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How can “interoperability” strengthen our choices and privacy online?

Brussels is moving into high gear on internet regulation, as the text of the much-anticipated Digital Services Act (now with an additional Digital Markets Act) is due to be published by the European Commission on 2 December.

By Foundation for Information Policy Research (guest author) · October 28, 2020

EDRi and its members have been contributing to research, since April , on interoperability policy by Open Society Foundations consultant Dr Ian Brown (a member of EDRi member FIPR’s advisory council), who has written the update below based on his first two reports, which will be published by Open Forum Europe on 4 November.

EDRi has been campaigning for over a year to ensure this legislation strengthens users’ rights and choices. A key element — as is increasingly emphasised by digital competition reviews, European tech companies, and now governments (including Germany, France and the Netherlands) — will be a requirement for large “gatekeeper” platforms such as Facebook and Google to “interoperate” with other services.

Interoperability is a technical mechanism for computing systems to work together – even if they are from competing firms. It is the online equivalent of interconnection, which the EU imposed on the telecoms sector in the early 1990s, and was fundamental to the successful opening up of these markets to competition. Interoperability has been fundamental to competitive communications markets since their inception, and underlies many technologies today, including email, digital TV, and indeed the internet itself. Users can exchange calls, text messages and e-mails irrespective of their phone, network or e-mail service.

An equivalent technical interoperability requirement for the largest social media and messaging platforms would enable interconnection between very large services (such as Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram) and services run by other organisations and even individuals that wish to. Users of these services could choose to communicate with each other cross-platform when authorised to do so, using common functions of such platforms (e.g. connecting as “friends” or “followers”; sending messages; sharing information such as profiles, status updates, “likes” or “retweets”, location, and photos, with individuals, groups and the public; following and responding to each other’s’ feeds; and searching across connected services.)

Interoperability lets users communicate with friends and families on major platforms using their own choice of tools, without having to install, learn and manage many different apps, or agreeing to be profiled in exchange for “free” services.

New entrants can also find it difficult to break into a market if users have to pay for services available from existing players for “free” (i.e. by being profiled, mainly for targeted advertising purposes) or if entrants need to attract advertisers (given their small number of users compared to the existing players).

Interoperability would boost competition by obliging such platforms to compete on the merits of their products and services, rather than relying on the sheer size of their existing user base. This would enable new market entrants to offer users a real choice, and allow users to choose their providers on the basis of their needs and preferences.

A technical interoperability requirement could succeed where existing competition rules have failed to tackle the fact that a small handful of technology giants currently have extraordinarily high market shares, in Europe and elsewhere, and so little incentive to compete on the basis of their products’ merits. These high market shares harm consumers by reducing their choice of quality products and services, and harm innovation because potential competitors wishing to enter these markets face considerable barriers to entry.

EDRi will continue to campaign for a strong interoperability mandate for the largest platforms in the Digital Services and Markets Acts, as the legislation moves next year for debate and amendment in the European Parliament and Council.

(Contribution by Ian Brown, a member of the Foundation for Information Policy Research’s advisory council)