Dominant tech companies make their products incompatible deliberately

Imagine buying a new dining table from IKEA and although it’s a great table, it can only be used with IKEA-made chairs. For security reasons, the furniture maker tells you, the table is incompatible with chairs from third party vendors, sorry. Sounds ridiculous? Welcome to today’s online platform economy.

Many of the largest tech companies deliberately make their products incompatible with others. The technical term for products that are compatible with those from other vendors is ‘interoperability’. Digital interoperability is a technical mechanism for computing systems to work together, even if they are from competing firms. Well-known examples of interoperable technology are email and telephone services. You can send an email or call anyone else with an email account or phone, regardless of the service provider, app or device you use.

Incompatible by design and by default

Wouldn’t it be unthinkable if Google suddenly decided that Gmail users are only able to email other Gmail users – but not people that use Outlook Mail, Yahoo or other email providers? Wouldn’t it also considerably reduce Gmail’s value to users? And yet, this is exactly what Facebook does with its social network, Twitter with its micro-blogging service, and WhatsApp with its messenger app: A Facebook user cannot follow someone else’s Twitter feed, a Signal user is blocked from joining a WhatsApp group, and an iPhone user can only use apps that have been pre-approved by Apple’s own app store.

Why can corporations control this? Big tech companies can break interoperability and get away with it because they are too big to care. Facebook, WhatsApp, Youtube, and others have so many users that they benefit from holding them as digital hostages by making any interaction with people on other services technically impossible.

The result: People sign up to those closed networks not because they are the best but because people have to if they wish to be in touch with everyone else. In economics this is called a ‘network effect’ and overcoming network effects by breaking people free from the hostage situation is incredibly difficult without effective legislation. What kind of legislation is needed?

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Interoperability has many benefits

Digital interoperability is not just useful to make similar services compatible with each other. It also enables newcomers to develop completely new digital services on top of existing gatekeepers.

For example, with full interoperability a French startup could build an app that combines the functionality of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter into one app to let users control all of their accounts from one single dashboard. A Latvian tech company could develop an independent Facebook app that shows users’ existing Facebook news feed but curated in a better way, including child-friendly content moderation.

Companies could also develop plug-ins for content moderation filters based on the user’s choice. In a market place for content moderation filters, trusted institutions like newspapers, civil society organisations or social enterprises could offer exactly the kind of moderation people want – instead of leaving 3 billion users exposed to the more than questionable content decisions taken by the Silicon Valley giants.

What EU platform legislation should do

Interoperability is one of the basic principles on which the internet was originally built. By adopting open technical standards, people and companies around the world could communicate and exchange services and content in simple and effective ways. Breaking down the internet into ‘walled gardens’ controlled by a single gatekeeper is the dream of every aspiring monopolist; but it undoes the very principle that allowed the internet to thrive and foster growth and development for all its participants.

That is why the EU must step in and enact a broad obligation for digital gatekeepers to stop breaking interoperability. Instead, these biggest and most powerful corporations should be obliged to actively enable interoperability by:

  • Making available well-documented, functioning application programming interfaces (APIs) that third parties can use to enable their users to interact with users of a gatekeeping service. The EU’s Payment Services Directive 2 (which opened up the banking industry to third-party payment providers) may serve as example for how APIs can provide secure access for people.
  • Deploying open digital standards for the core service functionality of social networks, micro-blogging, messaging and similar services. This would enable every software maker to build products that are compatible with dominant services and provide true added value.

It is obvious that digital gatekeepers will not enable interoperability by their own good will because it could increase competition. That is why EU legislation like the Digital Markets Act needs to step in and create a respective legal obligation. Previous EU laws have paved the way for other sectors in a similar fashion, now it’s time to act for an inclusive and thriving tech sector.

(Image credit: European Data Protection Supervisor)

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