'The FCC Won't Let Me Be,' Say Some Open Source Programmers

Proposed Rules from the FCC have sparked a lively debate within the tech community.


FCC examine TV in 1939
U.S. Library of Congress / Wikimedia

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has had considerable cultural relevance over the last two decades, making appearances in Eminem's "Without Me" circa 2002 and John Oliver's hilarious (if counterproductive from an open internet standpoint) "net neutrality" monologue.

In the immortal words of Slim Shady, "Guess who's back"?

On August 6, the FCC released proposed new rules for regulating wireless routers that sent some of the web's most esteemed tech fora into varying states of tense disquiet, technical discourse, and tertiary digression. 

Open source tinkerers are particularly concerned about a provision that could arguably prevent them from modifying the firmware on their own routers. From the proposed rules:

Manufacturers of any radio including certified modular transmitters which includes a software defined radio must take steps to ensure that only software that has been approved with a particular radio can be loaded into that radio. The software must not allow the installers or end-user to operate the transmitter with operating frequencies, output power, modulation types or other radio frequency parameters outside those that were approved. 

Users like to modify their routers' firmware for a variety of reasons, including improving network security, streamlining user interfaces, and experimenting with mesh-networking (effectively extending the range of a signal by allowing it to hop between intermediate nodes). A popular Lifehacker post advertises using Linux-based DD-WRT firmware to "turn your $60 router into a $600 router."

Some in the tech community, though, have urged their peers not to jump to worst-case conclusions about the actual consequences of the proposed rules. Jonathan Mayer of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School posted the following on a thread on Y-Combinator's Hacker News board:

(Background: I'm a computer security lawyer at Stanford. This ain't legal advice.) This is a misunderstanding. The FCC has not tried to ban Wi-Fi device modding. What it might be requiring is locked-down radios. And only radios. The phrasing of the recent guidance is unfortunately ambiguous, and calls out DD-WRT by name. But the original rules are clear [1], and staff guidance cannot trump Commission rules. What's more, an attempt to ban third-party software would be inconsistent with the FCC's previous policy. The agency fined Verizon, for instance, when it tried to block third-party tethering apps [2].

Mayer alluded to the ostensible goal of the rules, which is to prevent router radio modifications that would interfere with vital elements of the radio spectrum, such as airport weather radar frequencies. Others in the tech community, however, are concerned that even if the FCC's intentions are narrow, the rules may have either de jure or de facto unintended consequences.

Speaking to Techdirt, Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, who analyzes FCC policy, recognized a real-world purpose for the rule in protecting the aviation radar spectrum, but he nonetheless cautioned that "we don't want the FCC to accidentally write rules that are over-broad or subject to misinterpretation by companies." For instance, he fears manufacturers might find that it's easier to comply with the rule by designing routers that prevent general firmware mods outright than by "ringfencing" the radio specs alone.

That's because the rules as written seem to regulate the company that designs the router's radio and not just the end user thereof. Section (e) of the proposed rules excerpted above goes on to put the onus for preventing router modifications on the company designing the device:

Manufacturers may use means including, but not limited to the use of a private network that allows only authenticated users to download software, electronic signatures in software or coding in hardware that is decoded by software to verify that new software can be legally loaded into a device to meet these requirements.

As PC Magazine reports, a coalition of prominent tech policy organizations, including the Software Freedom Law Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are sufficiently worried that the rules could be "bad for individuals and disrupt the market" that they launched the Save WiFi campaign.

For its part, the FCC has asked for public comments and feedback on the proposed rules. Save WiFi has written a letter to the FCC recommending changes to the rules in the interest of protecting user freedom and wireless innovation. If you're interested in sending comments to the FCC, the deadline has been extended to October 9, and the link is here. (Note: The FCC's website is undergoing maintenance over Labor Day weekend, so accessibility may vary.)

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  1. 'The FCC Won't Let Me Be,' Say Some Open Source Programmers

    I wonder whether said open source programmers are Net Neutrality supporters. If so, hey buddy: this is what happens when you put the FCC in charge. Enjoy.

    1. I thought "Net Neutrality" was all about the FCC putting the FCC in charge, while congress rolled their eyes and whistled..

      1. Yes, that is the short and most accurate description.

    2. You asked for Net Neutrality. Now you're going to get it, good and hard.

      1. The predictability of this was so obvious that I stick by my statement about NN supporters: to be one, you have to be fundamentally stupid. So stupid about history, government, power-hungry agencies, and human nature that you should be relegated to the short bus for the rest of time. You can't be taken seriously as an intelligent person.

        NN is like a litmus test for basic intelligence.

        1. Yep... I was really surprised by the support of NN by so many (otherwise seemingly rational) geeks.


          "It's a feature, not a bug"

          1. They are Leftists first, anything else is a distant second.

        2. Classic revolutionary process. The large capitalists own the country's infrastructure. The small capitalists can be counted on to demand that infrastructure be nationalized and turned into a utility. That way, the internet will be free, guys! Free!

          Well, this nationalization requires us to create a regulatory body. Don't worry. The regulators aren't political. They are celestial figures, who use the latest Science to make the right decisions. Progress!

          Of course, the next step of the revolutionary process is to seize the property of the small capitalists and hand it over to organized labor. Uber, Netflix and the others will be in the hands of the workers. But, that's another day and another set of gallows.

      2. as someone who has worked in the specific field of network administration for over a decade, I can safely say that the industry is overrun by libertarians. Theres some good historical reasons for that, but its too long to get into in a comment. The NN supporters involved in tech tend to be developers, who by and large have 0 understanding about network infrastructure and regulation thereof, but get significantly more press attention because they make producta for consumers, whereas us network folks make products for industry.

    3. If they are NN suporters I want to personally kick their stupid ass. Right now I am trying to watch "Nacos" on netflix and for the first time it is buffering over and over. Thirty seconds of action and two minutes of buffering.

      I guess this is gonna be the end of Netflix ?

      1. Nacos would be a great show. So, so many mullets. And leopard pattern stretch pants.

      2. Your buffering problem has nothing to do with NN and everything to do with one or more of the following:

        Your network uplink
        Your streaming device (xbox, tv, etc)
        Your cabling
        Some issue with your ISP's equipment

  2. Well, this ought to work out just as splendidly as regulating plans for 3D printed firearms.. a smashing success...

  3. Ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. That lawyer is a moron with no regulatory experience.

    1. The new SS will all have advanced degrees.

  4. I'm already running DD-WRT on my router. Come and get it.

    1. *Lights the Preet Bharara signal*

    2. When a security hole is found and publicized the OS coders will be blocked by law from patching it.

      So unless you can code or trust picking up patches from the dark net they don't have to come get it

      1. The burden is on the device makers, not the coders.

    3. When we get it, we won't tell you.

    4. The fcc can kiss my tomato ass

  5. A popular Lifehacker post advertises using Linux-based DD-WRT firmware to "turn your $60 router into a $600 router.""

    "Hey the FCC is fucking you over net neutrality

    By the way here is a link to gawker a site whose mission is to get net neutrality shoved as far up your ass as possible"

    *Jack Solowey may or may be looking for a job at gawker or is being payed to link to gawker and probably fucked a reporter there.

    **Reason can now and never complain about ad-blocking its site.

  6. There was once a time when organized crime only had like 5 families and they left most people alone. Now, how many of them are there? I can't even count. They just changed their name to EPA, FDA, DEA, DOE, DHS, etc, etc, etc and moved from NYC and Chicago to the banks of the Potomac. I was sort of ok with the Gambinos and those dudes, they never bothered me at all and I didn't even have to pay protection!

  7. I would just like to point out again that in the decade prior to Net Neutrality, the very same people who embraced allowing it to regulate the internet railed against its censorship of vulgar content on TV and radio. These people are so closed off from how government actually works, and so full of rosy expectations for any policy they support, that they are willing to ignore their own past complaints against the regulatory body in question.

    There's just a massive amount of cognitive dissonance people have with government. They show a remarkable ability to compartmentalize different parts of it. They do it with their political party of choice, regulations and laws, the entire judicial branch...

    You can barely find a person left or right who won't admit that all politicians are crooks who doesn't then turn around and show irrational support for their politician of choice.

    1. It's because they're fucking stupid. NN is such a perfect way to determine if someone is an irrational idiot, regardless of whether they are a good coder or otherwise "smart". If they support it, you have crystal clear evidence that this person is not rational, cannot think past their biases and hatreds, and just can't think clearly.

      They're so fucking stupid.

      1. Well, we might as well say everyone outside libertarians as stupid. There doesn't seem to be anyone really questioning the power and scope of government regulators. It's always just a matter of when and who.

        But it boggles my mind that people can watch John Oliver rant about the cozy relationship between Comcast and...Obama/Democrats, Wheeler being appointed the head of the FCC, and then demand that the FCC expand its regulation of the internet. Not even keep it the same, but expand...

        1. In this day and age, "speaking truth to power" means "asking for more".

        2. It boggles your mind because they are fucking stupid. It's just the truth. For exactly the reasons you just specified, and more.

          When you look at the ridiculousness surrounding NN, the only conclusion that can be reached is that those that are for it are either trying to expand their own power, or they're lobbying, or...they're fucking stupid.

          That's it, man. Game over. Why don't you put her in charge?

          1. But they're tech-savvy! They use Twitter!

  8. ohn Oliver's hilarious (if counterproductive from an open internet standpoint) "net neutrality" monologue.

    Unfortunately for Oliver, he's essentially an enabler of government power, but on the surface comes off as one challenging it because of his irreverent humor.

    Underneath the sarcastic humor, it all essentially comes down to demanding more power, more overreach, more control, and more knocking heads on the 'right' people.

    Sad, really.

    1. Useful fools rarely recognized the folly of what they were truly screaming for until they were up against the wall, looking at the barrels of their utopia, one final time...

      1. Staring at the barrels of their utopia... I like that.

        1. AC wishes he came up with that.

        2. "Staring at the barrels of their Utopia".

          If you're staring at the barrels of a gun it's not pointed at you.

          If one is staring down the barrels of a gun it is pointed at them.

          Staring down the barrels of utopia would work for the opening line of a potentially good book.

          Now fuck. Netflix is still bufferring.

          Now what ?.

  9. Prelude to cell phone encryption prohibition maybe?

    Cell phones are capable of operating as routers, even though they aren't sold as routers.
    Don't see why they couldn't be included under a broad reading of the proposed rules.

    Stop most user modifications which would undoubtedly default to encrypted OS's, and then you lean on the manufacturers to stop encrypting, or at least use a method that the device maker can overcome on request of gov.

  10. I turned my $600 router into a SIX THOUSAND DOLLAR ROUTER!!!

    1. Why do you need a $600 router to browse gay porn?

      1. Ahem, $6000 router. It's for high definition.

  11. If would be simple for the FCC to say "you shall not interfere with signals in the following bands". But no, they've got to have authority over the most minor of details. If it emits a signal, they want to control it.

    Fuck you, FCC

    1. It's for da children you wercker.

      Stray signals kill children in the hood..

      Everbody knows that.

  12. It's an extremely small minority of end users who install third party router firmware anyway. Most people won't notice the change, and the modders will go DIY (it's not like the constituent parts of a router are top secret technology or anything). Totally worth it to prevent probably a fraction of 1% of end users from using full-featured firmware instead of the neutered, insecure, unpatched factory crap.

  13. staff guidance cannot trump Commission rules

    Ha ha ha! Oh man, someone just fell off the back of the turnip truck.

  14. A popular Lifehacker post advertises using Linux-based DD-WRT firmware to "turn your $60 router into a $600 router.""

    "Hey the FCC is fucking you over net neutrality

    By the way here is a link to gawker a site whose mission is to get net neutrality shoved as far up your ass as possible"

    *Jack Solowey may or may be looking for a job at gawker or is being payed to link to gawker and probably fucked a reporter there.

    **Reason can now and never complain about ad-blocking its site.

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