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Internet Way of Networking 4 December 2020

New White Paper: Considerations for Mandating Open Interfaces

Carl Gahnberg
By Carl GahnbergSenior Policy Advisor

People all around the world depend on the Internet to live their lives and do their jobs. Behind the surface of applications, online services depend on “interoperability” – the ability of software to work together.

For instance, this is what allows you to send a document from the Outlook account on your iPhone to a friend’s Gmail, then edit the document on a Samsung tablet before saving it in Alibaba cloud, and finally posting it on Twitter using an application like Hootsuite.

But as we recognized in the 2019 Global Internet Report, trends of consolidation in the Internet economy, particularly at the application layer and in web services, have spurred concerns and public debates on the need to regulate Big Tech. Among the proposed measures by policymakers, academics, and other thought leaders across the world is for software services and systems to be legally required to provide interoperability or open interfaces. Today we release a new white paper on this topic, with the aim to support and add depth to the discussions about the key considerations involved.

The general sentiment among competition experts, policymakers and other stakeholders is that existing competition policy is not addressing the economic and societal concerns of online monopolies and dominance in the digital economy. In this light, the past years have seen a number of prominent reports and proposals, predominantly in Europe and the United States, outlining a range of recommendations to update existing competition policies.

Among the proposed measures are those that seek to govern the use of software services and systems, including proposals to mandate the technical mechanisms for data portability, for access to data, and even the use of specific standards to ensure interoperability across instant messaging systems. Yet, while these proposals vary in focus, scope, and goals, there is a common denominator across all whereby technical interfaces are mandated to be designed or operated in a certain way (either explicitly or implicitly).

This mandating of open interfaces is important. If done well, it could bring economic, social, and technical benefits, reduce the risk of market failure, and stimulate sustainable innovation. Done poorly, it can threaten these outcomes and jeopardize other policy goals, such as privacy, security, and the resilience of systems.

Importantly, these interfaces are de facto building blocks for developing new technologies and innovations. They can support the Internet’s generative nature by allowing the application designer to use functionalities and services without details of the underlying mechanics, and to build on existing solutions. However, once access to an interface is openly provided, new uses – especially in combination with additional sources of data or other resources – may unexpectedly become important. What was merely a convenient route to shared data and events may become a practically indispensable part of the application infrastructure.

This white paper is aimed at outlining some of the general considerations that should apply to such measures: from practical issues of working out the interface’s technical requirements and ongoing operations, to broader policy issues, such as privacy or the impact on market dynamics. It is specifically intended to support the policy practitioners involved, and to help complement the current discussions by detailing some of the issues that could affect the expected outcomes.

Read Considerations for Mandating Open Interfaces. For questions, comments, or further information, please contact Carl Gahnberg at gahnberg@isoc.org.


Image by Wilhelm Gunkel via Unsplash

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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