Interoperability for the future of the internet

Nick Doty

21 May 2021 Updated: 18 June 2021

Status of This Document

This is a collection of potentially interesting ideas on: supporting the Internet, countering harmful consolidation of Internet platforms, and outlining a guidebook for future development. Feedback most welcome (via email or annotate using, including: questions; corrections; constructive criticism; and links or citations to other relevant work. I would love to add many more links but also have to temper the impulse for the asides to swamp the text itself.

Please share with others interested in this topic, but not publicly.

Who am I? I’m a Web standards person, privacy researcher and public interest technologist, who recently completed a mixed methods doctoral dissertation on multistakeholder Internet standard-setting processes and their effects on online privacy and security.

Interop combats consolidation

Increased consolidation of Internet platforms – particularly but not exclusively around social media – contributes to:

Many participants in the IETF have identified consolidation in Internet architecture and applications (including social media and other “Internet platforms” as I use the term here) as a potential concern; and call for research on ways to increase diversity and decentralization.

We should directly connect the conversation happening in standard-setting bodies with the discussion over anti-trust/monopoly/“Big Tech” in legal/economic spheres.

There are specific reactions, in industry, civil society or government, towards individual segments of this set of problems. Data trusts and collaboratives attempt to improve negotiating power between groups of users and the large networks that they cannot leave; quasi-judicial review boards attempt to fill in some due process of the moderation decisions that must apply across the globe; data protection regulations give users some redress when companies they cannot feasibly avoid misuse their information.

See, for example:

But will mitigating the harms of this consolidation without providing feasible pathways to alternative networks and communities meaningfully or stably improve any of these situations? In contrast, more interoperable technology can:

Those are substantial benefits from reducing the harms of consolidation, a win-win-win situation, and worth advocating for in tech companies, standard-setting bodies and regulatory fora. But even more than those benefits, competition, cooperation and interoperability are distinctive of the technical and organizational architecture of the Internet and responsible for the enormous success and the economic and social benefits of the Internet and the Web. This isn’t anti-trust just for the sake of anti-trust, it’s anti-trust in order to be pro-Internet.

What do we want from interoperable Internet services

We should be able to communicate with our friends no matter what social network they first signed up with and not entirely lose touch with them if they switch messaging apps. We should expect our different accounts with software in the cloud to work together, without having to buy in to a single corporation’s “ecosystem” in order to sync data like our contacts and calendars. We should re-enable technologies and services like FriendFeed and Technorati and interoperable chat; we should re-invigorate features like Takeout1 and the Data Transfer Project; we should encourage the diverse but interoperable fediverse. We should have our choice of different online communities, of different sizes, different business models, different rules and norms and different purposes and the ability to flexibly move and communicate between them.

Indeed, much of this is the refrain of “the Web we lost.” While unvarnished nostalgia is not the same as a productive future plan, there may be important insights from what was appreciated about earlier, more interconnected Internet services.

While negative examples are easy to give (how frustrating would it be if you could only send and receive emails from other GMail users?), it can be harder to illustrate the particular positive outcomes of widespread interoperability between Internet platforms.

Describing and communicating these future unrealized benefits of widespread interoperability requires imagination. Consider this short story, Inside the Clock Tower, about an artist who escapes persistent harassment while maintaining access to large social networks through use of a smaller interoperable community that provides better moderation.

A running list of use cases in brief:

How do we get there

But how? Perhaps out of an impatient constitution, I would pursue this from every available front at once.

Let’s keep writing: thinking and talking and debating about the losses, harms and opportunities. And this isn’t just cheerleading: we can also debate and address relevant challenges for more interoperable systems to address (like security, privacy, and moderation) and roadblocks to achieving it (regulatory, financial and cultural). We can learn from existing research, from case studies of Internet systems of the past and present, from the experience of those working on standards and Internet-enabled social networks and from the critiques of advocates and activists. (See A guidebook, below.)

Especially useful for me have been some of the writings on the potential for protocols, adversarial interoperability and the challenges of privacy and content moderation.

These were useful prompts for the fascinating group discussion hosted by AFOG on open standards and content moderation.

Let’s design regulation and support administrative action to break up over-consolidated entities and mandate feasible interoperability among competitors. We’ll need well-funded regulatory agencies staffed with relevant expertise and venues not only for setting more standards but also for reporting, tracking and investigating anti-competitive breakages or missing APIs.

The ACCESS Act is one prominent proposal in the US (from Senators Warner, Hawley and Blumenthal). Cyphers and Doctorow review the proposal and start to list some of the levels or kinds of interoperability.

And five bills (including the ACCESS Act) have recently been proposed in the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee to promote competition in the online economy.

Let’s change the social presumption that good Internet software and services can trap you into their system. Any organization who hypes their breakthrough new service without a published spec or a submission to a standards body should receive the same side-eye we give to vaporware. Creating an account on yet another social network and they don’t give you the option to forward your messages or access your social graph from your other software? That’s a bad smell, like not supporting HTTPS or not hashing passwords. If it’s not standards-based, we should openly suspect that it’s user-hostile.

The Digital Standard – not an interoperability standard but a standard to “evaluate how technologies respect consumers’ interests and needs” – identifies criteria for consumer products to benefit users through interoperability (part of true ownership) and openness to innovation (part of governance).

Let’s build new software: platforms that are decentralized, federated or otherwise interoperable and new implementations of existing common protocols. Scrapers and bots can start us on the path to interop even before standards and APIs are in place, and we could use more software to bridge or glue systems together, as well as common tools to make it easier to build and test social media and other online platforms.

As a direct example, bridges social media reactions and replies to your (IndieWeb) website.

Matrix provides federated chat, but in particular supports many bridges with other chatroom services. (Related, see: Beeper, a unified chat inbox service.)

Let’s fund development and maintenance of public interest Internet infrastructure, including new, civic-minded online spaces, but also underlying tools that others build on top of, especially to facilitate collaboration and competition between online services. This doesn’t mean (just) small grants to prototype new ideas, but significant public media funding so that the public sector can substantially contribute to implementation, design and deployment, and thus have a substantial voice for public interest goals.

Funding is an especially relevant and concrete need. Some have proposed taxation of digital advertising or certain kinds of social media advertising, which could both mitigate some harms of that kind of manipulation and also provide ongoing support for a public alternative. See “A Tax That Could Fix Big Tech” from Paul Romer in 2019.

Ethan Zuckerman has been very effectively making this case for digital public infrastructure. Most insightful to me is the history of Newt Minow and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. PBS, NPR, Sesame Street – these might be useful models on both funding and public purpose.

Some responses to skeptics

(I’m not sure confrontation is necessary to get across this idea, but if you are jumping to reasons to be skeptical of this approach, a quick collection of responses may be useful.)

Sometimes it seems like there’s just a failure of imagination when people consider interoperability requirements infeasible. How could you possibly force a company to allow untested hardware produced by anyone to connect to their system? AT&T was required to let people attach their own phones and devices rather than leasing them all from the monopolist. Could a social network even provide all the APIs, along with very frequent updates, to allow others to build featureful clients? Twitter only grew to be a successful social network because of the plethora of clients, bots and tools built by third-parties who were more than capable not only of keeping up with documented API changes, but also regularly invented new features themselves. Microsoft used to rely on undocumented private interfaces to write their own software to run on Windows until anti-trust investigations and decrees, after which they changed engineering processes so that any use of a private API was a bug, and opened another bug for documentation as well.

Yes, interoperability itself is hard, and requires collaborative effort. But let us not forget that in many cases interoperability has to be intentionally broken, that it regularly takes engineering work to make systems more brittle and less useful in order to punish your competitors. Open APIs, documentation, testing, interoperability – this is just modern engineering practice, not some impossible burden.

The experience of online services that provide APIs has shown cases where public APIs are restricted, access controlled or deprecated for a wide range of operational purposes: limiting abuse, deprecating features internally, not being able to provide continuity or service level agreement commitments, service costs, protecting user privacy. We should learn from this experience (see Guidebook, below), identify the challenges, the potential solutions and the feasibility of different kinds of interoperability under different conditions. That not every API will always be public doesn’t mean that interoperability is generally impossible or that consolidation is necessary.

Those who claim that federated or decentralized technology could simply never allow for innovation seem somehow to have forgotten about the existence of telephones, email, the Internet, the Web. Or rather, they clearly haven’t forgotten about them, but rather assume their presence, as if they were inevitable natural resources, like the mountains or the air.

Why would any reasonably large company allow, much less invest in, interoperable standards-based systems for the Internet? Indeed, they regularly do, because we’ve seen how incredibly valuable it is to have an Internet. And while we might imagine monolithic companies making pure bottom-line business decisions, in fact the individuals who design these technologies have considerable autonomy, move regularly between employers and see the benefits for themselves and for their industry in having interoperable technologies and contributing to a platform that enables so much diversity, innovation and persistence.

Fostering an open Internet of competition and collaboration with interoperable technology is not a project of anti-corporate altruism. Instead, this Internet benefits industry, benefits workers and benefits users. That’s not to say that it’s some universally-welcomed good: monopolists who profit from the lack of competition may see reduced margins and shrinking moats. But it’s good for the industry as a whole, in addition to users and workers and startup competitors.

A guidebook to interoperability of online platforms

What I propose to work on to get us started: a guidebook for what would will be needed to implement interoperability between online platforms. We can already collect experience, use cases, problems and potential solutions – and we can document these things now, rather than waiting or nay-saying or hand-waving.

Some questions to answer in a guidebook as an initial outline:

A methodology for developing this kind of guidebook:

This isn’t work starting from scratch, but rather building on, collecting and consolidating existing knowledge. An incomplete list of resources to begin with:

What next

This collects some of my notes on why this (perhaps Quixotic) goal is so worth pursuing for the Internet and the guidebook/roadmap/pathways is one place where I propose to start myself. But interop for Internet platforms is a huge and necessarily collaborative project. I’m excited to be reading proposals and talking with people about this potential. In the short-term, I’m looking for funding, institutional affiliation and collaborators to develop this guidebook.

Apropos, I don’t know where on the Internet is best to discuss this. Write on your own blog; cross-post across all your social media accounts; help to build links between ideas and online platforms. But I would welcome email (the first federated social network) with thoughts and pointers.

(Also, if anyone knows where the bluesky project is being worked on, beyond a Twitter account, please let me know.)


This collection of ideas and project proposal was drafted by Nick Doty. Let me know what you think. Thanks to Andrew Badr, Gabriel Nicholas, Ryan Greenberg, AFOG and PLSC for insightful conversations.

  1. What ever happened to the Data Liberation Front? The team was active through 2013 in building features and proactively advocating for the importance of easily taking data so that you can leave a company’s service. But by early 2014 its website was gone, Twitter profile abandoned and no new reports on more features for taking all your data with you. Google retains downloading features (still called “Takeout” in some contexts), but it doesn’t seem to have a team publicly advocating for it any longer. We should remember how important a single individual can be in pushing these ideas forward, even inside very large corporations.↩︎