America's crackdown on open-source Wi-Fi router firmware – THE TRUTH

El Reg looks at why and what the FCC wants to do. Plus: How you can get stuck in

And the solution?

And so, to the FCC's mind, the answer is simple: put control requirements back onto the manufacturers themselves.

In order to make sure that a new product doesn't appear on the market that enables people to instantly use, for example, emergency police channels to communicate, require the manufacturers to only allow updates from authorized companies, i.e., those with something to lose from breaking the rules.

At the same time, it also proposes that this update process be locked down so others can't easily access and make their own changes to new devices. If companies do this, then the FCC argues it can open up its rules and "make it easier for manufacturers to implement software changes."

The logic is seductive but it leads to the situation where all devices with radio transmission capability – i.e., your phone, computer, home router and many others – need to be locked down. That won't bother the vast majority of consumers, who simply buy a product and let the company do what it will with it (even when that is incredibly frustrating – we're looking at you, Apple).

But it does bother a huge number of people who contend that computing devices left open to modification have served as a critical source of innovation and an effective means to avoid corporate control of important personal devices.

It's a deeply held philosophical view among many that there should always be the ability to modify computing equipment that you buy, and the FCC appears to have been on the receiving end of those passionately expressed views.

Following its line of thinking even further, the FCC recognizes that devices not made in the United States would be outside its influence, and so proposes a ban on any devices that don't meet its requirements (or don't have a named company within the US that is responsible for compliance).

Rabbit hole

In a sign that the plan may be going down the rabbit hole, it then proposes a "personal use" exemption where the rules would not apply to people entering the country with devices not approved within the United States.

Under the current rules, there is a personal use exemption of three devices. But if the new rules came into effect, US border police may effectively be obliged to stop and search everyone entering the country to make sure they didn’t have more than three non-approved devices on them. That is clearly an unworkable situation.

It's currently impossible to know how many responses the FCC has received or what they contain, since the organization's IT systems have been taken offline for an upgrade, but it's safe to say that there are a significant number of people who are concerned enough about the plan to make their voices heard.

Of course, this is also why the regulator is obliged to include a public comment process as part of its policy development. In this case, the FCC's policy staff clearly had a blind spot when they drew up the new rules; a blind spot that threatens a significant clash with the technical community. ®

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