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Radio Lockdown: Current Status of Your Device Freedom

Written by 

For more than two years the Free Software Foundation Europe has worked on the issue of Radio Lockdown introduced by a European directive which may hinder users to load software on their radio devices like mobile phones, laptops and routers. We have informed the public and talked to decision makers to fix critical points of the directive. There is still much to do to protect freedom and IT security in our radio devices. Read about the latest proceedings and the next steps.

a bird cage with a router and a mobile phone imprisoned, both sending radio waves

In 2014, the European Parliament passed the Radio Equipment Directive which, among other regulations, make vendors of radio hardware responsible for preventing users from installing software which may alter the devices' radio parameters to break applicable radio regulations. While we share the desire to keep radio frequencies clean, the directive's approach will have negative implications on users' rights and Free Software, fair competition, innovation and the environment – mostly without equal benefits for security.

[R]adio equipment [shall support] certain features in order to ensure that software can only be loaded into the radio equipment where the compliance of the combination of the radio equipment and software has been demonstrated.
Article 3(3)(i) of the Radio Equipment Directive 2014/53/EU

This concern is shared by more than 50 organisations and businesses which signed our Joint Statement against Radio Lockdown, a result of our ongoing exchange and cooperation with the Free Software community in Europe and beyond.

The Radio Equipment Directive was put in effect in June 2017, but the classes of devices affected by the controversial Article 3(3)(i), which causes the Radio Lockdown, have not yet been defined. This means the directive doesn't concern any existing hardware yet. The definition of what hardware devices are covered will be decided on by the European Commission through a delegated act and is expected to be finished at the earliest by the end of 2018.

The Commission shall be empowered to adopt delegated acts in accordance with Article 44 specifying which categories or classes of radio equipment are concerned by each of the requirements [...]
Article 3(3), paragraph 2 of 2014/53/EU

However, that list is already being prepared in the Expert Group on Reconfigurable Radio Systems, a body of member state authorities, organisations, and individuals whose task is to assist the European Commission with drafting the delegated acts to activate Article 3(3)(i). The FSFE applied to become a member of this committee but was rejected. The concerns that the members of the Expert Group do not sufficiently represent the civil society and the broad range of software users has also been raised during a recent meeting in the European Parliament.

Nevertheless, we are working together with organisations and companies to protect user freedoms on radio devices and keep in touch with members of the expert group. For example, we have shared our expertise for case studies and impact assessments drafted by the group members. We are also looking forward to a public consultation phase to officially present our arguments and improvement suggestions and allow other entities to share their opinion.

All our activities aim to protect Free Software and user rights on current and future radio devices. This is more important than ever since only a few members of the expert group seem to understand the importance of loading software on radio devices for IT security, for example critical updates on hardware which is not or only sporadically maintained by the original vendor. We will continue our efforts to make decision makers understand that Free Software (a.k.a. Open Source Software) is crucial for network security, science, education, and technical innovation. Therefore, broad exceptions in the class definition are necessary.

Conducting such lengthy policy activities requires a lot of resources for non-profit organisations like the FSFE. Please consider helping us by joining as an individual supporter today or a corporate donor to enable our work.