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FTC Looks to Fix Repair Restrictions

A newly announced change in Federal Trade Commission (FTC) policy could have dramatic implications for the ways manufacturers of everything from cell phones to cars draft warranties, design products, and distribute replacement parts. Specifically, the FTC has set its sights on repair restrictions.

On July 21, the Commission unanimously voted to approve a policy statement announcing increased antitrust and consumer protection enforcement against business practices that make it difficult for consumers to repair their own products, or use independent repair shops. Manufacturers should take note of this import change in enforcement policy, and promptly evaluate their exposure.

Notably, the FTC’s announcement comes on the heels of President Biden’s executive order “Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” which encouraged the FTC to address “anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items…” It also follows a recent report by the FTC to Congress addressing repair restrictions, and a July 2019 FTC workshop examining the issue.

One area of particular concern for the FTC is product warranties that require the use of specific service providers or parts. Section 102(c) of a 1975 federal law known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (MMWA) prohibits companies from conditioning warranty coverage, expressly or impliedly, on a consumer’s use of an article or service identified by brand, trade, or corporate name, unless the company provides that article or service without charge or the company has received a waiver from the FTC.

Recent reports, including empirical analyses cited by the FTC in its report to Congress, suggest that violations of Section 102(c) are widespread. Indeed, one recent analysis by a prominent public interest group alleged that 45 out of 50 companies whose warranties the group examined appeared to violate the provision. Accordingly, Section 102(c) enforcement is likely to play a prominent role in the FTC’s crackdown.

It also appears that the FTC intends to use its broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” to challenge a wide range repair restrictions. In its report to Congress, the FTC highlighted the following practices in particular as “restricting independent repair or repair by consumers:”

  • “Physical restrictions” and “product designs that complicate or prevent repair”;
  • Purposely making parts, repair manuals, and diagnostic software and tools unavailable;
  • Designs that make independent repairs less safe, such as the use of glue to fasten lithium ion cells into mobile phones and other devices;
  • Steering consumers to preferred repair networks using telematics;
  • “Policies or statements that steer consumers to manufacturer repair networks”;
  • “Application of patent rights and enforcement of trademarks;
  • Disparagement of non-OEM parts and independent repair”;
  • “Software locks, Digital Rights Management and Technical Protection Measures”; and
  • “End User License Agreements.”

The diverse range of practices that the FTC has identified make this shift in enforcement an important issue for a wide range of companies. Still, there are clues to how the FTC may deploy its scarce resources in this area, at least initially.

First, its prior enforcement may provide an indication. In 2015, [...]

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FTC Merger Review Likely to Incorporate Analysis of Privacy Issues

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC or the Commission), along with the U.S. Department of Justice, can challenge mergers it believes will result in a substantial lessening of competition – for example through higher prices, lower quality or reduced rates of innovation.  Although the analysis of whether a transaction may be anticompetitive typically focuses on price, privacy is increasingly regarded as a kind of non-price competition, like quality or innovation.  During a recent symposium on the parameters and enforcement reach of Section 5 of the FTC Act, Deborah Feinstein, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, noted that privacy concerns are becoming more important in the agency’s merger reviews.  Specifically she stated, “Privacy could be a form of non-price competition important to customers that could be actionable if two kinds of companies competed on privacy commitments on technologies they came up with.”

At this same symposium, Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, remarked on the agency’s increasing expectations that companies protect the consumer data they collect and be more transparent about what they collect, how they store and protect it, and about third parties with whom they share the data.

The FTC’s Bureaus of Competition and Consumer Protection fulfill the agency’s dual mission to promote competition and protect consumers, in part, through the enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act.  With two areas of expertise and a supporting Bureau of Economics under one roof, the Commission is uniquely positioned to analyze whether a potential merger may substantially lessen privacy-related competition.

The concept that privacy is a form of non-price competition is not new to the FTC.  In its 2007 statement upon closing its investigation into the merger of Google, Inc. and DoubleClick Inc., the Commission recognized that mergers can “adversely affect non-price attributes of competition, such as consumer privacy.”  Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour’s dissent in the Google/DoubleClick matter outlined a number of forward-looking competition and privacy-related considerations for analyzing mergers of data-rich companies.  The FTC ultimately concluded that the evidence in that case “did not support the theories of potential competitive harm” and thus declined to challenge the deal.  The matter laid the groundwork, however, for the agency’s future consideration of these issues.

While the FTC has yet to challenge a transaction on the basis that privacy competition would be substantially lessened, parties can expect staff from both the Bureau of Competition and the Bureau of Consumer Protection to be working closely together to analyze a proposed transaction’s impact on privacy.  The FTC’s review of mergers between entities with large databases of consumer information may focus on: (1) whether the transaction will result in decreased privacy protections,i.e., lower quality of privacy; and (2) whether the combined parties achieve market power as a result of combining their consumer data.

This concept is not unique to the United States.  The European Commission’s 2008 decision inTomTom/Tele Atlas examined whether there would be a decrease in privacy-based competition [...]

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