Don’t Worry, You Can Still Use Open-Source Firmware On Your Router

Don’t Worry, You Can Still Use Open-Source Firmware On Your Router

Image Credit: Sunil Soundarapandian

That was a close one.

The Federal Communications Commission almost kicked sysadmins the nation over square in their collective jaw. Almost – but not quite.

Last week, the FCC rendered a major decision in a months-long debate concerning open-source router firmware. Initially intended to address the issue of RF compliance, an ongoing conversation and a proposed piece of legislation took on far greater significance than the governmental body intended as proponents of the open-source community stepped forward in protest. See, the problem with the legislation as it was originally written is that it would have made open-source firmware completely illegal…right?

Not exactly. See, as it turns out, this whole snafu started when the FCC asked manufacturers to explain the measures they took to protect their devices from the installation of third-party firmware. Someone caught wind of the dialogue, and, well…you can guess what happened next.

People assumed the organization intended to mandate a wholesale ban on open-source firmware (even though that wasn’t their initial intent at all).

“This proceeding has taken on a significance beyond the Commission’s original intent,” writes Julius Knapp, Chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Intelligence. “One of our key goals is to protect against harmful interference by calling on manufacturers to secure their devices against third party software modifications that would take a device out of its RF compliance.”

“Yet, as the record shows,” he continues, “there is concern that our proposed rules could have the unintended consequence of causing manufacturers to “lock down” their devices and prevent all software modifications, including those impacting security vulnerabilities and other changes on which users rely. Eliciting this kind of feedback is the very reason that we sought comment in an NPRM and we are pleased to have received the feedback that will inform our decision-making on this matter.”

Sysadmins in particular were rubbed the wrong way by the FCC’s proposed rules, as they initially demonstrated what appeared a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘open source’ actually means. It doesn’t automatically bring forth connotations of insecurity, and routers using open-source firmware aren’t automatically noncompliant. The good news is that the FCC seems to understand this now.

The FCC has since updated its original proposal, making explicit allowances for open-source firmware such as DD-WRT and Tomato, notes Engadget. Sadly, it still seeks to prevent tweaks such as signal strengthening, tweaks such as signal strengthening. Can’t win ‘em all, right?

Still, stories like this are emboldening for a few reasons:

  • They demonstrate that, slowly but surely, governmental and legislative bodies are starting to understand the significance of modern technology – and the importance of caution when applying legislation to it.
  • They show that the FCC is willing to listen to criticism and advice from technical expert, acknowledging its own shortcomings where such knowledge is concerned.
  • They remind us that sometimes our greatest fears about the government’s relationship with technology may, on occasion, be without merit.
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