It’s Antitrust Summer! Repair Roundup Week of June 13

It’s Antitrust Summer! Repair Roundup Week of June 13

The anti-monopoly movement is having a moment, with Congress drafting legislation and the FTC ramping up for action to reel in abusive tech monopolies. What does all this mean for repair advocates? Buckle your seatbelt!

Each week, we will bring you the top repair news from around the world, curated for iFixit by the folks over at the Fight to Repair blog.

The Big News: 

Antitrust Summer is Here

Monopoly power is a massive (and growing) force that is simultaneously restricting your rights and draining your wallet. Take repair. Given few to no alternatives, most consumers are forced to play by the rules laid out by large corporations. In farm country, that has farmers over a barrel to John Deere and its authorized service network. In healthcare, it results in power wheelchair users being stranded for weeks or months while they wait for “authorized” technicians to arrive and perform ordinary service. In the consumer space, a lack of choice gives us the “Internet of bricks,” in which formerly “smart” home appliances suddenly go dark (and useless) when the companies behind them fold up shop or simply walk away from their commitments.

Insteon demonstrates the volatility of the Internet of Things: The smart home hub company shut down its servers in April, then resurrected them last week. Image CC via Scott Lewis on Flickr.

Something needs to change, which is why consumer advocates are pushing for major antitrust policy shifts to curtail this rising tide of corporate power. To get a better picture of how these companies use their influence in perverse ways, let’s run through some highlights:

Power Wheelchair Repair: In Colorado, the market for power wheelchairs is dominated by two giants—and the consolidation of service in the state has left few independent service shops behind. This makes accessing repair services for these machines increasingly difficult, which causes extreme problems for wheelchair users who are unable to repair their machines. These companies are not prioritizing the ability of wheelchair users to fix their machines for the sake of profits. It’s taken legislation to take a bite out of the problem—with the governor recently signing legislation to bolster power wheelchair repair for Colorado.

John Deere Tractors: There are 13 cases currently filed against the tractor giant for anti-consumer practices. In the age of software-embedded devices, Deere tractors can be bricked remotely, and some parts need to be installed using proprietary software that only authorized repair services can perform. Without the ability to quickly repair their tools, farmers’ crops can literally be left to rot. This doesn’t even mention that Deere has been squeezing the market on tractor service and repair through forced dealer consolidation—frequently leaving Deere repair services as the only option for farmers due to a lack of alternative options which makes wait times longer and longer. Nor does it address Deere’s apparent monopoly on the data generated by its customers—behavior that has also attracted the attention of the FTC.

Apple’s App Store: The App Store makes money by having a commission associated with app purchases. Before the App Store, there were many different platforms for distributing applications. The creator of one of these apps, Cydia (which you will know if you’ve ever jailbroken an iPhone), has sued Apple for purposely working to exclude alternative app marketplaces, alleging that Apple used a variety of different tactics to keep other app marketplaces from being able to compete. This lets Apple rake in the money while not needing to worry about anyone competing with them. The case comes after a similar antitrust suit against Apple, filed by game-maker Epic, resulted in a judge ruling that Apple’s App Store was not a monopoly, but that some of its policies forbidding links directing users to external services were anti-competitive.

Corporate Kryptonite: Khan & the Congress

None of these practices are new, and lawmakers and regulators in Washington D.C. have long turned a blind eye to antitrust and market consolidation, in the belief that these were problems of a bygone era. But things are changing. In particular, increased oversight by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and federal legislation passed by Congress promise to tip the competitive scales back away from large corporations.  

The FTC’s Agenda is Heating up: The FTC recently saw another Democratic commissioner appointed, a move that frees up Chair Lina Khan to move her agenda forward which has included bi-partisan Commission support for the right to repair. As this article noted, Silicon Valley firms are gearing up for a fight.

Breaking Digital Monopolies: There are two bills making their way through Congress, and both have the potential to pick up bipartisan support. They focus specifically on digital markets.

TL;DR: Buckle your seatbelt. Both the FTC and Congress are making moves to weaken the power of large technology firms and other corporate giants on behalf of small businesses and consumers. But any changes are likely to see strong pushback—including lawsuits—from corporations and their allies in groups like the US Chamber of Commerce.

Other News:

Troubleshooting a toaster at an iFixit repair cafe.

Tracking Devices Show Returned Appliances go to Landfill (Consumer NZ)

Many appliances such as mixers, blenders, and toasters are sold with no repair advice and no spare parts available, making a longer lifespan challenging. The situation led journalists to investigate what happens to nearly new, but faulty appliances. Planting GPS trackers in these household appliances reveal where they go after they are returned to stores. While many of us assume stores will recycle or even refurbish these appliances, that’s not always the case.  

If you’re a podcast fan, there’s an episode following the story!

More Mobile Recycling Urged to Halt Growing E-waste Mountain (Mobile News)

Technology has become a vital part of life over the past couple of decades, with new smartphones, laptops, wearables, and other products appearing on the market every day. But this range of choices comes with severe consequences, as the world faces an environmental crisis partly due to the amount of electronic waste produced by companies and households. 

One recent study estimated that in 2021 alone, the global mountain of e-waste outweighed the Great Wall of China, at 57 million tonnes. Taking these findings into account, the Royal Society of Chemistry has called for a global effort from governments, businesses, and the public to develop a stronger circular economy. If action is not taken, experts say the UK could become the biggest e-waste producer per capita in Europe by 2024, overtaking current leader Norway. 

Why Meta Is Killing the Portal Line for Consumers (Make Use Of)

If you’re an end-consumer who relies on Meta’s Portal or Portal+ video-calling devices to communicate with your friends and family, work remotely, and use Zoom or Netflix, you may want to brace yourself. Meta is reportedly planning to discontinue its Portal line of products for consumers and instead focus on its business clients.

You’ll still be able to make video calls with your Portal devices. However, the discontinuation of the consumer product line will shrink the Portal video call user base. It is unclear if the promised support for current Portal users will include ongoing software support. And with solid competition from the likes of Google Nest Hub and Amazon Echo Show, it is only a matter of time before more Portal consumers port over to other Portal alternatives.

Proposed Freedom to Repair Act Seems Unlikely to Make Streaming Piracy Worse (Torrent Freak)

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) prevents citizens from repairing many of their own electronic devices. The proposed Freedom to Repair Act 2022 seeks to fix this problem by allowing circumvention in strictly limited circumstances. This week the proposal was labeled “pro-piracy legislation”—but is that a fair assessment or an expected overreaction?

When Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, Section 1201 outlawed circumvention of technological protection measures controlling access to copyright works. The base concept is relatively simple. When technological systems are deployed by copyright holders (or on their behalf) to protect access to their copyrighted works, in most cases these systems cannot be circumvented without violating the DMCA. Section 1201 also prohibits trafficking in technology or services that facilitate the circumvention of such systems. 

Pirates tend not to care too much about the law and if a circumvention device or piracy service is available; they will use it whether the DMCA outlaws it or not. It’s extremely hard to detect this type of infringement and even harder to reach into people’s homes to prevent it.