Radio Directive - Open letter to the French Ministry of Budget and to the French Telecom Regulator

Paris, 6 April 2016 — The Directive on the harmonisation of the laws of Member States relating to the making available on the market of radio equipment (or Radio Directive) was adopted in April 2014, with the aim to improve the management of the radio spectrum. The Directive must now be transposed and implemented in Member States before 12 June 2016. Although its goals are laudable, it establishes standards for software installed on radio equipment, thus becoming an unprecedented threat to the use of free software. It is dangerous for innovation and for users' rights, and results in considerable legal insecurity for associations around the country that develop wireless citizen Internet networks. The French government is currently working on transposing this Directive, and must urgently tackle the situation and guarantee the right to install free software on radio equipment.

Dear Minister,
Dear President,

The period for transposing the 2014/53/EU Directive nears its end, and the government is set to take the necessary measures by an order (fr) concerning the evaluation of standards in software, as laid down in Article 3.3 (i) of the Directive. Indeed, radio equipments of specific categories are set to be manufactured in a way "to ensure that software can only be loaded into the radio equipment where the compliance of the combination of the radio equipment and software has been demonstrated". This article entails that manufacturers should check all software likely to be installed on the device, and its compliance with relevant radio legislation such as the frequency and signal strength.

This measure entails the following risks:

  • It will limit the user's freedom of choice. If manufacturers are forced to evaluate compliance to standards for all software that can be installed in the devices they produce, then they will be driven to install control mechanisms through non-removable and non-free software. This will make it very difficult for users and companies to use alternative software (i.e. non-native software) on the devices they have purchased (such as routers, mobile phones, WIFI cards or computers, and any other connected devices). However, alternative software — and free/libre software in particular — allow to cater for technical, normative, or legal needs of users, and in general offer a larger range of choice and features that are not present at all in native software. A huge number of devices make use of radio signals, and it is essential that users may still use whatever software they choose.
  • Every risk to freedom of choice implies that device security will be compromised, as users will not be able to fully control and inspect them. While on the contrary, free software usually offers a higher security level, because breaches are more easily detected and corrected through transparent and collaborative procedures. The draconian rules on software installed in low-power radio equipment, as laid down in the Directive, are not strictly necessary and seem completely disproportionated in view of the damage to the users' freedom.
  • Many companies and players in the digital ecosystem use free software to develop their products, including wireless network providers, creators of operating systems, etc. If the choice of these actors is restricted, economic development and innovation will also be affected. Furthermore, by using parts of proprietary software non-compatible with the GNU GPL (General Public License), manufacturers could potentially breach this license, and would be forced to use only proprietary and closed source software. This would result in a restriction of free/libre code within the software used in their devices, and would lead to significant cost increase and delays in development.
  • In France and in Europe, many players (including associations) develop wireless Internet networks, thus helping to reduce the digital divide and encouraging citizen ownership of Internet networks and services. However, in order to do this, they need to install ad hoc free/libre software on the radio equipments they use, and such software is developed for their specific needs. If Article 3.3 is transposed as it is, it would be deadly for these initiatives, that authorities must encourage, as they contribute to the public interest in the telecommunications field.

For these reasons, as part of the transposition of the radio Directive, we call on the government and ARCEP (French Telecom Regulator) to include Recital 19 of the Directive in French law. This recital is indeed a fundamental safeguard, as it ensures that "verification by radio equipment of the compliance of its combination with software should not be abused in order to prevent its use with software provided by independent parties (...) ". This recital is absolutely necessary in order to guarantee the openness of radio equipments and to enable innovation in the field of wireless telecommunications.