A Big Step to address Big Tech

March 25, 2022

On Thursday, March 24th, the EU Parliament held its last debate on the Digital Markets Act (DMA), and decided how strongly to bring Big Tech to heel.

The EU’s intentions to ‘ensure fair and open digital markets’ have always been good, but there have been many points in the negotiations where the outcome could have been toothless - in particular around the interoperability obligation.

Interoperability in messaging’s core

So it’s a major positive to see that interoperability is now baked into the regulation. Despite the fact that the web, email and the phone network have been interoperable for decades (or centuries for the phone), the ‘siloisation’ of instant messaging and social networks is strongly entrenched. The gatekeepers didn’t want change, and had been lobbying hard spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) - in particular around technical feasibility, privacy and moderation.

And while the final agreement reached on Thursday is not perfect, it is a huge step forward for user freedom and an open market. It mandates gatekeepers (aka Big Tech) enable other providers to interoperate with them for 1:1 and group messaging services, by opening up their APIs. Today the mandatory features are limited to basic ones rather than industry standard. So we’re at risk of seeing anything beyond text, images, videos, files and VoIP calls - such as animations, stickers, emojis and reactions - not being made available by gatekeepers. However there is scope for these to evolve as time goes.  A strong case is being made to preserve security, including end-to-end encryption if applicable.

It is significant that interoperability applies to group chat. Big Tech argued against it on the grounds that it wasn’t technically feasible, but that was eventually debunked with Matrix and others proving that interoperable group chats, with end-to-end encryption, is perfectly possible. Group calls do not seem to be in scope.

Limiting interoperability requirements to 1:1 messaging would have been a fatal mistake; a classic small detail that would render the regulation entirely ineffective. Communication is group-centric, so users would not bother to use a different app for one-to-one chats if they had to switch back to the gatekeeper’s app for group discussion.

But social networks managed to get away with it

While there was enough debate and education for the European bodies to see through status-quo preserving FUD for instant messaging, unfortunately interoperability for social networks got dropped; mostly based on concerns around the ability to moderate a big open network. Hopefully that’ll be revisited in the future. In the meantime, within the realm of instant messaging, we’ll implement a far superior - and user-driven - form of moderation that can set an example for interoperable social networks.

The innovation lie

Behemoths will be behemoths. Of course they will use their huge resources to protect their market position, profits and shareholders. But something that really needs calling out is Big Tech’s (and in particular Facebook’s) empty claim that interoperability will slow innovation down.

Interoperability is the catalyst for innovation. Tim Berners-Lee unleashed the power of the open (interoperable) web. Big Tech subsequently built on it, gradually centralising great chunks of it to become proprietary platforms. Ensuring interoperability is the most reliable way to kick-start a new era of innovation to challenge outsized and complacent incumbents.

The only thing interoperability slows down is Facebook’s ability to further cement the marketplace in its favour, which is why it’s been fighting so hard against it.

How to interoperate

Ensuring interoperability is one thing, stipulating how to do it is another.

Interoperability means that two services need to be able to communicate with one another. That can be done by connecting them one-to-one, or by having them all able to speak the same language.

The EU has gone with the first approach, where the gatekeeper simply opens up the APIs used internally for its service to function to the rest of the world so others can connect to it. It’s very simple for the gatekeeper to do, but it means that other services will have to implement every gatekeepers’ APIs, which is cumbersome - and that if the gatekeeper is using end-to-end encryption then it will be harder to preserve. And that gatekeeper can, of course, decide to be deliberately opaque and difficult in making APIs available.

The second approach is what we see with email and the web; everyone uses the same open standard.  It is the most sustainable solution as everyone only has one implementation to do to join the network. It also makes it far easier to preserve end-to-end encryption. However it requires an independent standard to be ready and recommended by the regulation, and whilst protocols like Matrix are ready for it, the time frames for the EU to select a standard were a bit tight. So while open APIs are a valid first step, we imagine an open standard will become the foundation for stronger and more practical interoperability.

The bottom line

The EU has taken an historical step in addressing Big Tech’s stranglehold over messaging, sparking innovation that will see users get far better messaging services. They will now be able to choose who is hosting their data, and which app they want to use to access it. Smaller companies will be able to invest, innovate and build value; either by addressing a niche market, providing differentiating features, or bringing a whole new communication experience. Most importantly they can thrive because they won’t have to worry about having to build a network of users from scratch. Freedom and competition won in Europe today, at least in the tech world.

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