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OPINION: What critics get wrong about regulating Big Tech

by Wafa Ben-Hassine | Omidyar Network
Friday, 6 May 2022 08:00 GMT

European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Thierry Breton and European Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager give a news conference on the Data Governance Act at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium November 25, 2020. Stephanie Lecocq/Pool via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Digital Markets Act is ambitious in its aims, with objectives that take into account the interests of not a single stakeholder group, but the interests of many - at the forefront of which are users.

Wafa Ben-Hassine is a Principal on the Responsible Technology team at Omidyar Network.

Several weeks ago, European Union co-legislators - the European Parliament and the Council of Europe - finally agreed on the much-awaited Digital Markets Act (DMA). The DMA seeks to regulate larger digital technology companies they see as digital “gatekeepers.”

This historic regulation will help level the playing field for smaller competitors and give users greater agency in deciding which service provider(s) to choose. For more than a year and a half, the EU solicited and incorporated expert opinions and submissions from international thinkers and doers on markets, human rights, private sector incentives, and others.

Despite its inclusive process, industry leaders began complaining immediately, claiming it would be “technically too challenging” to comply. Many made the same claim about email back in the 1980s and ‘90s, but ultimately, we were able to figure it out. But unlike email in its early days, messaging applications are today owned by large multinational companies that without a political, regulatory push, would have no practical incentive to make messaging interoperability a reality.

What matters most for users is that the DMA mandates interoperability between messaging services. For instance, if you are a WhatsApp user, the DMA says that you should be able to message someone on Signal. Many security experts have expressed concern that doing so may risk dropping end-to-end encryption. We disagree. The language in the final text clearly states that gatekeepers should make their services interoperable only if end-to-end encryption can be maintained throughout the communication services.

In other words, regulators made sure that interoperability between messaging services would preserve the highest security standards among services. To be clear, end-to-end encrypted chat service providers do not have omniscient access to private user data. They cannot read messages and can only see the container of said messages. End-to-end encryption means that it is only the devices involved in a conversation that can see the contents of a message. The servers relaying a message (on either end) cannot see the content of the message.

Ultimately, we believe that not only will people’s privacy be respected, but that interoperability will also increase competition.

An open standards infrastructure like Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) can be improved and adapted to the entire instant messaging ecosystem. New innovators will be able to enter the market by adapting this open and free standard, while offering additional features so users can decide which interface best meets their needs. In XMPP speak, this means companies can offer custom functionality on top of the core protocols - and can even keep them private, allowing them to compete with one another. Strengthening protocols before eventual market adoption and evolution to scale in the world of end-to-end encryption, then, becomes critical.

This is not to say that mandating interoperability does not come with risk. More critically, companies have developed proprietary systems to counter spam and fraud on their platforms, and this type of technology is more difficult to share. However, as a potential solution, companies can adopt the XMPP standard for all and build on top of it.

Another added bonus of the DMA: A more unified inbox. With a constant onslaught of messages pinging our phones and computers, who wouldn’t want that?

The DMA is ambitious in its aims, with objectives that take into account the interests of not a single stakeholder group but the interests of many - at the forefront of which are users. There is already a great deal of progress on interoperability, and the DMA will provide the necessary incentives for researchers and companies to adapt, scale, and improve protocols. There are numerous challenges ahead, but when the doors of gatekeepers are finally opened, the opportunities are endless. 

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