Defending Free Software for radio devices

panos's picture

The netCommons project follows very closely the developments regarding the EU radio directive which was adopted in 2014, and which is currently being transposed at the national level by the member states. The reason is that Article 3.3 might put in jeopardy the ability to install alternative, unauthorized by the manufacturer, software on radio devices. Although at a first glance this looks like a wise decision, it may cause unneccessary harm, if not implemented approprietely in the national legislations. We try to answer below in simple words a few frequently asked questions in this context, as a quick summary of the detailed analysis provided by FSFE, and a first step toward a more thorough legal investigation of this issue.

What is the EU radio directive?
According to the Radio Equipment Directive 2014/53/EU, which needs to be implemented by EU members in national law byuntil 12.06.2016 with a transition period of one year, all devices that can send and receive radio signals need to be checked for compliance by their manufacturers for every possible software which can be installed on the device. 

What is the current situation? 
Today, those responsible for a device's non-compliance to regulation are the users that make changes either on the hardware or software of the device. Such legitimate changes include the installation of Free Software, which aim to satisfy special technical requirements regarding security and supported protocols.

What is the problem?
The main danger arising from this directive is that it shifts liability for installed software from the user to the manufacturer. It will make it extremely costly for manufacturers to check properly all non-proprietary software that can run on their devices, forcing them to forbid completely this action. To achieve this, manufacturers may have to install additional proprietary software that would infringe the terms of the GNU GPL. This would force them to rewrite huge software parts from scratch which is impossible for many businesses.

Why is a Radio Directive compatible with Community Networks and Free Software important?
  • It promotes innovation, competition and interoperability
  • It empowers non-profit organizations to provide affordable Internet access to underserved areas and populations, but also in cases of emergency and disasters
  • It offers advanced security solutions, which are transparent and continuously maintained by a global community
  • It provides the means to keep operational devices that are no longer supported by their manufacturers with positive economic and ecological impact
  • It protects consumers from lock-in and non-transparent policies by big corporations 

What can we do?
The European Commission can adopt delegated acts - as empowered by the European Parliament and Council (Art. 44) -
that make general exceptions for  equipment used by Community Networks, including all Free Software not developed by the manufacturers or avoid shifting the responsibility for the software's regulatory compliance from the users to the manufacturers.
The EU member state legislators and regulators can also make binding interpretations of the directive's provisions so that Free Software can still be installed on radio devices without discrimination. As pointed out in recital (19) of the Directive, third party software providers, such as Free Software projects, shall not be disadvantaged (as it stands now, the directive's recital is unfortunately non-binding, which creates a lot of legal insecurity and potential huge lack of harmonization across Member States).
So, there is still a chance to minimize the possible harm by this directive, if we reach those that can influence its final transposition into national law.
23 organizations and companies, including netCommons, have signed the Joint Statement against the Radio Lockdown, and you are also welcome to sign!

Whom should I contact to learn more and help?

Where can I read more about how things evolved?
The FCC rules in the US laid out in ET Docket No. 15-170 get noticed
The first reactions: Dave Täht, co-founder of the Bufferbloat Project, and Dr. Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet, along with more than 260 other global network and cybersecurity experts send a letter to the FCC
From the US to the EU 
FCC's reply:
Counter-replies to FCC:
The EU Radio Directive is approved and first devices getting locked
Letters addressing legislators and regulators are written by various organizations