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The long road from compulsory routers to freedom of choice


The router. Despite often being dusty it is one of the most important devices needed for using the internet or phones. However: Most users in Germany don’t own this device even though it is located inside their homes and they pay for it.

At least still. Because recently the Cabinet of Germany, the chief executive body of the Federal Republic of Germany, passed a draft to abolish compulsory routers. So all users may use a different device from the one the provider delivered and they may modify it freely.

What are compulsory routers?

For a long time it didn’t look as good for those who wanted to connect their own router to the socket in the wall. Often the providers don’t publish the account credentials to the customer. They may deny any support or block the access completely. This may sound like the sort of problem you want to have but it has enormous consequences for privacy, security and competition. In most cases a router handles all telephone and internet connections. Many devices are full of security holes. With certain protocols the provider can control the router remotely. They may then alter the quality of the internetconnection for certain services. Alternative devices that for example use Free Software have privacy and security in mind. But the chances of such devices on such a closed market are slim at best because many users need to make a great effort as long as the providers don’t go along. This is a unjustified discrimination against users of Free Software as well as the producers of such Free devices. We should always maintain full control over the devices we use.

The key point in the debate about router compulsion is the definition of the network termination point. This defines, where the public network, that of the provider, ends, and where that of the customer begins. This division should actually be the box in the wall, but many providers also include the provided end device. From this perspective, it is legitimate to deny the customer the access data for replacement of this device. With most cable providers, the modem first has to be registered by a technician in a data center. The technical reasons that supposedly support this requirement are in fact just a pretense and not technically valid. In the USA, the market is somewhat liberalised, and the portended mass network failures are not to be seen.

What happened previously

Since the beginning of 2013, the public debate over compulsory routers has grown, accompanied by the FSFE. The German Federal Network Agency remained vague (German) as to whether router compulsion should be legally legitimized, even after numerous hearings and workshops where not only the FSFE but also the majority of hundreds of statements spoke out against it. Eventually, the Federal Ministry of Economy (BMWi) took over at the end of 2014. The ministry proposed a satisfactory bill and overcame all necessary hurdles in the legislative process, from ratification by the EU Commission and the Federal Cabinet. The law is now waiting for approval of the Federal Parliament and Federal Council.

We would have wished for further legal codification of user rights for communications devices, but the current situation guarantees a basic level of user freedom, at least for the intermediate term. In order to even reach this state, a considerable amount of work was necessary. As the FSFE, we built up a small team of internal and external experts, which has created detailed position statements for many of the hearings of the Federal Network Agency, which dealt with user freedom in the spirit of Free Software and open standards as well as economic aspects. Even after the transfer to the Ministry of Economy, we critically supervised the process in agreement with other organisations and drew attention to deficiencies and positive developments.

With a modification of the FTEG (German) (Law on Radio Units and Telecommunications Terminal Equipment) and TKG (German) (Telecommunications Law), the previous deficiencies should be remedied. The passive network termination point should be clearly defined, the operator should be obliged to provide, unprompted, the "necessary access data and information for the connection of telecommunications terminal equipment and the use of the telecommunication services," and a fine of 10,000 Euro should be set in case they violate these information requirements.

It's not over yet

At the moment, the law is at the Federal Council for opinions and will afterwards come before the Federal Parliament for three readings. If the law is adopted, the approval of the Federal Council is still necessary to abolish the router compulsion six months after the announcement. In order for this to actually succeed, we must oversee this process and be sure that the proposal is not watered down. You can help us with this: contact your representative so that they pass this law without any further limitations, in order to ensure this absolute minimum of end-device freedom, user protection, and security.

After that, it will also be exciting. Will internet providers be obstructive in supporting the use of user devices? Can all devices be seamlessly used with alternate routers? Will discrimination of some sort still take place in spite of this law? We can be happy about the previous successes, but this topic is too controversial for the friends of alternative end devices to be lulled into a false sense of security. For the future Internet of Things, where refrigerators and thermostats will be accessible via the internet, routers and end-device freedom in general play a more central role. We believe that we have not seen the last of this topic, and that we must establish and protect device freedom in other European countries.