Despite the challenges, interoperability between messaging applications is good news

One of the provisions of the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the new European law that should come into force at the end of this year and whose some parts have been leaked, is that messaging apps must "talk" to each other.

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One of the determinations of the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the new European law created to contain the power of big-tech and restore competitiveness in the sector, and which is set to come into force at the end of 2022, is the requirement for interoperability between messaging applications of companies classified as ‘gatekeepers’ — those with a market value of more than €75 billion or annual revenues of €7.5 billion or more in the European Union.

The final text of the DMA is not yet public, so speculations remain. But an alleged snippet was leaked on Twitter, saying that all gatekeepers will have to:

  • Allow providers (messaging apps), at their request and free of charge, to interconnect with messaging applications of the gatekeepers (large companies);
  • Interconnection must be objectively offered under the same conditions and quality available or used by gatekeepers, their subsidiaries, or partners, thus allowing a functional interaction with these services while ensuring a high level of security and personal data protection.

The new obligation represents a massive setback for big tech, particularly Meta and Apple, owners of the three biggest apps affected by the change — WhatsApp, Messenger, and iMessage.

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Will Cathcart, who leads WhatsApp within Meta, complained about the DMA’s determination on Twitter and in an interview with Casey Newtonnewsletter Platformer.

From his speeches, the European imposition sounds like a kind of opening of Pandora’s box: it will increase spam, misinformation, and hate speech. An inattentive person reading this could conclude that today, in the closed model, these deplorable contents and behaviors do not exist within WhatsApp. We know that is not the case.

Cathcart also claims that interoperability will compromise the end-to-end encryption of the application, which is, in fact, a concern of independent parties and will require a lot of work for that not to happen.

Interestingly end-to-end encryption is less sacred to WhatsApp when company interests are at stake. Like when the app updated its privacy policy in early 2021 to allow business accounts that outsource communication through the app to be able to initiate conversations that are not end-to-end encrypted.

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Or in 2018, when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, announced that the company’s three messaging apps — WhatsApp, Instagram Direct, and Messenger — would be interoperable and have end-to-end encryption. The proposal was received with strangeness and was seen as an artifice to hinder a possible division of the company by the determination of regulatory bodies. Now, it comes in handy.

None of this is to say that technical challenges are easily manageable. Even those at the polar opposite of big tech agree that opening up big tech messaging apps will be a big job.

Matthew Hodgson, the co-founder of the Matrix, a decentralized, open, end-to-end encrypted messaging system, acknowledged the difficulties in a blog post. Still, he called the consensus around DMA “unbelievably good news for the open Internet,” including an obligation on gatekeepers to provide open APIs to their communications services.

Initiatives such as Matrix and XMPP are functional proof that it is possible to have open protocols with the same security and privacy as closed solutions. And if they, with lean funding and few people working, can do it, so can a $600 billion titan and the best programmers in the world. What is missing is motivation, albeit brought on by an external force.

Considering the lack of detail of the DMA obligation at the moment, specialists in cryptography and digital security point out two possible paths to enable interoperability that preserves end-to-end encryption:

  • The creation of bridges between the systems, running on users’ devices, which would be responsible for decrypting and re-encrypting messages exchanged between different systems;
  • Or the adoption of a standard protocol, such as Double Ratchet‘s Signal, Megolm ‘s Matrix, or OMEMO, allowing all applications to speak the same encrypted language.

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Another curiosity: Facebook Messenger, in its beginnings, used XMPP. Same case with Google messaging apps. The urge to lock users into walled gardens has led these companies to adopt closed, proprietary protocols that stunt innovation and limit consumer choices.

As complex as it may be from a technical point of view, the European determination is correct in the competitive field. Today, no one chooses a messaging app out of personal preference; it is because of the number of close people who are in one or the other or for professional needs.

By treating messaging applications such as e-mail, guaranteeing the same level of security and privacy as closed standards, the consumer regains decision-making power in a vital sector, and newcomers can compete on an equal footing with the giants.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes