Here comes the missing communication layer of the web

December 16, 2020

Wow! Yesterday the EU published the Digital Markets Act, a legislative proposal seeking to protect the fundamental rights of users in the digital world.  This proposal has the potential to be a major catalyst for the emergence of a unifying communications layer for the open web.

Indeed the Digital Markets Act is pushing interoperability between messaging apps, which is a major win for consumers.

People will no longer be forced into - or trapped within - walled gardens like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Instead, they should be able to choose any app they prefer, and then communicate with anyone - just like you can choose your email provider and still email people that use a different one; or call people on different phone networks.

In fact, when you think about it, it’s crazy that messaging apps don’t already interoperate.

To quote the EU’s proposal:

Concretely, the Digital Markets Act will[...]:

  • Require gatekeepers to proactively put in place certain measures, such as targeted measures allowing the software of third parties to properly function and interoperate with their own services;
  • Impose sanctions for non-compliance, which could include fines of up to 10% of the gatekeeper's worldwide turnover, to ensure the effectiveness of the new rules.

This changes everything!

An idea whose time has come

That’s something that occurred to us back in 2014, when we started development on Matrix. We saw the way the web was increasingly centralised and that the general public were being robbed of their privacy. We set about creating a disruptive, decentralised open communications network that would put ordinary people back in control of their online conversations. Through Matrix, they would be able to host their app wherever they wanted. Instead of having to leave it on the servers of a proprietary walled garden app; leaving it there, under the ownership of the service provider, free to be monetised, datamined (or breached, or anything else).

We thought that tech-savvy, early-adopters would propel the project forward and we were right, to an extent. We have a fantastic community behind us, who have supported us through thick and thin.

We then quite quickly realised that governments were very interested in decentralised real time communications, because it assured them of their digital sovereignty. Our first flagship deployment, the French government’s Tchap platform, was proof of that; along with a slew of similar deployments around the world. Most of those have been on-premise deployments. We’re now seeing open source companies and security-conscious commercial firms adopting Element and Matrix, mainly through Element Matrix Services; our Matrix-based hosting service.

What we didn’t foresee, especially in such a short timeframe, was that those centralised platform giants would become so dominant that legislators would also disrupt the marketplace. For the EU, it’s not just about igniting innovation in a dominated marketplace. It’s also a push to improve online privacy, stronger personal data ownership and raise security standards.

This is for everyone

These serendipitous improvements will take place because consumers will be able to pick a messaging app based on what it offers, not who it offers. And people are far more likely to choose privacy-respecting apps, where their data isn’t mined and sold off to advertisers or exploited to swing elections. Privacy - and security - should improve as a result.

It’s an initial blow to the likes of Facebook and Google whose business model is based on collecting and harvesting users’ data. But hopefully, they will commit to interoperability and compete on features, rather than locking people into their proprietary systems.

Indeed, instead of slipping into a comfortable middle age, they will be kept on their toes by a changing landscape and a new breed of competitors who can challenge not just those incumbents but the very notion of centralised technology.

The interoperability the EU wants already exists

For Element, and Matrix, this is a significant moment. Europe is looking to transform a centralised, siloed, gatekeeper-centric digital landscape into a new era of competitive, interoperable and privacy-centric communications.

Matrix - as both a protocol and a network - already exists. It offers digital sovereignty, interoperability and security. It can even operate on a peer-to-peer basis; independent of traditional internet infrastructure and able to connect the unconnected in the world’s most rural places.

As the internet giants react to Europe’s new direction - and step through the stages of denial, anger and bargaining - one thing they cannot deny is that an open standard for communication interoperability already exists.

Technically, we can have interoperability between all messaging apps in place before Spring 2021. Let’s see how long the politics - company politics - take to play out.

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