Interoperable to whose benefit?

natacha roussel on Interoperability
November 4, 2021

The Internet is busted. Huge corporations are calling the shots, extractive business models prevail. And safe and privacy-friendly online spaces have become scarce. How do we move from extractive practices to regenerative ones? How do we retain public control and move to a people-centered internet?

In our research on a Shared Digital Europe and public-civic spaces, we argue that public and civic actors need to build these alternative spaces. And that interoperability is an essential principle, through which they can together form a bigger ecosystem.

Over the course of summer, we consulted friends and experts on the question: how do we get to public-civic spaces, what role does interoperability play? And what is holding governments and civil society back to make the shift? In this series we share the insights that these conversations produced, one at a time.
Previously featured in this series on interoperability and digital public-civic ecosystems were Nathan Schneider, Mai Ishikawa Sutton and Geert-Jan Bogaerts. This time we sit down with natacha roussel from the Brussels-based non-profit petites singularités, a founding member of IN COMMON. IN COMMON is a cooperative data library where civil society and solidary economy actors can share, view, and map their data. For instance, this map presenting shared urban resources in Brussels was created through IN COMMON.

What does a map of Brussels have to do with interoperability? The point of IN COMMON, says roussel, is to ‘make citizen-generated data interoperable across the different actors of the commons’. Citizens of Brussel, in this case, can share data about common services and spaces, such as free water taps and open maker spaces, and use the data set for purposes they see fit. They do not surrender the data to Google Maps, for instance, shielding it from further use or mappings. “Interoperability is essential to decentralized and distributed actors of the commons”, she says, “so that they can get organized from their local point of anchorage towards a larger system communicating across borders”.

Explaining interoperability

roussel adds tremendously to our series on interoperability, not in the least because she knows how to explain how interoperability originally came about. When we ask her about positive examples of interoperability, she simply points to the Internet itself. “The Internet has very clear binding conditions for Interoperability inscribed in the structure of its central TCP-IP protocol, that imposes to not discriminate between packets of data and treat them equally on a basis of a first come first transmitted [principle]. This is often called net neutrality.” No single party owns the ‘net’, enjoys transmission privileges or has the right to impose restrictions on who can transmit or what can be transmitted, which permits the existence of smaller and diversified providers. “Preserving net neutrality is essential”, she says, “and also a constant fight as corporate monopolies constantly make moves that threaten to overthrow it.”
Another example is e-mail, roussel continues. Sending and receiving e-mail is based on a decentralized protocol called SMTP. The addressing model is standardized and interoperable: each e-mail address follow the structure. Thanks to these interoperable protocols and standards, it doesn’t matter which email provider you’re with, or where you are in the world, your email will be transmitted and received to anyone with an internet connection. “However”, roussel points out, “the overwhelming presence of GMail threatens interoperability, with its own privatized spam management system that declares as spam/censors e-mail coming from small domains”.

Interoperability and power imbalances

We ask roussel about the importance of interoperability in preserving the internet as an open and decentralised space. Here, the conversation shifts from the technical to the political: “It is important to understand how interoperable systems are organised, to whose benefit and who decides. Interoperability, like everything else, should take into account power imbalances in existing systems”.
There are many interoperability-related challenges, she continues. The first and foremost of which is that we live in a world where Big Tech dominates the Internet through ‘a worldwide quasi-monopoly’ over online exchanges, which directly violates the principle of interoperability. According to roussel, it is crucial that we allow enough space for diversity and move away from current skewed power configurations. As an example, she adds that “I would certainly not want my community based decentralised networks to be interoperable with Facebook, because we would get flooded by their data and in a very short term would become invisible to each other”.
Furthermore, interoperability will not magically transform the power of GMAFIA (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Apple). Connecting to their interoperable services and media will still require the acceptance of their terms of service. Hence, it will resolve in a situation of ‘interoperability without interconnection’.
Also, from a data perspective, petites singularités points out that interoperability is limited and could be strengthened by complementary data portability and open standards, through which people regain control of their personal data. As well as by a minimalist approach to authorization, which currently boils down to all-or-nothing. But why does a chat service need access to my contact list to pass a message?
Fragile ecosystemsThroughout our research and the interviews with Nathan Schneider, Mai Sutton and others, our view on interoperability has transformed into an ‘ecosystem view’, where we look at the interopable and decentralised nature of the system instead of individual services. Such a system is needed, but fragile, says Roussel. “More than anything it involves a lot of human organisation to be maintained with equity for a long time”.

But there are some starting points for a public-civic system, which have, according to roussel, been articulated well and for long by digital rights defenders. The first requirement for such a system is Public Money Public Code, which advocates that publicly financed software developed be made publicly available under a Free Software licence. The second requirement is to support, consult and contribute to existing grass-roots groups and initiatives. Third, is democratic consultations about technology choices with participation by all stakeholders. Finally, roussel continues, we need to “take back education in our hands: both the platforms that are used to transmit (open) knowledge and know-how, and the way we teach technology in school”.

Building resilient interoperable spaces

Interoperability could lead to ecosystems, in which commercial, public and civic actors share data and services, but how do we make sure that (large) commercial actors do not dominate this space? A substantial risk exists that well-intentioned public civic ecosystems or services fall victim to commercial capture. “How large is the risk of capture? Do we need additional market regulation to safeguard this?”, asks Roussel. Or could we take an approach that moves beyond capitalist structures altogether?
IN COMMON’s attempt at doing this manifests in their participation in the project DREAM, funded by the European Commission through its New Generation Internet (NGI) program. Through DREAM, IN COMMON and partners like Open Engiadina and P2PColab aim at bringing together ‘the best of the Social Web (easy UI, Linked Data), with the best of Peer-to-Peer networking architectures (end-to-end encryption, autonomy, replicability, lack of central control, censorship resistance, privacy-by-design and privacy-by-default)’. The goal of DREAM is to enable the convergence of distributed P2P networks and linked data models, and embedding it firmly within the social solidarity economy.

roussel concludes on a more general note with a piece of advice for moving out of capitalist reach: “From where I stand it feels that the only way to protect ourselves from capture is to stay busy with stuff that has no value for the market, for example resistance and radical care.”

This blog series is a co-production of  Open Future and Commons Network in the context of the joint project Shared Digital Europe.

Sophie Bloemen (Shared Digital Europe, Commons Network),
Jens Kimmel (Shared Digital Europe, Commons Network)
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