It should go without saying that in our society we should be able to freely choose technical devices for use in our homes like we are free to choose what mobile phone we buy. But some Internet service providers in Europe dishonor this principle by dictating which device their customers have to use in order to connect to the internet, or they discriminate against the owners of alternative devices. This undermining of our basic freedom of choice is strongly opposed by the Free Software Foundation Europe and many other organisations, projects, and individuals. Router Freedom is not merely a topic for experts. It affects all of us.
Routers and modems are equipment (or terminals, according to European regulations) that our devices (like computers, smartphones, TV, etc) use to connect with the Internet Service Provider (ISP). While the modem brings the information in, the router distributes (or “routes”) it to different devices. Routers share information between computers, and connect to the internet through a modem. Sometimes a router and modem are offered by ISP in a same device. However, a router has no access to the internet without a modem. Routers can handle other functions too, for instance WiFi, Voice over IP (VoIP), and TV streaming, and also technical details such as port forwarding, dynamic DNS, or VPN tunneling. Normally, all internet-based communication passes through routers.
Most ISPs in Europe offer a recommended router with the contract for their clients. In principle that is not bad because then users do not need to search for a suitable device themselves. However, if consumers are forced to use this device, this practice can make them totally dependent and vulnerable to technical and contract changes, which can result in unfair treatment by the ISPs.
Network neutrality, or net neutrality for short, is the principle that ISPs have to treat all internet communications equally, and not discriminate or charge differently, for instance based on user, content, website, service, type of equipment, or method of communication. Router Freedom is a fundamental corollary of this idea. In fact, the freedom of choice of our own equipment is already guaranteed on the European regulatory framework. The so-called EU's Open Internet Regulation grants end users right to access and distribute the lawful content and services of their choice via their ISP. The basic rule is: internet traffic shall be treated without discrimination.
In order to protect this freedom, the article 3(1) of the Net Neutrality Directive establishes that the enforcement of the respective open internet rules is task for the National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) of each European country. They must check the application of the Directive’s rules accordingly to the technical guidelines of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC).
However, many ISP across Europe do not comply with the regulation yet, imposing their own routers to consumers in a clearly contradiction with the Net Neutrality principle. Their argumentation concerns the location of the network termination point (NTP), an arbitrary definition between the limits of the user’s private and ISP’s network equipment. They introduced a debate to determine whether the NTP would be located inside the end-user domain, so they can use their own modem and router, or the NTP would be part of the domain of the network operator, so end-users cannot use their own router with a private modem. In this case, the users should use the ISP's router.
During the years 2013 and 2016, the FSFE and 9 other civil organisations conducted a successful campaign for Router Freedom in Germany that resulted in the adoption of a law obliging all German ISPs to enable new clients to use alternative modems and routers to connect to the internet. The FSFE is still monitoring the implementation, has sent out testing devices to volunteers for them to check whether their ISPs obey the law, and collected the results.
However, the awareness for such fundamental topic is still very low across Europe. Users are not being consciously informed about the risks of not having the freedom to choose their own equipment. It is unacceptable to limit Router Freedom on the basis of a arbitrary definition that only benefits ISPs and subjugates users to a very unfair and submissive situation.
Let's put it this way: your whole internet traffic, encryption, backups, communication, shopping, writings, business interaction, and so on are transferred through your router. If your router is not free, your digital freedom is likely to be compromised.
The infringement of the Router Freedom may happen by different restrictions, such as:
These situations show the bad consequences of the lack on Router Freedom. The reasons to defend and promote Router Freedom concern ethical and technical elements to our basic needs to internet access, such as:
ISPs across Europe are imposing their own routers to consumers, threatening our freedom of choice towards the equipment we use for Internet connection. ISPs are leveraging the debate on the European level using questionable definitions about the Network Termination Point. You can take part in this fundamental campaign to defend our freedom.
We already won in Germany and other countries are following the path. We have learned valuable lessons in the process and compiled them in a wiki page, where you can find all necessary information to fight against the disruption of Router Freedom, and raise the problem within your community and to your political representatives.