(Software) Repair info on EnergyGuide labels: Conservancy replies to FTC's request
byon December 21, 2022
Software Freedom Conservancy has today submitted its reply to the FTC's request for comments on how repair information should be displayed on EnergyGuide labels. In particular, SFC has recommended that the FTC mandate a "Software Repair Instructions" section on the EnergyGuide labels that are already required on a variety of home appliances, including televisions, refrigerators, clothes washers, and dishwashers. This would not be a new notice requirement for most manufacturers, since it (currently) only requires manufacturers to provide the notice when they already had obligations under copyleft licenses to offer source code already. This merely changes the prominence of such notices, so that users can more easily see which products contain copylefted software (and thus software repair instructions) or not. This is important because many manufacturers make efforts to deemphasize or obscure their offers (if they have them at all), which prevents consumers from learning that they have rights with respect to their software.
We are very happy to see the FTC requesting comments on how repair information for home appliances can be better provided to purchasers of these products. While the FTC's EnergyGuide labeling program started out as a way for purchasers to better assess how much energy each appliance would likely use, and approximately how much that would cost them, the FTC has been taking a more holistic view of how appliance purchases impact the world, not just in terms of how much energy they consume while operating, but also how much energy is required to manufacture them and, consequently, how we can reduce the number of appliances going into landfills, reducing the number of new appliances that need to be manufactured. Free and open source software provides many answers to these repair and longevity questions, and we hope that appliance purchasers will be made more aware of this through the FTC's updated labeling requirements.
By making a lot more people aware that software repair information is available for a device, the chance of a repair community forming for that class of devices increases dramatically. And these communities are immensely helpful to device owners, both for fixing problems that may arise in the software (which can be shared quickly and easily after one person makes them to anyone with that device, regardless of their level of technical expertise), but also for maintaining that software long after the manufacturer has stopped supporting it, meaning they can keep that device operating safely for years to come rather than having to dispose of it, which increases landfill usage and needless new device purchases. We already have several examples of such communities, including SamyGO for older Samsung TVs, LineageOS for most Android phones, and OpenWrt for wireless routers. SFC has fought extensively to protect the right to install your own firmware on your devices. By showing people that software repair information is available to them, we can build many many more communities like these, keeping more devices lasting longer (and better serving their users' needs), and fewer devices in our landfills.
We recommend those interested in this issue read our submission to the FTC, and consider whether to make their own submission in support of this or similar (especially hardware) repair information requirements. While we hope our own submission carries weight and is deemed relatively easy to implement given that it requires no new information to be provided by most manufacturers, it would help for others to provide their own experiences with lack of easily-accessible software repair information to the FTC so they are aware of the extent of the problem. The comment period is open until December 27 (likely to be extended until January 31, 2023) and you can see more details about the FTC's request for submissions and submit your own comment here.
For those that do read our submission, note that the FTC has trimmed some of its attachments from the website. You can find the attachments here instead:
You may notice that SFC has suggested the FTC require manufacturers to provide a URL to their source code distribution website, while not mentioning other ways of fulfilling an offer for source code, which we normally request that manufacturers provide (such as offering the source code on a durable physical medium, e.g. a USB stick or optical disc). Our main reason for this usual request that manufacturers provide source code on a durable physical medium is that not everyone in the world has a reliable or fast Internet connection. As a result, if a manufacturer only provides source code over the Internet, the most disadvantaged people are further disadvantaged by not being able to download the source code for their device (most source releases are hundreds of megabytes, if not more).
With our reply to the FTC, we were trying to make the best argument based on current practices and the least amount of additional work for manufacturers (to improve the chance of our suggestion being adopted, and reduce the chance that a company could make any credible argument against it), while also keeping in mind the jurisdiction this ruling applies to (USA) and its Internet connectivity standards. Though not complete yet, the National Broadband Plan in the USA does have this aim: "Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service". Given the balance of people in the USA already connected to broadband, and the strong intent to connect the rest, we felt it was practical to make the recommendation include only web-accessible source code as the labeling requirement applies only in the USA. Note that we still request manufacturers make source code available on a durable physical medium, and would advise the FTC to make this part of their labeling requirements as well if they felt it feasible to include.
Although we have much work to do to ensure that people purchasing free and open source software (as part of appliances and other devices they may buy) know that they can repair, maintain, and modify this software, steps like this from the FTC will bring us closer. We are looking forward to the FTC's decision on our recommendation, and hope to help more people access the information they need to make their devices work for them, for as long as they choose to keep them. Together we can improve our own lives, but also the lives of others, and our planet.
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