Sending an instant message or chatting over the internet is a very common experience for all of us. Every day, dozens of billions of messages are sent around the globe with apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Messenger and WeChat.
And that’s the problem: you need to have all of them. In the end, if you remove the bells and whistles, they all do the same thing – they send text to one or more of your contacts. That doesn’t seem so complex, so why do you need to install multiple apps, manage multiple accounts, and remember whether that message you need to find was received over Skype - or was it Viber? With email, you just have your address, pick your favorite application and use it to exchange emails with everyone else – why doesn’t instant messaging work the same way?
The answer lies in business models. When email started in the 1970s, the internet was still a cooperative effort, so it just seemed natural that people would establish common protocols to talk with each other. In fact, early internet messaging applications such as Talk, IRC and Jabber followed the same model.
However, by the time everyone had a smartphone, the internet had become an extremely competitive environment, and businesses thought that they could make more money if they could conquer the market for online messaging all for themselves, and then keep hold of it forever. They explicitly built their applications not to interact with any others.
This is extremely disadvantageous for everyone else. Users are encumbered by multiple applications, fragmented conversations, a waste of resources, and the inability to choose; if you want to send a message to a WhatsApp user, you are forced to install WhatsApp, no matter if that app is good or bad, or if you really like the idea of giving them your most private information. Application makers can therefore force users to accept practices that would not last a minute if users had a choice.
The internet industry loses opportunities; there can be almost no competition for instant messaging, as almost no one will bother installing a fifth or tenth chat app, no matter how good, if there are no users on it – so there will never be users. For everyone except the U.S. and China, this implies depending on software and services provided from elsewhere in the world, with a loss of wealth and control.
The market is in deadlock, but there is a way to break it: create a level playing field in which applications can win users because they are best for them, not because they created a silo and now keep everyone in it. Technically, this is easy: it would be enough to establish common protocols and interfaces that any app and service provider can use to exchange standard messages with other apps and service providers, just like email. But since this is clearly against the business interest of the companies currently dominating the market, this can only happen if regulation forces them to do so.
This is why multiple stakeholders – companies like Open-Xchange, technical groups like the Matrix.org Foundation, and well-known digital rights organizations like EDRi, Article 19 and the EFF – have come together to send a letter to the Vice-President of the European Commission, Margrethe Vestager.
The European Commission is considering new regulations for dominant internet platforms – the so-called Digital Services Act – and we asked them to include provisions making interoperability mandatory in services like instant messaging.
We hope that many others will support our call, and that the European institutions will receive the message.