April 4, 2022

Interoperability in a “Big Tech” world

As an answer to the announce of the EU parliament to force some service providers to allow others to interact with them, that we call “interoperability”.

Interoperability

In theory, interoperability is a way to allow different networks to communicate together. And it’s great, it’s even important for emancipation, empowerment of users.

I still have concerns though because I think in general it makes user experience (UX) more complex, and even screws up the various efforts applications make in this domain1.

This law says it’s going to force big companies (Facebook, Apple, etc.) that it calls “gatekeepers” to open their services to other networks.

In practice these networks will be accessible via bridges. A bridge is the software layer that handles the connection between different networks. It understands the language (protocol) that these applications speak, and translates from one to the other.

These bridges already exist for various open, and proprietary protocols like WhatsApp. A problem is that it is in WhatsApp’s interest to ensure their users don’t use any other applications than the ones they provide. As soon as WhatsApp realizes that a bridge works, they will quickly change something in their software to ensure it doesn’t anymore, and may also ban accounts that were using the bridges, etc.

Power struggle

What implications are there from small networks’ perspective? And as it would also impact users if it’s not beneficial for networks, what implications are there for the users?

How will these platforms now handle questions of identity at their doors? Usually they would ask a phone number, an ID card and whatnot.

Now that they don’t have control over the whole network, will users have to register credentials with the bridge to communicate? Often that’s used as an excuse to protect themselves from spam, and it may indeed, but it also has various harmful effects on users.

It’s not because the law now says that they have to allow interoperability that they will magically adopt good practices2. They are still sharks and will still be in position of strengh over other players on the network.

With their important userbase these platforms would be able to impose certain practices to all who want to communicate with them. It’s already been the case when Google (gtalk), Facebook, and Microsoft were using XMPP, and it’s possible to observe this behaviour also in email with Google (gmail) and Microsoft.

In summary, pretence of debate during standardization – if it even happens – caused by this position of strengh.

A power struggle already here?

Some say this power struggle already exists, and it’s true. To what extent do these companies influence our protocols and applications already? I wouldn’t know.

I would say many features and UX come from them. Because of their huge userbase, lots of us active in the XMPP community tell ourselves we need to at least be able to equal them to be as attractive, and that’s how it gets in the protocol.

By forcing these companies to open up – which will also be turned upside down as a marketing strategy to show their goodness by the way – won’t this influence grow even more in our spheres? To what extent?

In email for example, if you’ve had the chance to host your own server, you certainly have had to cross swords with gmail.com, very influent in this area, where a good chunk of your contacts are hosted.

Google easily abuses its position of strengh to impose various anti-spam measures, and other practices which they pulled out of their magic hat (they might have asked their friends over at Microsoft and co). And if one day they wish to stop communicating with you, meaning you lose access to your contacts, you have no say in it.

To clarify the use of the word “force”: These regulations aren’t in the interest of the companies we’re talking about. Let me remind you as I’ve said above that as we speak they actively try to prevent any “unsanctioned” implementation to use their platforms.

That’s why it is generally complex and time-consuming to maintain a bridge. They will actively fight you and you will need to update your code again and again. Another example would be NewPipe and Youtube on Android.

In summary

One can imagine the bare minimum will be done to comply with the law – after a horde of lobbyists has gone over it again and again, to weaken it even more.

Forcing interoperability is only a question of form, and not of substance. The problem still is capitalism, accumulation of wealth and power, and monopolies and oppressions that these create.

It’s certainly pessimistic, but I doubt forcing these monopolies to communicate with other entities allow the free XMPP community to oppose their ideas and provoke substancial changes within these services, and I’m picturing the opposite rather.

Down with capitalism. Down with oppressions.


  1. TODO: expand on this in another article ↩︎

  2. The phrase “good practices” is to be defined obviously, by a collective discussion between equals, not out of a unilateral decision. ↩︎

© Maxime “pep.” Buquet 2022. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0 unless specified.

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