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EU messaging interoperability demands raise concerns

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The part of the EU’s Digital Marketing Act concerning messaging interoperability is getting some heat from the tech world – but the bigger question is how would such a thing curb big tech dominance?

The EU’s Digital Marketing Act is attracting some criticism from the tech world for the potential damage to security that would come with ‘messaging interoperability’ – or allowing people to communicate with each other through different message apps. The other question around this element of the legislation that should be asked is: how exactly it would curb the power and influence of big tech anyway, which is the whole point.

The legislation calls big tech firms like Microsoft, Apple and Facebook ‘gatekeepers’, and defines them as companies that either have had an annual turnover of at least €7.5 billion within the EU in the past three years or have a market valuation of at least €75 billion. They must also have at least 45 million monthly end users and at least 10,000 business users established in the EU.

The legislation has a number of facets but the messaging interoperability bit is the one currently gaining a lot of criticism. The question seems to be: is interoperability between messaging services actually possible, and if it is, can it be done without removing end-to-end encryption and other features which enable privacy in communications? There have been a few pieces doing the rounds that would suggest there is reason to think not.

“I have a lot of concerns around whether this will break or severely undermine privacy, whether it’ll break a lot of the safety work we’ve done that we’re particularly proud of, and whether it’ll actually lead to more innovation and competitiveness,” WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart told Platformer.

It’s fair to point out any company affected with some sort of legislation disruptive to its business will automatically be critical of it and, of course, will be keen to point out any logical flaws – though that wouldn’t necessarily make them wrong. But they’re not alone – The Verge also spoke to a couple of people in the know, who largely shared this scepticism:

“Trying to reconcile two different cryptographic architectures simply can’t be done; one side or the other will have to make major changes,” said Steven Bellovin, internet security researcher and professor of computer science at Columbia University. “A design that works only when both parties are online will look very different than one that works with stored messages …. How do you make those two systems interoperate?”

Former Facebook engineer and internet security expert Alec Muffett added: “If you went into a McDonald’s and said, ‘In the interest of breaking corporate monopolies, I demand that you include a sushi platter from some other restaurant with my order,’ they would rightly just stare at you,” Muffett said. “What happens when the requested sushi arrives by courier at McDonald’s from the ostensibly requested sushi restaurant? Can and should McDonald’s serve that sushi to the customer? Was the courier legitimate? Was it prepared safely?”

Meanwhile the Financial Times has quotes from Apple and Google, exactly the sort of 200 pound Silicon Valley gorillas the DMA is targeted at, who share these sentiments, though express it somewhat more muted corporate tones.

Google said: “We’re worried that some of these rules could reduce innovation and the choice available to Europeans.” While Apple said the new law “will create unnecessary privacy and security vulnerabilities for our users while others will prohibit us from charging for intellectual property in which we invest a great deal”.

Being against something like messaging interoperability is one thing and it will be the default position for those making money from messaging apps, because apart from anything it sounds like it will be a massive pain to set up. However the assertion is that such a thing is basically unworkable, at least while retaining security and privacy, is something else and probably something which if true should not be mandated by law regardless of the consequences.

There is an argument that being able to message anyone using whatever app you want is good for the consumer. But aside from the technical concerns, the other question we have to ask is how effective such a law would be at combatting the fact a small number of tech firms are doing a very good impression of swallowing up the world.

Making it possible for messages to be sent between Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram (or whatever the exact intended point of that part of the bill is supposed to actually enforce) doesn’t change the fact that all three platforms are now owned by the same company. It won’t stop Microsoft being able to drop $68.7 billion to take possession of a huge chunk of the video games industry. It won’t change the fact that Amazon has rendered large parts of traditional retail uncompetitive or irrelevant or that its ambitions now span cloud computing, TV/film production, Artificial Intelligence, consumer electronics, streaming services, and high street grocery shopping.

The overriding factor that has made Big Tech so big is arguably that they have tendency to buy up anything that looks on its way to be getting medium sized on its own right, and assimilating it into the mothership before it can present a threat later down the line. And to be fair the DMA does reference the sort of M&A that has allowed these firms to get into their dominant positions – stating they must now ‘inform the European Commission of their acquisitions and mergers.’

The question is, assuming that happens, what is the EU going to do about it?

 

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