WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and other messaging applications on a mobile screen.AFP
Social networks are incompatible with each other by design and by default. A Signal user cannot write to one from WhatsApp, as one from Gmail would with one from Outlook. This lack of compatibility is not due to a technological limitation. It is a business decision. Facebook's messaging platform is not successful because it is the most effective messaging application, nor is it the most respectful of user privacy. He has it for amassing 2,000 million users. Being on WhatsApp is the most comfortable way to communicate with your friends, your co-workers, your flirt. So that's why it's logical to use this app. This is what is called the network effect, and it encourages social networks to be a small oligopoly in which it is difficult for small actors to enter.Unless interoperability becomes the norm in the online environment again.
"Interoperability is a technical mechanism that allows computer systems to be compatible, even if they are from competing companies," explains Roel Wieringa, professor of computer systems at the University of Twente, the Netherlands. It is what would make a Telegram user write to a WhatsApp user. Or that one of Facebook could comment on a Twitter trend. It sounds strange, but years ago it was the norm. “Telephone services or email are examples of interoperable technology. You can send an email or call anyone, regardless of the server or operator you use ”, explains the teacher. But examples of interoperable technology are increasingly rare. "Social networks monopolize communication on their platform to maximize their resources," says the expert.These resources are the user data, which they sell to adjust the advertising as much as possible. Opening their services would dilute the amount of data they have. And with them their business model.
Interoperability would not be good for the accounts of the big tech players, but it would bring other benefits. Professor Wieringa points out how it would increase competitiveness and promote quality. How it would help create a system of defined protocols and decentralize power. How would you make the internet a more resilient place to cyber attacks, as it was in the past.
"The Internet is so old that we no longer remember what it was like," laments Jan Penfrat, political advisor at European Digital Rights, a conglomerate of European NGOs that fights for digital rights. 20 years ago the web was a wild and decentralized place. A jungle through which the user could walk without limitations. But in recent years, large technology players have opened doors to this field. And fences, and padlocks. They began to act as gatekeepers in small private gardens. You can only enter them with a membership card. "And if you go out, you lose contact with your loved ones and all the data that you have accumulated over the years," adds Penfrat. The portability of all these data and contacts from one network to another, as is done with the telephone number when changing companies,is another of the causes that this digital activist is pursuing. You think it is related to interoperability.
Dividing the internet into fenced gardens, controlled by gatekeepers, can generate a lot of money. But it undoes the principle on which it was founded. Breaking down its fences, or creating walkways between plots should be, Penfrat believes, a priority. The technology to do so is already available. And in recent months this point has been confirmed by Facebook itself.
This company is working so that users of its social networks (WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger and Facebook itself) can interact. Last year he made these plans public. "They do this internally because they see benefits, but they are not going to do it with other companies because that would put their dominant position at risk," says the activist. The only way to achieve this, he considers, is through the law. And it pulls references to exemplify how the incompatibility and portability regulation has worked in the past. “You have to understand that this was not invented by Facebook. It has already happened, on the one hand with printer cartridges or coffee capsules. And regarding portability, with phone numbers. We should learn from the past and legislate the issue. "
On December 15, 2020, the EU published a proposal for a Digital Market Law requiring data interoperability for social networks with more than 45 million monthly active users and more than 10,000 annual active commercial users. It is a first step, but the road is long. Inge Graef is Professor of Competition Law at the University of Tilburg, the Netherlands. In 2015, it carried out a study on how to address the regulation of portability and interoperability of social networks.
He does not fully agree with Penfrat. Regulating this matter is not as easy as doing the same with the compatibility of coffee pods or the portability of phone numbers. "I understand the comparison with this last example, there are similarities such as the network effect," says the lawyer. "However, portability and interoperability issues are more complex in social media than in telecommunications." While in one case we were talking about transferring a phone number from one company to another, here photos, contacts, locations are at stake… The data has a more intimate nature, therefore its regulation is more complex. "Privacy and data protection considerations play a much bigger role here," agrees Graef. And this is not the only problem.
"The competitive dynamics is also more complicated in social networks," says the expert, "since there are many types of services with slightly different characteristics." Strict interoperability and standardization requirements must be prevented from limiting innovation and making it difficult for new companies to enter. Hence, the proposed European Union law is limited to social networks of a certain volume, something with which Graef agrees: “asymmetric regulation, in which only strict obligations are imposed on large companies, can be especially useful here ”.
At the moment, the regulation is limited to proposals or recommendations, but the three experts point out that the excessive growth of large social networks will end up causing them to crystallize into specific laws.
Regulatory intervention would then open the door to the fenced gardens created by the priests of Silicon Valley.
They would give the opportunity, to whoever wants, to leave the fold without losing contact with whoever decides to stay.
The key to that door, experts say, is easy to make.
The will is lacking.
Or the law.
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