Unlocking the internet: Stakeholder perspectives of interoperability

16 Nov 2020 18:20h - 19:20h

Event report

The session, which was co-moderated by Mr Astor Nummelin Carlberg (Policy Director, OpenForum Europe) and Mr Vittorio Bertola (Head of Policy Innovation, Open-Xchange), explored the topic of interoperability from the perspective of three groups of stakeholders: consumers, users, and small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs).

Bertola opened the session by providing a basic definition of interoperability. According to him, interoperability refers to the ability of different and similar applications created by different makers to work together and even to replace each other or to exchange with each other. For example, we all use various instant messaging (IM) applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram. These are different apps with different functionalities and we still need to install each of them to communicate with one another. We cannot use Telegram to communicate with WhatsApp, but we can use various email services to communicate with each other. In this sense, e-mail services are a good example of interoperability. Betola also highlighted how interoperability used to be a basic feature on the Internet in the early days but today the situation is a bit different.

Dr Ian Brown (CyberBRICS Visiting Professor, Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro) elaborated on his research which explores interoperability as a tool for competition and regulation. Various judicial and civic entities (e.g. European Commission, US Congress members, lawyers, economists, and civil society organisations) have looked at how to use interoperability as a way to improve competition among gatekeeping platforms (i.e. social media, IM applications, and search engines). At the same time, civil society groups also advocate for interoperability as a way for citizens to have better control over their media environment, as they would then have the ability to choose different providers to cater to their needs.

Mr Michał Woźniak (Information Security Officer, ISNIC) compared centralised social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook and decentralised social media platforms such as Fediverse. Centralised social media platforms moderate communication on their platforms by trying to apply one set of rules. Yet, their approach is impractical because communication is contextual and culturally dependent, so it is impossible to enforce one set of rules effectively. Furthermore, their attempts to moderate content are often criticised as borderline censorship. According to Woźniak, decentralised social media platforms manage to achieve better moderation of communication. Moderators are embedded within the different communities on these platforms and can better distinguish between hate speech and legitimate speech. In addition, the platform provides the moderators with better moderation tools such as silencing a threat or a user. Therefore, applying interoperability and open standards to social media platforms will not only allow consumers to decide which platforms to use but will also contribute to a better social media sphere. Moreover, the interaction between two different social media platforms might also minimise the risks of having one’s information in the hands of one company.

Ms Annika Linck (EU Policy Manager, European Digital SME Alliance) represented the perspective of SMEs in the session. According to Linck, there is a need to create an open and fair market so that SMEs can compete. Advocating for interoperability can assist SMEs in achieving these goals. In the past, Linck explained that there was more focus on the aspect of competition by, for example, backing up the European Commission in their anti-trust investigation against Microsoft or by functioning as interveners in the European Commission antitrust case against Google and Android. These investigations led to significant fines levied on these companies but have not altered the dominance of these companies, therefore more structural change is needed. interoperability can be an example of this change, but policymakers still need to figure out the details of how it can be implemented.

Ms Maryant Fernandez Perez (Senior Digital Policy Officer, Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs) raised the issues of privacy and consumer protection. Fernandez Perez argued for strict regulation on platforms that function as gatekeepers and one of the solutions is interoperability. It can benefit consumers as well as the economy but at the same time, this cannot be the only solution. Interoperability must be accompanied by other laws and regulations. Fernandez Perez also raised the issue of implementing interoperability while taking into consideration privacy and data protection risks. She referred to the example of payment application services, for which private data access is given to non-bank entities. Interoperability in that sense can put people’s private information at risk, therefore any progress made in this field must be aware of the related privacy considerations.