The Future is in Interoperability Not Big Tech: 2021 in Review – EFF

2021 was not a good year for Big Tech: a flaming cocktail of moderation failings, privacy breaches, leaked nefarious plans, illegal collusion and tone-deaf, arrogant pronouncements stoked public anger and fired up the political will to do something about the unaccountable power and reckless self-interest of the tech giants.
We’ve been here before. EFF’s been fighting tech abuses for 30 years, and we’re used to real tech problems giving rise to nonsensical legal “solutions,” that don’t address the problem – or make it worse. There’s been some of that (okay, there’s been a lot of that).

But this year, something new happened: lawmakers, technologists, public interest groups, and regulators around the world converged on an idea we’re very fond of around here: interoperability.

There’s a burgeoning, global understanding that the internet doesn’t have to be five giant websites, each filled with text from the other four. Sure, tech platforms have “network effects” on their side – meaning that the more they grow, the more useful they are. Every iPhone app is a reason to buy an iPhone; every person who buys an iPhone is a reason to create a new iPhone app. Likewise, every Facebook user is a reason to join Facebook (in order to socialize with them) and every time someone joins Facebook, they become a reason for more people to join.
But tech’s had network effects on its side since the earliest days, and yet the web was once a gloriously weird and dynamic place, where today’s giant would become tomorrow’s punchline – when was the last time you asked Jeeves anything, and did you post the results to your Friendster page?
Network effects aren’t anything new in tech. What is new are the legal strictures that prevent interoperability: new ways of applying cybersecurity law, copyright, patents, and other laws and regulations that make it illegal (or legally terrifying) to make new products that plug into existing ones.
That’s why you can’t leave Facebook and still talk to your Facebook friends. It’s why you can’t switch mobile platforms and take your apps with you. It’s why you can’t switch audiobook providers without losing your audiobooks, and why your local merchants don’t just give you a browser plugin that replaces Amazon’s “buy” buttons with information about which store near you has the item you’re looking for on its shelves.
These switching costs are wholly artificial. By their very nature, computers and networks are flexible enough to allow new services to piggyback on existing ones. That’s the secret history of all the tech we love today.
Interoperability – whether through legally mandated standards or guerilla reverse-engineering – is how we can deliver technological self-determination to internet users today. It’s how we can give users the power to leave the walled gardens where they are tormented by the indifference, incompetence, and malice of tech platforms, and relocate to smaller, more responsive alternatives that are operated by co-ops, nonprofits, startups, or hobbyists. 

Which is why this year’s progress on interoperability has been so heartening. It represents a break from the dismal policy syllogism of “Something must be done. There, I did something.” It represents a chance to free the hostages of Big Tech’s walled garden.
Here’s the interop news that excited us this year:
That’s not all, of course! There’s also pro-interop action that’s more of a mixed bag: for example, China’s new “cyberspace regulations” (which ban Chinese tech giants from blocking interoperability) and the policy recommendations from the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority report on ad-tech, which leans heavily on interop to encourage competition (but is intended, in part, to improve the market for commercial surveillance of internet users).
Beyond state action, there are independent interop efforts from big companies and individual tinkerers alike. On the corporate side, Twitter continues to make progress on its “Project Blue Sky,” billed as “an app store for social media algorithms.” On the tinkerer side, we’re delighted to see the guardians of the Public Interest Internet continue to fight for the user by creating DIY glue that sticks together all kinds of messenger apps, like Pidgin and Matterbridge.
Interoperability is a technical solution to a technical problem, but it’s not just a nerdy answer to a social conundrum. By changing the law to make it easier for users to walk away from Big Tech silos, we change what kind of technology can be built, what kinds of businesses can be operated, and what kind of lives digital users can make.

2021 was a landmark year for interoperability – and 2022 is shaping up to be even better.
This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2021.
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