Electronics Frontiers Australia pushes for software to be included under rights to repair

Failing to do so could have public safety and national security implications, the EFA claims.

Electronics Frontiers Australia (EFA) has labelled having the rights available to Australians to repair hardware, but not software, as "perverse".

"Consumers' right to repair for software products is already more constrained than it is for physical products in many cases, and vendors are increasingly abusing the greater power embedded software provides them to exert control over what consumers are permitted to do with the products they have purchased," the EFA stated in its submission [PDF] to the Productivity Commission's right to repair inquiry.

"It seems perverse that the rights available to Australians in the physical world should not be available in the online world."

In turn, the EFA said it "strongly supports" a right to repair and encourages the Productivity Commission to make legislative changes that would enable consumers the right to repair faulty goods, including any software it may contain.

It explained that a right to repair would act as a "kind of automatic stabiliser without the need to involve market regulators to intervene if a market failure occurred", and says it is particularly important for technology products that are not manufactured in Australia.

The EFA went on to also state that it is "strongly opposed" to what it described as the "artificial constraints imposed by so-called digital rights management (DRM) technologies".

"Adding DRM technologies to products is a choice vendors make because they seek certain benefits from doing so … where DRM technologies would prevent consumers from being able to independently repair or update products purchased from vendors, such as to patch them to address recently uncovered software flaws, vendors should be required to provide free updates to the software," the EFA recommended.

"If vendors do not wish to provide these update services, then DRM technologies should either not be used on their products, or the DRM should be disabled, free of charge, once the vendor is no longer prepared to provide such free updates. Consumers would then be free to repair and update their devices as they see fit."

The organisation suggested that failing to acknowledge and implement the same rights to repair to software as it exists for hardware could have public safety and national security implications, especially now there are a growing number of Internet of Things devices connected to public networks.

"A right to repair would ensure that vulnerable devices purchased by consumers can be made safe by repairing the software running on those devices, thereby reducing the threat to themselves and to others. This would not require the participation of the vendor, which may well no longer exist," the EFA wrote.

"Without a right to repair, it could be argued that vendors should be held liable for the public danger posed by the software in their products due to the way it degrades over time. However, this approach provides no protection in the case where the original vendor ceases to exist, thus a right to repair is required regardless of whether or not a vendor commits to a lengthy maintenance and repair period for its products."

Similar concerns were also raised by the Australian Computer Society (ACS) in its submission.

"Regardless of whether a product was designed to become obsolete or has been superseded by technological changes or advances, the need to update software is essential on smart devices to address security weaknesses and changing operational needs," the ACS noted. "The inability to update, or patch, software due to vendor restrictions can pose threats to household and industrial users due of the risks posed by potential security weaknesses."

The right to repair issues paper was released in December, after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg requested the Productivity Commission to examine the state of consumers' ability to repair faulty goods at reasonable prices.

The need for the inquiry was cited due to the Competition and Consumer Act not capturing right to repair issues, and thereby only allowing "limited rights or protections" to repair, the inquiry's terms of reference state.

The deadline for initial submissions was February 1. The Productivity Commission is now expected to deliver a draft report on the issue sometime in June.

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