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Just say no to the FCC's router power grab

Just say no to the FCC's router power grab

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The Federal Communications Commission is at it again.

After its massive, illegal "net neutrality" power grab in February, you might think Washington's chief ministry for the suppression of information freedom and restraint of digital trade would take a break to digest its prey. But no. Now they've set their sights on controlling your home Wi-Fi router, too.

If you run Wi-Fi in your home, you probably know that most routers allow users to "flash" the factory-installed firmware — either to update to the maker's newest version, killing newly discovered bugs and so forth, or to install alternative, open-source firmware with different capabilities and no factory-installed secrets.

The FCC's new rules revisions for routers using the 5GHz band require that those routers be "secured" against the user's ability to flash new firmware that isn't approved and authenticated by the router's manufacturer.

The proposed rule, specifically and by name, targets DD-WRT, a popular Linux-based firmware set compatible with a number of routers.

Why does the FCC hate your Wi-Fi freedom? Because if you can easily replace the firmware on your router, you might be able to do things the FCC doesn't want you to do now … or might not want you to do in the future.

Is this really important to you? SHOULD it be important to you? Yes.

Over the last few years around the world, governments have responded to protests, revolutions and other designated "emergencies" by shutting down Internet and/or cellular access.

Not just Third World totalitarian regimes, either. Right here in America, in 2011, San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system shut down cell and wireless service in several of its stations in a bid to suppress protests over the police murder of a passenger.

Activists have responded by using apps and networking schemes that get around those shutdowns, or just around network congestion. For example, last year in Hong Kong, pro-democracy protesters used FireChat, a "mesh networking" application, to organize when cell service wasn't working.

Mesh networking allows wireless devices, including the routers and access points the FCC is targeting with these new rules, to form "ad hoc" networks with other nearby devices whether Internet access is available or not.

But, of course, you can't hook your router into a mesh network unless the firmware is set up to allow you to. And the FCC wants to make sure that it, rather than you, decides what firmware you can run and what that firmware can do.

I don't trust the FCC's intentions. Neither should you. 

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). 

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