By Sukhi Gulati-Gilbert and Mallory Knodel
An open internet is one where everyone has an equal opportunity to access and share information. Such openness is crucial to promoting fundamental human rights – including freedom of expression, right to information, and choice – and to true democracy and agency. A closed internet cannot promote these rights to anywhere near the same degree; in fact, it can have the opposite effect.
The open internet helps ensure equitable access, which took center stage during the pandemic as so many students, workers, friends and families relied on the internet daily. The openness of the internet preserves global free flow of information and ensures equal access to new economic opportunities and choices afforded by the internet. Neither governments nor companies should be allowed to leverage control of vital communications to restrict access, expression, choice, or innovation. Fragmentation of the internet leads to fragmentation of knowledge. If internet users are forced to operate in silos, they are put at risk of experiencing inequitable access to information, restricted opportunities, and censored or incomplete portrayals of the world.
CDT fights for the open internet and has a long history of “work to protect users’ rights to access, create, and share content and services.” Our focus on internet architecture and protocol standards has supported interoperable systems – systems which can communicate with each other interactively – as a key prerequisite for growth and innovation. Our work is often in collaboration with other civil society groups who see interoperability and an open internet as critical to cooperation and multistakeholder internet governance. We have advocated that consumer choice and competition be strengthened by ensuring that hardware and software restrictions to safeguard intellectual property rights are appropriately limited, to prevent them from hampering user devices and software interoperating with one another.
Enabling an open internet cannot happen without a commitment to interoperability. The interoperability present in modern internet architecture is easy to take for granted. That we can load most any web page from most any browser is due to multistakeholder investment, adoption, and iteration upon HTTP, HTML and numerous other standards. The widespread adoption of these open protocols enables web browser interoperability. Web browser interoperability, in turn, helps enable an open internet. For the most part, individuals across the world can access the same content regardless of which browser they choose to use or have access to. As a result of sustained cooperative efforts, the architecture of the internet is essentially open and interoperable.
The same cannot always be said of internet platforms. Popular instant messaging systems and social network services, for example, largely do not interoperate with each other. Unlike email, where you can easily email someone using Hotmail if you use GMail, you cannot message someone on Signal if you are a WhatsApp user.
The question of how pervasive interoperability should be among internet services is being addressed with renewed vigor. Legislative proposals globally, such as the Digital Markets Act recently adopted in the EU, and the ACCESS Act under consideration in the United States Congress, include interoperability mandates as a procompetitive measure. Within web governing standards bodies, there has been a long-held understanding that interoperability is an important tool for creating open internet experiences, and they develop the open protocols which enable it. In 2018, the W3C put out ActivityPub, a protocol for decentralized social networking which has enabled the federated and interoperable social networks of the Fediverse. The Internet Engineering Task Force is investing in Messaging Layer Security, an encrypted messaging protocol which may, though doesn’t yet, specify interoperable implementations of encrypted messaging in the future. Many online interactions occur through internet platforms which are fragmented from each other and increasingly consolidated into just a few options for users. Momentum within both policy and technical communities for interoperability between internet platforms and services presents an important opportunity to combat fragmentation and preserve an open internet experience.
More work can be done to build a principled and technically informed stance in the public interest on policies to promote or require interoperability. Over the coming weeks and months, CDT will dive further into the topic by exploring some of the tough design problems and tradeoffs presented by introducing interoperability to software and platform services; highlighting the evolving policy landscape, in the U.S. and abroad; and showcasing the rich body of standards that the technical community continues to generate.
Because we are a strong proponent of an open internet, CDT is an advocate for incentivizing interoperability, and works with companies and governments to center users in policy and technical designs. Making systems interoperable can complicate design questions and introduce difficult tradeoffs. For example, how can we enable interoperability of end-to-end encrypted systems without compromising privacy of the data exchanged? How might content moderation work across interoperable social media platforms with different policies? CDT is poised to think about how best to address such questions. Among our priorities:
Interoperability Should Be Incorporated as a Design Principle
Most services can be designed to enable interoperability, either through development of an API or implementation of a shared protocol. Prioritizing interoperability is a design decision to promote openness even as it may trade off with other values, such as speed of iteration. As mentioned above, CDT is a proponent of interoperable systems insofar as that promotes openness, guards against fragmentation, and prevents a siloed user experience.
Interoperability Can and Should Be Aligned With Privacy & Security
An open internet can and should co-exist with prioritization of user privacy and security. Any policy solutions should account for the technical challenges to facilitating private and secure interoperability implementations.
Interoperability Protocol Definitions Should Rely on Multistakeholder Standard Setting
Interoperability protocol definitions should be led by efforts in broad-based standards bodies. Otherwise, there is a risk of protocols defaulting to the practices of a dominant industry player or being overconstrained by a legal definition, due to imbalances in technical expertise. Standards-setting bodies have strong technical expertise and, as long as their processes remain transparent and accessible, their incentives are more aligned with the public interest than those of industry incumbents.
By continually investing in interoperable systems, we continually invest in an open internet for everyone.