When the law obstructs free software

I’m interested in playing around with mesh networking a bit over the summer. I had intended to purchase one of the FSF-certified routers available from ThinkPenguin and start learning about how to modify the software that controls it. However, as of this morning they don’t appear to be available, apparently due to a change in FCC rules that is causing the few wifi router manufacturers who didn’t previously lock down their products to do so now. We are supposed to be  mindless consumers, I suppose, and not start experimenting with doing our own things. So I wrote the following to my congressman to lament the current state of affairs:

Jeremiah Stoddard
1452 Transite Avenue
San Diego, CA 92154

May 28, 2016

Rep. Juan Vargas
1605 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Mr. Vargas:

I am a long-time San Diego resident, programmer, free/libre and open source software enthusiast, and amateur radio operator. I am extremely concerned about the FCC’s new rules on the evaluation and approval of RF devices, an issue that probably flies under the radar of most.

One effect of the FCC’s rule update is that the few manufacturers of wifi routers that allowed end-users to replace the firmware are now locking down their products so that the users no longer have this freedom. Many individuals and businesses liked to replace their routers’ firmware with software such as dd-wrt, openwrt, or libreCMC in order to improve functionality and security on their networks. Additionally, amateur radio licensees have experimented with modified routers to run mesh networks in order to provide communications for government and civilian rescue workers in the event of major natural disasters or other catastrophes. Community groups such as freifunk have also used mesh networking as a way to connect local communities in a less commercialized environment than the Internet. All of these activities either are already being harmed, or will be harmed as a result of the FCC’s rule changes.

There is also the potential problem that future computers with built-in wifi adapters may now have to be manufactured in such a way as to prevent the installation and use of fully free GNU/Linux distributions.

The previous rules were quite old, but to my knowledge there hasn’t been a serious outbreak of individuals modifying their wireless devices in order to illegally hijack the airwaves. Such instances, since they are rare, would be best dealt with on an individual basis. There’s an old engineering adage, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” The FCC should have followed this in their rulemaking.

I hope Congress will consider stepping in and placing limits on the authority of executive agencies to create strict regulations that interfere with the lives and freedom of ordinary citizens.

Sincerely,

Jeremiah Stoddard

(619) 757-3652

jeremiah@jeremiahstoddard.com

Things like freifunk (check it out, seriously!) just got a lot harder to implement; the new FCC rules are anti-consumer in that they tie us down to dependency on commercial network providers. This should greatly disturb anyone who is concerned about government-imposed corporatism, from leftists to those among the libertarian right. Please consider also making your voice heard, both on social networks and in writing to your government representatives.

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