Consider this hypothetical scenario: you moved to a new apartment. Apart from all the stress of packing, transporting, and unpacking all your stuff at your new home, you also had to deal with getting utilities connected. The electric company turned out to be difficult to deal with: they said you had to change your TV set, toaster, refrigerator and most of your lamps.
It should go without saying that in our society we should be able to freely choose technical devices for use in our homes like we are free to choose what mobile phone we buy. But some Internet service providers in Europe dishonor this principle by dictating which device their customers have to use in order to connect to the internet, or they discriminate against the owners of alternative devices. This undermining of our basic freedom of choice is strongly opposed by the Free Software Foundation Europe and many other organisations, projects, and individuals. Router Freedom is not merely a topic for experts. It affects all of us.
What are routers and modems?
Routers and modems are equipment (or terminals, according to European regulations) that our devices (like computers, smartphones, TV, etc) use to connect with the Internet Service Provider (ISP). While the modem brings the information in, the router distributes (or “routes”) it to different devices. Routers share information between computers, and connect to the internet through a modem. Sometimes a router and modem are offered by ISP in a same device. However, a router has no access to the internet without a modem. Routers can handle other functions too, for instance WiFi, Voice over IP (VoIP), and TV streaming, and also technical details such as port forwarding, dynamic DNS, or VPN tunneling. Normally, all internet-based communication passes through routers.
Most ISPs in Europe offer a recommended router with the contract for their clients. In principle that is not bad because then users do not need to search for a suitable device themselves. However, if consumers are forced to use this device, this practice can make them totally dependent and vulnerable to technical and contract changes, which can result in unfair treatment by the ISPs.
Router Freedom and Net Neutrality
Network neutrality, or net neutrality for short, is the principle that ISPs have to treat all internet communications equally, and not discriminate or charge differently, for instance based on user, content, website, service, type of equipment, or method of communication. Router Freedom is a fundamental corollary of this idea. In fact, the freedom of choice of our own equipment is already guaranteed on the European regulatory framework. The EU's Open Internet Regulation (Net Neutrality Regulation) grants end users right to access and distribute the lawful content and services of their choice via their ISP. The basic rule is: internet traffic shall be treated without discrimination.
In order to protect this freedom, the article 3(1) of the Net Neutrality Regulation establishes that the enforcement of the respective open internet rules is task for the National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) of each European country. They must check the application of the Regulation’s rules accordingly to the technical guidelines of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC).
However, many ISP across Europe do not comply with the regulation yet, imposing their own routers to consumers in a clearly contradiction with the Net Neutrality principle. Their argumentation concerns the location of the network termination point (NTP), an arbitrary definition between the limits of the user’s private and ISP’s network equipment. They introduced a debate to determine whether the NTP would be located inside the end-user domain, so they can use their own modem and router, or the NTP would be part of the domain of the network operator, so end-users cannot use their own router with a private modem. In this case, the users should use the ISP's router.
Router Freedom in Europe
During the years 2013 and 2016, the FSFE and 9 other civil organisations conducted a successful campaign for Router Freedom in Germany that resulted in the adoption of a law obliging all German ISPs to enable new clients to use alternative modems and routers to connect to the internet. The FSFE is still monitoring the implementation, has sent out testing devices to volunteers for them to check whether their ISPs obey the law, and collected the results.
However, the awareness for such fundamental topic is still very low across Europe. Users are not being consciously informed about the risks of not having the freedom to choose their own equipment. It is unacceptable to limit Router Freedom on the basis of a arbitrary definition that only benefits ISPs and subjugates users to a very unfair and submissive situation.
Why is Router Freedom important?
Let's put it this way: your whole internet traffic, encryption, backups, communication, shopping, writings, business interaction, and so on are transferred through your router. If your router is not free, your digital freedom is likely to be compromised.
The infringement of the Router Freedom may happen by different restrictions, such as:
- The ISP does not allow the client to use another router, i.e. by contract.
- The ISP does not give the client the connection data like username and password for the PPPoE/VoIP connection (might differ in some countries but the problem remains the same).
- The ISP uses non-standard techniques to connect its clients to the internet/its infrastructure, i.e. special plugs or proprietary protocols.
- The ISP requires any router to be registered at their own infrastructure, i.e. by MAC address or other identification. So the client is not able to use her own devices because they won't get an IP address or other necessary data.
These situations show the bad consequences of the lack on Router Freedom. The reasons to defend and promote Router Freedom concern ethical and technical elements to our basic needs to internet access, such as:
- Freedom of choice: We have the right to choose our own electronic devices. If customers do not want to use the ISP-recommended device for any reason, the ISP must respect this without repercussions for the user.
- Privacy and Data Protection: The lack of Router Freedom compromises our privacy and the security of our most sensitive personal data.
- Compatibility: Some ISPs impose to users specific models, forcing them to acquire only compatible hardware. From the consumer’s and the environment’s point of view this is unfavorable due to the build up of electronic waste even though the devices would still work.
- Free Competition and Technological Progress: Users profit from the free competition that guarantees free choice and steady improvement of products. The lack of competition would, eventually, come at the cost of the user because (security) features would be be continually reduced and the user-friendliness would drop. This goes even further: If a user is forced to use a router, the ISP is only one step apart from supporting only one SIP provider, one cloud storage, one DynamicDNS provider, or one media streaming platform. The user cannot use their phones, their trusted online storage or their hardware, because it is not supported.
- Security: The lack of Router Freedom increases the probability that large parts of the router market is dominated by only one or a few product families or manufacturers. Then, if major problems or security holes appear, an enormous number of users will affected at once. Most ISPs only use a few router models and thus endanger the security of their customers. That is particularly problematic when manufacturers and providers are very slow in the delivery of critical updates and users are not allowed to perform updates themselves.
ISPs across Europe are imposing their own routers to consumers, threatening our freedom of choice towards the equipment we use for Internet connection. ISPs are leveraging the debate on the European level using questionable definitions about the Network Termination Point. You can take part in this fundamental campaign to defend our freedom.
We already won in Germany and other countries are following the path. We have learned valuable lessons in the process and compiled them in a wiki page, where you can find all necessary information to fight against the disruption of Router Freedom, and raise the problem within your community and to your political representatives.