European Union lawmakers recently unveiled the Digital Markets Act, which aims to limit the power of “gatekeepers” — companies so big and popular that they shape entire industries — like the tech companies behind messaging apps.
One rule would require that apps be “interoperable” with one another, so that, for instance, a startup could let its users send messages to people using Apple’s iMessage or Meta’s WhatsApp seamlessly.
Companies that don’t comply would face steep penalties — up to 20% of their global revenue.
Alex Heath covers tech and internet platforms at The Verge. He laid out some of the pros and cons of the proposal.
Alex Heath: Well, the argument on one side is that interoperability essentially will open up competition. When we have these messaging apps, what we have are lists of people that we interact with and you can jump over to another free messaging app whenever you want. But it doesn’t mean that those people jump over with you. In fact, it can be very difficult to get people to use multiple messaging apps or try a new one. I’ve experienced this as a reporter covering this stuff. The argument on the other is that there really hasn’t been any proof that interoperability for messaging has increased competition. These services are free to use, they don’t really lock people in because you can take your contact book with you somewhere. And also some messaging apps don’t even access your contact book or don’t need to.
Kimberly Adams: Are there any examples of open messaging systems that might be able to be used as a framework for how to move forward?
Heath: Well, looking kind of far into the future, you could make an argument that blockchain technology, crypto technology could essentially do this. Twitter, for example, has a project where they’re trying to basically reintroduce Twitter on a blockchain. And that sounds a little heady — and it is — but the idea is essentially, getting to what you’re saying, that Twitter would operate on something open and standardized like an email protocol that other social apps would be able to plug into. And you’d be able to pick your algorithm, pick the kind of filter on the world you want to see and maybe even the messaging experience. But there really isn’t a near-term look at the scalability of it and the safety of it yet. It’s still very early.
Adams: So let’s say that this actually could happen technically. What might these sorts of changes mean for user privacy?
Heath: It’s a really good question, and I don’t think that’s one the EU has explained. They say they want privacy to still be considered doing this. Experts I talk to, people who build these apps, they have no idea how this could be implemented in a safe, responsible way, especially if you’re working with an app that’s encrypted, like WhatsApp, and an app that’s not. Encryption adds a whole new layer of complexity, where the messages are scrambled, the app literally can’t see what’s being sent, doesn’t even really know who’s talking to who.
Adams: Can you say more about that additional layer of difficulty when it comes to encryption? What exactly is that additional layer of problems?
Heath: Encryption essentially scrambles everything, right? So when you’re messaging someone on WhatsApp, for example, WhatsApp and Facebook can’t see literally what you’re sending and vice versa from the other person. Different apps use different methods of encryption, and they sometimes even have different definitions of how an app is fully encrypted. In the case of Apple and iMessage, when you back up your iMessage, that backup is stored in an unencrypted way that Apple could theoretically access, whereas WhatsApp offers ways to store it in an encrypted way, where it’s still scrambled. So that’s just one example of two of the largest messaging apps, that they approach their backups differently. And the EU doesn’t really address that.
Adams: The EU seems pretty intent on making something around this happen. What is the timeline like?
Heath: It’s kind of unclear. I do think parts of this will be challenged in the courts, and the companies will lobby aggressively to challenge them. But assuming things go to plan, this stuff’s going to have to start being implemented very soon in terms of the compliance aspect of it. And they do give that little carve-out for group chats, acknowledging that that’s complicated, saying that they’ll allow that to have a period of about four years of rollout.
But I don’t even feel like they’ve answered the question of does this apply to stories? Does this apply to attachments? What level of interoperability are we talking about here? Because if we’re talking about full interoperability, you’re essentially saying you want these messaging apps to go back in time to basically how email works — this open system that all these apps can plug into and it’s relatively bare bones. And sure, you can build things on top of it. But email as we know it has not really changed in a very long time. And that’s the downside of these superstandardized, open protocols: They tend to metastasize and just kind of stay the same. I think that’s a concern that a lot of these companies have is they won’t be able to innovate and introduce new features because they’re going to have to worry about all this backward compatibility.
Adams: What kind of implications does this EU law have for the rest of the world and these tech companies that operate messenger apps?
Heath: Well, because of how these companies run, which is global infrastructure, right? The value of these companies is that they connect people around the world, right? Especially for a messaging app. I mean, I see no way they, these companies don’t have to implement this globally. And that’s the concern, and that’s also kind of what we saw with the [General Data Protection Regulation], right? Which the EU rolled out and we all see those “Agree” buttons now for sharing cookies whenever we load a website, and that really came from Europe. And so Europe is again kind of setting the tone here that the rest of the world will have to follow just because of the global nature of these companies.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
The Verge has more detailed coverage of this topic, and the European Union released its own statement on the Digital Markets Act from last week. In addition to the messaging app changes, it includes proposed restrictions on the use of personal data for targeted advertising and a requirement that companies let users “freely choose their browser, virtual assistants or search engines.”
The U.S. has its own history with interoperability rules, such as when the Federal Communications Commission approved the merger of AOL and Time Warner back in January 2001.
The agency had a few conditions attached to that deal approval, including requiring that AOL Instant Messenger be made “interoperable” with other “IM offerings.”
Oh AIM, you’ll always have a place in our hearts.
All this talk has me nostalgic for the old, transparent blue Motorola T900 I owned in college, when I thought I was the absolute coolest for having a pager with a keyboard.
Heath and many others in the tech industry have been discussing the potential challenges and complications of the EU’s proposed messaging app regulations, but the idea does have its supporters.
Matthew Hodgson of the nonprofit Matrix.org Foundation, which has created its own open source platform, argues that interoperability can be achieved without sacrificing privacy, that the issues opponents raise are fixable ones and that the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks.