Walled gardens can be great: we all like it when Stuff Just Works because a single company oversees all its elements.
Walled gardens can be terrible: when all of our data, our social relations and our educational, romantic, professional and family ties are trapped inside a company’s silo and the company does something we don’t like, the garden walls become prison walls.
Leaving Facebook or Twitter or Amazon or Google means leaving behind many important, valuable things, from media to data to social connections, and these companies know it, and that means that when our wellbeing comes at the expense of their profits, they’re tempted to sell us out, knowing that we won’t leave. Far too often, large tech companies yield to that temptation.
That’s where interoperability comes in. From federated social media to alternative app stores to alternative clients to multiprotocol clients to tracker-blockers, interoperable tools put you in charge of the technology you use. You can block the parts you don’t like - like algorithmic feeds or bad moderation or privacy invasions - and keep the parts you like: contact with your friends, colleagues and customers or access to your data and the media and apps you’ve paid for.
2022 was a big year for interoperability. The global Right to Repair campaign gathered more momentum and even broke through, with the passage of Colorado’s Right to Repair law for wheelchairs and a New York Right to Repair bill for electronics (which still needs the governor’s signature).
But there were disappointments in the US, particularly the failure of Congress to vote on the ACCESS Act and the Open App Markets Act (so far). The anti-interop coalition is powerful, but it is not united. Meta and Apple both fund the tech industry’s power anti-interop lobbying machine, but that doesn’t stop Meta from lobbying separately for interop with Apple’s mobile devices. This monopolist-on-monopolist violence reveals the deep fracture lines in the anti-interop forces.
Meanwhile, the public is sick to the back teeth of devices that are designed to control them and are crying out for third-party tools that let them unlock the value in the devices and products they own, from printers to luxury cars to motorcycles.
The anti-ripoff coalition is a broad ideological church: proponents of government regulation see these abuses as evidence that companies can’t be trusted to self-regulate, while regulation skeptics see abuses arising out of a lack of competition and its power to discipline companies through the market. Both sides can agree that taking away dominant companies’ right to decide who can compete with them and how is sorely necessary.
In Europe, regulators are leapfrogging their American cousins. With the passage of the Digital Markets Act the EU put tech platforms on notice that they will be required to interoperate with small firms, co-ops, tinkerers, and other new market entrants.
We welcome the EU’s bold moves here, especially since the final DMA includes pro-interoperability amendments that we proposed, protecting “Adversarial Interoperability” (AKA “Competitive Compatibility” or “comcom”) - this being the act of connecting to an existing product or service without permission from its maker, such as connecting to the web with an ad-blocker installed or using third-party ink in your printer.
Though we’re very happy about the DMA’s passage, we’re have grave concerns about its implementation. The EU has decided that the first targets for mandatory interoperability will include end-to-end encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and iMessage. Billions of people all over the world rely on the integrity of these services and a hasty interoperability mandate could endanger all kinds of people, everywhere.
We think social media is the right place to start the DMA’s work on interop: these services are much easier to federate (break into smaller, autonomous, interconnected servers run by lots of communities), and doing so would address many of the problems people have with monolithic social media platforms.
In a federated, interoperable social media world, you don’t have to tolerate harassment because quitting comes at a high personal and professional cost. In a federated world, you can quit a server whose management refuses to address your concerns and move to one with better moderation policies - and still stay connected to the people and communities that matter to you.
But it’s been more than a generation since the last large-scale federated social media was in wide use - many people today have no recollection of Usenet, Fidonet and other decentralized, federated systems.
That’s why we created “How to Ditch Facebook Without Losing Your Friends,” an animated slideshow and accompanying essay that explains how federated, decentralized social media services could interoperate with today’s legacy giants without sacrificing privacy or opening the door to harassment.
This couldn’t have been more timely. Interest in federated social media has exploded in the weeks since the chaotic change of ownership at Twitter; even as Meta’s bid to lure users from Facebook to the metaverse has accelerated the decline of Facebook, whose own technical staff are comically unexcited about the prospect of being transformed into legless cartoon characters.
As the world reconsiders the wisdom of entrusting our social selves to the unilateral judgments of unaccountable tech firms, there is an exciting opportunity for interoperability to step into the gap and protect us from a future of walled gardens that become prisons.
This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2022.