in and accepting the unwanted waste, but that's not going to help in the long run. Fixing and re-using/repurposing older, broken devices is an important part of a more permanent solution to the e-waste problem.

It's easy to sit back and rely on others to get the job done, but those of us who are interested in electronic devices on more than just a superficial level are the ones who need to step up and work on fixing the problem we're very responsible for helping to create. We all need to do more than just drop our old cellphones in the nearest recycle bin. Click on the links above and take some action. If not for yourself, at least do it for the generations yet to come.