Interoperability in one minute

With the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) in its final negotiation phase, here are the arguments for messaging and social network interoperability requirements for the very largest platforms in a minute’s read (or two ?).

What is civil society calling for? 

It wants the Council of Ministers to support the European Parliament’s DMA amendments requiring gatekeeper instant messaging and social network services to interoperate with competitor services. These are contained in Parliament’s new Articles 6(1)(fa) and (fb).

Why is it important? 

In the words of leading competition economists, interoperability is the “super tool” for digital platform governance. 

It can reintroduce competition into markets thoroughly “tipped” to monopoly, as we see across Europe with instant messaging and social media. It shares the benefits of network effects across society, rather than hoarding them for one monopolist. 

Facebook and Google’s social media and search incumbency also supports their online advertising duopoly, which the UK’s Competition & Markets Authority estimated in 2020 costs UK households a significant part of the 600€/year spent on digital advertising in increased prices for products and services across the economy:

Google’s revenue per search in the UK has more than doubled since 2011, and our in-depth analysis of Google and Bing’s search prices suggest that Google’s prices are 30-40% higher on desktop and mobile when comparing like-for-like search terms. Facebook’s average revenue per user in the UK has increased from less than £5 in 2011 to over £50 in 2019, and our comparison with other social media platforms suggests that its average revenue per user in 2019 was significantly higher than that of its competitors.

UK Competition & Markets Authority (2020, p.8)

Why should the Council support it? 

It would give European firms the chance to effectively compete in these messaging and social media markets, providing European users with a genuine choice of services, over features such as privacy, without having to leave behind all of their friends and family on current incumbent services. This is a key way to get strategic autonomy and digital sovereignty for Europe!

Why are the counter-arguments invalid or what are the myths? 

Lack of demand – European SMEs such as Open-Xchange and Element are enthusiastic supporters (and Element already supplies secure messaging software to the French and German governments). The German consumer federation VZBV found more than a third of users would change their main instant messaging service if they could message people on other services.

Technical difficulties – existing technical protocols (like the open Matrix standard, and the World Wide Web Consortium’s ActivityPub, which already has over 4 million users) could be the basis for interoperability requirements, and maintain security features such as encryption. Smaller firms could choose whether to interoperate with gatekeeper services. And their users similarly could choose whether they wanted to connect to friends, and what types of content they wanted to share.

UPDATED on 21 March 2022 to correct CMA digital advertising statistic.