The Digital Markets Act Shouldn’t Mandate Radical Interoperability

Mikolaj Barczentewicz —  19 May 2021 — Leave a comment

Despite calls from some NGOs to mandate radical interoperability, the EU’s draft Digital Markets Act (DMA) adopted a more measured approach, requiring full interoperability only in “ancillary” services like identification or payment systems. There remains the possibility, however, that the DMA proposal will be amended to include stronger interoperability mandates, or that such amendments will be introduced in the Digital Services Act. Without the right checks and balances, this could pose grave threats to Europeans’ privacy and security.

At the most basic level, interoperability means a capacity to exchange information between computer systems. Email is an example of an interoperable standard that most of us use today. Expanded interoperability could offer promising solutions to some of today’s difficult problems. For example, it might allow third-party developers to offer different “flavors” of social media news feed, with varying approaches to content ranking and moderation (see Daphne Keller, Mike Masnick, and Stephen Wolfram for more on that idea). After all, in a pluralistic society, someone will always be unhappy with what some others consider appropriate content. Why not let smaller groups decide what they want to see? 

But to achieve that goal using currently available technology, third-party developers would have to be able to access all of a platform’s content that is potentially available to a user. This would include not just content produced by users who explicitly agrees for their data to be shared with third parties, but also content—e.g., posts, comments, likes—created by others who may have strong objections to such sharing. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how, without adequate safeguards, mandating this kind of information exchange would inevitably result in something akin to the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

It is telling that supporters of this kind of interoperability use services like email as their model examples. Email (more precisely, the SMTP protocol) originally was designed in a notoriously insecure way. It is a perfect example of the opposite of privacy by design. A good analogy for the levels of privacy and security provided by email, as originally conceived, is that of a postcard message sent without an envelope that passes through many hands before reaching the addressee. Even today, email continues to be a source of security concerns due to its prioritization of interoperability.

It also is telling that supporters of interoperability tend to point to what are small-scale platforms (e.g., Mastodon) or protocols with unacceptably poor usability for most of today’s Internet users (e.g., Usenet). When proposing solutions to potential privacy problems—e.g., that users will adequately monitor how various platforms use their data—they often assume unrealistic levels of user interest or technical acumen.

Interoperability in the DMA

The current draft of the DMA contains several provisions that broadly construe interoperability as applying only to “gatekeepers”—i.e., the largest online platforms:

  1. Mandated interoperability of “ancillary services” (Art 6(1)(f)); 
  2. Real-time data portability (Art 6(1)(h)); and
  3. Business-user access to their own and end-user data (Art 6(1)(i)). 

The first provision, (Art 6(1)(f)), is meant to force gatekeepers to allow e.g., third-party payment or identification services—for example, to allow people to create social media accounts without providing an email address, which is possible using services like “Sign in with Apple.” This kind of interoperability doesn’t pose as big of a privacy risk as mandated interoperability of “core” services (e.g., messaging on a platform like WhatsApp or Signal), partially due to a more limited scope of data that needs to be exchanged.

However, even here, there may be some risks. For example, users may choose poorly secured identification services and thus become victims of attacks. Therefore, it is important that gatekeepers not be prevented from protecting their users adequately. Of course,there are likely trade-offs between those protections and the interoperability that some want. Proponents of stronger interoperability want this provision amended to cover all “core” services, not just “ancillary” ones, which would constitute precisely the kind of radical interoperability that cannot be safely mandated today.

The other two provisions do not mandate full two-way interoperability, where a third party could both read data from a service like Facebook and modify content on that service. Instead, they provide for one-way “continuous and real-time” access to data—read-only.

The second provision (Art 6(1)(h)) mandates that gatekeepers give users effective “continuous and real-time” access to data “generated through” their activity. It’s not entirely clear whether this provision would be satisfied by, e.g., Facebook’s Graph API, but it likely would not be satisfied simply by being able to download one’s Facebook data, as that is not “continuous and real-time.”

Importantly, the proposed provision explicitly references the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which suggests that—at least as regards personal data—the scope of this portability mandate is not meant to be broader than that from Article 20 GDPR. Given the GDPR reference and the qualification that it applies to data “generated through” the user’s activity, this mandate would not include data generated by other users—which is welcome, but likely will not satisfy the proponents of stronger interoperability.

The third provision from Art 6(1)(i) mandates only “continuous and real-time” data access and only as regards data “provided for or generated in the context of the use of the relevant core platform services” by business users and by “the end users engaging with the products or services provided by those business users.” This provision is also explicitly qualified with respect to personal data, which are to be shared after GDPR-like user consent and “only where directly connected with the use effectuated by the end user in respect of” the business user’s service. The provision should thus not be a tool for a new Cambridge Analytica to siphon data on users who interact with some Facebook page or app and their unwitting contacts. However, for the same reasons, it will also not be sufficient for the kinds of uses that proponents of stronger interoperability envisage.

Why can’t stronger interoperability be safely mandated today?

Let’s imagine that Art 6(1)(f) is amended to cover all “core” services, so gatekeepers like Facebook end up with a legal duty to allow third parties to read data from and write data to Facebook via APIs. This would go beyond what is currently possible using Facebook’s Graph API, and would lack the current safety valve of Facebook cutting off access because of the legal duty to deal created by the interoperability mandate. As Cory Doctorow and Bennett Cyphers note, there are at least three categories of privacy and security risks in this situation:

1. Data sharing and mining via new APIs;

2. New opportunities for phishing and sock puppetry in a federated ecosystem; and

3. More friction for platforms trying to maintain a secure system.

Unlike some other proponents of strong interoperability, Doctorow and Cyphers are open about the scale of the risk: “[w]ithout new legal safeguards to protect the privacy of user data, this kind of interoperable ecosystem could make Cambridge Analytica-style attacks more common.”

There are bound to be attempts to misuse interoperability through clearly criminal activity. But there also are likely to be more legally ambiguous attempts that are harder to proscribe ex ante. Proposals for strong interoperability mandates need to address this kind of problem.

So, what could be done to make strong interoperability reasonably safe? Doctorow and Cyphers argue that there is a “need for better privacy law,” but don’t say whether they think the GDPR’s rules fit the bill. This may be a matter of reasonable disagreement.

What isn’t up for serious debate is that the current framework and practice of privacy enforcement offers little confidence that misuses of strong interoperability would be detected and prosecuted, much less that they would be prevented (see here and here on GDPR enforcement). This is especially true for smaller and “judgment-proof” rule-breakers, including those from outside the European Union. Addressing the problems of privacy law enforcement is a herculean task, in and of itself.

The day may come when radical interoperability will, thanks to advances in technology and/or privacy enforcement, become acceptably safe. But it would be utterly irresponsible to mandate radical interoperability in the DMA and/or DSA, and simply hope the obvious privacy and security problems will somehow be solved before the law takes force. Instituting such a mandate would likely discredit the very idea of interoperability.

Mikolaj Barczentewicz

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Mikolaj Barczentewicz is a Senior Lecturer in Public Law and Legal Theory and the Research Director of the Law and Technology Hub at the University of Surrey School of Law in Guildford, England.

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