Online / 6 & 7 February 2021


Open Source, Interoperability and the Digital Markets Act

New European regulation proposals to open up the dominant platforms

The Internet originally thrived on interoperable services - until the "walled gardens" came. The European Commission recently proposed new regulations (DSA/DMA/DGA) to protect democracy and restore openness and competition. The talk will introduce them and their economic and political background; it will then focus on a specific point, the requirement for dominant platforms to interoperate with third parties, though only in limited cases, using messaging and social media as example.

A few decades ago, the Internet was open, interoperable and based on federated services that allowed everyone to cooperate and deploy new content and services: email is the classic example. Then, consolidation happened: the talk will show a common European perspective of how we ended up with a concentration of money and power of unseen scale in the history of mankind, which perpetuates itself by adopting the "walled garden" service model. The best example of this model is instant messaging, where people have a hard time switching to different service providers as they need to be on a specific app to communicate with all the other users of the same app. This creates dominant positions that are often used to impose unfavourable terms and conditions onto users.

In the European political and regulatory scene, this has been increasingly perceived as a problem under many dimensions: tax revenue, privacy, national security, law enforcement, free speech, and even democracy. All these dimensions boiled down into a call for "digital sovereignty", meaning more autonomy and stronger reliance on EU-provided services that keep the wealth they produce local, but also more control and stronger capabilities to set and enforce European rules for the Internet in Europe, without having to negotiate them with the big American platforms.

Open source has been identified as a fitting software development model for Europe and increasingly supported. Open source development matches the "cooperation in diversity" that is required by the multinational, multicultural nature of the European Union, and naturally offers remedies to consolidation.

After quickly introducing the three regulatory proposals - the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act and the Data Governance Act - the final part of the talk will focus on the DMA and on a specific topic: interoperability provisions. "Walled garden" instant messaging apps could be turned into open, federated email-style services by forcing dominant providers to open up and interoperate with potential competitors, so that users of one app could exchange messages with the users of all the other apps.

The current DMA proposal by the European Commission, however, only does this in part. The interoperability clause in Article 6.1(f) only covers ancillary services such as payments, advertising or identification, but not core services like messaging and social media; and only for business users. The "real time" data portability clause in Article 6.1(h) would not allow true interoperability and would still require users to hold an account on each service and accept its unilateral contractual terms.

The talk builds on the efforts of a coalition of open source software companies and digital rights NGOs that have been campaigning for full interoperability clauses in the DMA. It also builds on a technical policy paper that discusses the topic and that was submitted to the Commission during last summer's consultation. We hope to open up the debate, validate our ideas and build community discussion around this issue.


Photo of Vittorio Bertola Vittorio Bertola