New law lets German internet users connect with their own routers

German ISPs can no longer prohibit users from using their own routers to access services, says FSFE.

The European arm of the Free Software Foundation, Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE, has won a major battle against German ISPs.

Starting August 1, a new law will prohibit ISPs from dictating what routers users connect to the internet with. Users are free to use any router they choose. But FSFE fears that ISPs may find ways to discourage users from using their own routers.

I talked to Max Mehl, FSFE Germany Coordinator, to understand some of those concerns, the problem with using routers supplied by ISPs and why users should use their own routers. Here is an edited version of that interview.

Have there been any cases where total control of ISVs over routers had security implications?

Depends on how you define it. There were quite a few cases in which users weren't able to use IPv6 properly in their homes because the default, provider-controlled routers didn't implement the standard correctly.

Then there're still many default routers out there that suffer from known security holes and don't get any security updates by the provider anymore. In many cases users aren't allowed to exchange or fix these devices themselves.

What are the advantages of using your own router?

There are many, here a few:

  1. People can make a step forward to control their technology. The router is the gatekeeper of our homes, tunneling valuable information like emails, surfing behavior, phone calls or chats. It  is important that users are able to choose a device that they can trust, that suits their requirements, has any features they need  (and also not far too many). In this respect it is even more  important that users are in a position of running free software on these critical devices.
  2. Default routers had many security issues in the past and people weren't able to fix these themselves or to use another, more secure device. Now customers can choose devices that support modern security standards, have longer update cycles or hand out patches faster.
  3. Up until now providers often just cared for cheap prices of their default routers. Now customers can also set other priorities like eco-friendliness or power cost savings.

What kind of routers are recommended?

In general we recommend routers that run Free Software. For DSL connection there are already many that are supported by free software firmware like OpenWrt, IPFire or the like. For cable connected devices the situation is a bit worse and unclear because until now there was almost no cable ISP allowing alternative devices, and because these devices run chips that are not Free Software friendly. With the new situation and a growing market we hope that also cable internet users will be able to benefit from free software firmware soon.

What is the possibility that ISVs will certify/approve only few routers to work with their network to maintain their control?

Some cable ISPs dream about a voluntary certification of alternative devices. But we don't expect that because this would be highly illegal and opposing the new law. Any device following the necessary known standards and having the necessary consumer market certificates (like CE in Europe) is allowed to be used for connecting to the internet, and replacing the default router.

Have ISPs pushed back? I'd imagine they are certainly going to fight back?

During the debates since 2013 there was quite a lot pressure from their side. There were technically incorrect arguments like free choice of routers would endanger the network of whole regions — ignoring the fact that the U.S. market has been liberalized for many years and we haven't seen such breakdowns yet. They lobbied quite hard against the new freedoms for customers on many political levels but we are happy that the new law is unambiguous in terms of user freedoms.

With this new law, however, we expect that ISPs will find other ways to discriminate against users, like making the process of getting the necessary access data for internet and telephony extremely complicated, refusing to support customers who run an alternative device, telling users that their internet connection will be much slower or unstable with non-ISP-supplied devices and so on. For this, we set up a public wiki page where we collect such incidents and user experiences and exchange information. If we detect misbehavior on the part of ISPs we certainly will make it public and confront them.

What’s FSFE’s advice to new and existing broadband users in Germany so that they are well equipped to talk to their ISPs?

Don't let yourself get dazzled by your ISPs when they want to convince you to stay with your default device — it just saves them money for support, and in many cases you already pay quite a lot for these devices. Insist on your rights and don't be shy to tell FSFE, consumer organizations, or the Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur) if your ISP refuses to give you the necessary data.

How are you planning to educate users given that a majority of users are not tech-savvy and don’t read FSFE news?

We are already doing that quite successfully. In the first place we worked not only on our own but actively joined forces with consumer organizations, hardware manufacturers and firmware initiatives. We put this topic on the agenda of many journalists. In recent days we've seen many non-tech news publications cover the new law (for example Sueddeutsche Zeitung) and after August 1 we expect even more news articles about the new user rights.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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