Re-opening the internet

DMA proposal mandates interoperability of messaging services
March 25, 2022

On 24 March, the European Parliament and the EU Member States reached a political compromise on the Digital Markets Act. The final proposal includes stronger interoperability provisions than those proposed initially by the European Commission. Based on the compromise, messaging services operating in Europe that meet the definition of a large gatekeeper platform will need to become interoperable: open to competition. As a result, these key types of services will shift from a collection of “walled gardens” controlled by their owners to a connected — more open — ecosystem. 

According to Politico,

Parliament also succeeded in convincing the Council of interoperability requirements for messaging services, meaning outfits such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or iMessage will have to open up and interoperate with smaller messaging platforms. For group chats, this requirement will be rolled out over a period of four years.”

In comparison, the initial provisions included in the European Commission’s DMA proposal would have provided a much weaker form of interoperability that would have regulated third-party software or services that potentially can connect with the gatekeeper platform. Interoperability in this case applies only to ancillary services: functionalities other than the core functionalities of a platform. So, for example, a social network would not need to make the content feeds interoperable (their core functionality), but would apply the rule to advertising or payment services that provide additional functionalities. Such interoperability is vertical, as it opens up – to some extent – the vertically aligned stack of functionalities of a single platform. But it does not enforce any connections or openings between different platforms.

This other – stronger – form of interoperability, which can be described as horizontal, is what was secured by the European Parliament yesterday in the final trilogue round. Horizontal interoperability has the goal of opening up different platforms, so that similar core functionalities are connected into a single communication space. The agreed-upon proposal will mandate such interoperability for messaging services. It seems that the proposal does not expect the messaging services to adopt a shared, open standard for data exchange. Therefore, the emergence of a unified messaging ecosystem will depend either on bridging the different technical standards or introducing a shared standard through self-regulation. Projects like Bluesky, launched by Twitter with the aim of “re-building the social web by connecting disconnected silos” suggest that such standards can emerge.  

The Parliament’s negotiating position also included interoperability measures for social networks. While this was not included in the negotiated proposal, the Commission will be tasked with evaluating the feasibility of extending interoperability standards also for social networks. Other important provisions will provide users with choice for such key services as browsers, virtual assistants and search engines – while today bundling practices often mean that this is either difficult or impossible, leaving users dependent on services provided by the gatekeeper platform.

Ultimately, taking into account the scale of lobbying against these measures, especially in the last phase of negotiations, the inclusion of horizontal interoperability provisions is a major success for anyone interested in a more open and decentralized communication environment.

Interoperability beyond the DMA

The European data strategy, published in 2020, notes that today “a small number of Big Tech firms hold a large part of the world’s data”. On the other hand, there are opportunities to govern data flows differently, in spaces that have not been yet dominated by Big Tech. In these spaces, Europe wants to balance flow and wide use of data with values such as privacy, safety and ethical standards. “The winners of today will not necessarily be the winners of tomorrow”, the strategy declares. 

Interoperability is also a key measure proposed in the recently published Data Act, where it is at the heart of the key institutional form of European data governance: the common data spaces. These can be understood as the emergent spheres where a European way of data governance can be established from the start, as these spaces are established.

Until yesterday, with the fate of DMA interoperability provisions uncertain, the framing proposed in the data strategy defined well the state of things. Indeed, Europe seemed to focus on emergent spaces, while accepting the fact that large swathes of data will remain in the hands of commercial gatekeepers. Yesterday’s compromise signals a shift in approach. Europe delivered on the ambition to regulate incumbent platforms, to shift the power balance in the platform economy.

Last year, we published an essay titled “The Paradox of Open”, in which we argue that with the rise of gatekeeper platforms the original value model of the open internet broke. Instead of a space securing freedom and cooperation, the open internet is increasingly felt as being vulnerable to centralized control by commercial platforms. Interoperability measures should be seen as a regulatory tool that potentially will fix this power imbalance. Just as the GDPR signaled in 2016 a major regulatory shift – not just in Europe, but globally – the DMA interoperability provisions can shift the power dynamics in digital ecosystems. The ecosystem of interoperable messaging services will be open in a way that has not been experienced with any major, mainstream services in the last years. Naturally, we are still waiting to see how key details are shaped, including for example the issue of open APIs and standards.

The press release published today by the European Parliament’s IMCO committee quotes Andreas Schwab, the file’s rapporteur:

“The agreement ushers in a new era of tech regulation worldwide. The Digital Markets Act puts an end to the ever-increasing dominance of Big Tech companies. From now on, they must show that they also allow for fair competition on the internet. The new rules will help enforce that basic principle. Europe is thus ensuring more competition, more innovation and more choice for users”.

Similarly, Commissioner Margrethe Vestager frames this as a matter of “open and contestable markets”. Yet interoperability is not just a market competition measure – it’s a principle that determines the shape of communication flows. When engineers designing internet technologies defined interoperability as a key principle, they did not care about market competition, but about the open flow of information and communication. This is the argument that we make in a recently published report “Generative interoperability. Building public and civic spaces online”. We believe that interoperability creates not just competitive markets, but also digital public spaces. And the societal impact of interoperability cannot be reduced to individual user choice. Instead, we expect that interoperable ecosystems, starting with the messaging space, will serve the public interest and generate more than just commercial value.

Alek Tarkowski
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