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Radio Lockdown: Criticism of Controversial Directive Unlikely to Sway European Commission

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Since 2014, a European Directive has the effect of hindering users to load software on their radio devices, devices such as mobile phones, laptops and routers. While the European Commission recently closed a feedback period, where citizens shared their thoughts about the impact of the Directive, the FSFE worries that such feedback could very well go unheeded. Learn more about the feedback received, and what lies ahead.

In 2014, the European Parliament passed the Radio Equipment Directive (the “Directive”), which, among other regulations, makes vendors of certain types of radio hardware responsible for preventing users from installing software which may alter such hardware’s radio parameters to break applicable radio regulations. While the FSFE shares the Directive’s overall purpose to keep radio frequencies clean, we have been working on this issue of Radio Lockdown for almost 4 years now, because 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.

Specifically, Article 3(3)(i) of the Directive requires manufacturers of certain types of radio devices to assess every software regarding its compliance with existing national radio regulations. The classes of devices that will be affected has yet to be defined. Due to this, it will likely become impossible or very difficult for users and companies to use alternative software on devices they have bought – routers, mobile phones, WiFi-cards and the laptops they are built in, or almost all Internet-of-Things devices in the future.

[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.
Radio Equipment Directive, Article 3(3)(i)

The European Commission officially opened a online feedback period, lasting from 28 January to 4 March 2019. Some 276 comments were collected, the overwhelming majority of which were critical of the impact that Article 3(3)(i) would have. Most of the commenters were individual private citizens, although academic and research institutions, NGOs, and companies also provided feedback.

We were heartened to see that the comments largely reflected the stance adopted by the FSFE. Many individuals shared their concerns that Article 3(3)(i) would have a negative effect on the usage of Free Software among individuals, public bodies, and companies, as it would compel device manufacturers to assess every software for its compliance with national radio regulations, thereby incentivising manufacturers to ensure that their products come bundled only with their own unmodifiable proprietary software. With Free Software being the only feasible method by which users of technology can break out of planned product obsolescence cycles, the feedback received reflected concerns of restrictions on the freedom of use and right to repair of radio devices.

Many commenters also expressed their dismay at the effect of the Directive on competition and innovation. As a large amount of such developments come from the Free Software community, compliance with Article 3(3)(i) means a suppression of innovation and new technological developments. If the software present in radio equipment is locked and proprietary, this prevents the public at large from being able to learn how the software in their devices work, and from making their own potentially innovative and beneficial modifications.

We also saw that many people were concerned about the impact Article 3(3)(i) would have on security. As the safety of radio devices deteriorate upon release, security issues can be more efficiently addressed by Free Software improvements, than by waiting for manufacturers to release updates on their own, often proprietary software. Furthermore, old devices can become insecure when a manufacturer no longer releases software updates to support them. This caused concern that without being able to deploy their own updates because of the application of Article 3(3)(i), a user would have to choose between purchasing newer models, or living with potentially insecure devices.

Despite the wealth of negative feedback received against Article 3(3)(i), a recent meeting of the Commission Expert Group on Reconfigurable Radio Systems on 25 June 2019 attended by the FSFE showed that the scope of the problem is likely not appreciated by the European Commission. In fact, we are afraid that by the means of a delegated act, a much broader regulation is being sought, while leading actors still do not comprehend the role of software in a digital world and economy, let alone the importance of Free Software and how its licences work.

The FSFE is working hard to help regulators understand the negative influence their current approach will have. Our concerns regarding Article 3(3)(i) are shared by more than 50 organisations and businesses, which have signed our Joint Statement against Radio Lockdown, a result of our ongoing exchange and cooperation with the Free Software community in Europe and beyond. If your organisation would like to get involved and sign the Joint Statement, please get in touch with us.

The European Commission is currently expected to open another public consultation in the fourth quarter of 2019. You can see all the responses to the European Commission’s online feedback round here.