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Biden, FTC: You have the right to repair your tech. Why that's good news for people who break their phones

The government is getting involved in the fight for your right to repair that broken tech yourself. Here's what we know.

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Right to repair just might change the way we all look at products we break. Here's what you need to know. 

Josh Miller/CNET

We've all been there: That moment where you drop your smartphone, your stomach starts turning as you watch it cartwheel towards the floor. It bounces a couple of times, and lands face down, and then there's a half-second moment full of dread as you reach down to pick it up, hoping that the screen isn't cracked. If you're lucky, that's where it ends. But it's only a matter of time before the display is ruined, and you're left wondering "How much is this going to cost me?"

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The government can't help you if you're accident-prone, but a recent executive order from President Joe Biden and a new policy statement from the Federal Trade Commission are both designed to help you save some money the next time you need to fix your phone.

Biden's executive order, issued in early July, came after years of debate by advocates calling for "right to repair," a series of rules that in theory would force phone developers, manufacturers of cars and washing machines, and even the makers of pricey farm equipment and medical devices to publicly post the diagnostic tools and documentation they use to fix products when they break. This would allow everyday people to either fix the product themselves or go to a third-party repair shop, rather than rely on "official" authorized repair centers, which are almost always the most expensive option.

The FTC quickly followed Biden's order with a 5-0 vote on a policy statement indicating the commission will begin to look at any warranty or repair restrictions that violate antitrust laws. 

The right-to-repair movement's been around for a while, and it's already won victories in states like Massachusetts, where voters in 2020 approved a bill that would allow third parties access to all sorts of data on cars that manufacturers typically didn't make public.

Below are common questions about the concept of right to repair, what it means for you and what the government is doing to make right to repair a reality.  (This story has been updated with new information.)

What is 'right to repair?'

Right to repair boils down to giving users and third-party companies the necessary tools, parts and manuals to repair a product they've purchased, like a blender or a new laptop, on their own instead of relying on the manufacturer of a product.

Another aspect of right to repair that's currently being discussed is forcing tech companies to design and build products that are easier to fix. 

For example, Apple's AirPod wireless earbuds are impressively tiny, which is part of the allure to them, but repair website iFixIt says they're almost impossible to repair. That's a problem when you consider that a couple years after getting your AirPods, the batteries will likely start to diminish. But instead of being able to take them apart and replace the batteries, you'll likely feel forced to just buy another pair. 

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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What does right to repair mean for you as a consumer?

Should the government, whether it's at the state or federal level, pass right-to-repair legislation, it would potentially give you the option to attempt the repair yourself without voiding the warranty. 

Right now, if you have a cracked iPhone display and attempt to replace it yourself or have work done by a local repair shop and that person and/or company isn't an Apple Authorized Service Provider, or the replacement screen isn't an Apple approved part, your iPhone may no longer be covered under Apple's warranty.

Right-to-repair laws would also likely encourage more competition for repair services, which could drive down prices from third-party repair shops on everything from your phone to medical devices to tractors. 

What does right to repair mean for the environment?

By allowing consumers to repair and extend the life of products they own, it will in turn reduce the amount of waste and e-waste making its way into our landfills. 

Are tech companies for or against right to repair?

Attitudes are mixed. Last year, Bloomberg published a story detailing right to repair and the effort that companies like Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have put into stopping right-to-repair bills from passing legislation and becoming a law. 

The reasoning? Intellectual property and safety. If the companies were forced to publish schematics, manuals and sell official parts to anyone, the company's argue that it would put their products at risk of being copied. 

As for safety, companies claim that an untrained individual replacing a battery, for example, could pose a risk to their personal safety through accidental damage, which in turn could cause the batteries to spontaneously combust. 

At the same time, companies like Apple have slowly opened up support for independent repair shops. Critics say Apple isn't doing enough though.

Who supports right to repair?

While companies are wary of supporting this movement, a growing group of tech and social media influencers are starting to push for it. 

Among them is Kyle Wiens, head of the online manual and parts supply site iFixit. He's also traveled to legislatures around the country to encourage them to consider right-to-repair laws. He's declined to share recent sales figures, but in 2016, he sold $21 million worth of toolkits and parts to help people swap out bad screens, cameras, buttons and batteries on their devices.

Another high-profile figure in the community is Louis Rossman, a New York-based repair shop owner who uses YouTube to teach his more than 1.5 million subscribers about fixing computers. Over the years, he's begun advocating more for right to repair, most recently through his advocacy organization, Fight to Repair and the Repair Preservation Group. 

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak also spoke out in support of right to repair in a July Cameo video to Rossman.

"We wouldn't have had an Apple had I not grown up in a very open technology world," Wozniak said in his video. "It's time to start doing the right things ... it's time to recognize the right to repair more fully."

How is the government getting involved with right to repair?

Since 2014 a total of 32 states have considered or are currently working on adopting right-to-repair legislation, according to the Repair Association

In 2021 alone, 27 states are currently considering right-to-repair legislation, according US Public Interest Research Groups. Both the Repair Association and US PIRG organizations are working with lawmakers to craft and pass right-to-repair legislation. 

The New York State Senate passed a right-to-repair bill in June, but it still needs to be passed by the Assembly before it can be signed into law. 

At the federal level, Biden just signed the executive order that, among other things, asked the FTC to consider issuing "rules against anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs of your own devices and equipment" as it relates to "cell phones." The order also directs the FTC to consider similar repair rules for farmers, making it easier to repair expensive equipment, such as tractors. 

The FTC's recent vote "to ramp up law enforcement" when it comes to repair restrictions is another positive sign that the government is taking steps to pressure and dissuade companies from preventing consumers from repairing their own devices.

What are other countries doing about right to repair?

As of July 1, some device manufacturers in the UK are required to make replacement parts available to owners of their products. 

The new law doesn't isn't broad enough to include all electronic devices, such as smartphones or computers. Instead, it's limited to appliances. 

Appliance-makers have two years to make parts available, and those parts must remain available for several years after the company stops making a particular product. But the law doesn't include every component that makes up a product. Instead, the bill is limited to repairs that are "safe" and can be done at home. The BBC reported, for example, that repairs of heating elements or a motor will need to be done by a "professional repairer." 

What's next for right to repair?

Right now, we have to wait and see exactly how the FTC begins to enforce its new policy statement. It's something we're actively monitoring. 

Along with watching the FTC, we will continue to monitor proposed right-to-repair legislation working through various stages of the process at the state level throughout the country.