Why Social Media Needs Mandatory Interoperability

Zander Arnao / Mar 7, 2022
Interoperable parts. Kalabi Yau / Shutterstock

On January 24th, 2013, Mark Zuckerberg sent an email to approve preventing Vine from letting users invite their Facebook friends to the platform. At one time, Vine was an extremely popular video sharing app, and it spawned a community whose cultural impact remains with us to this day. When Facebook blocked Vine from connecting to its social network, it slowed the app’s growth and put it at a competitive disadvantage to another service owned by Facebook, Instagram.

This episode illustrates the need for mandatory interoperability. Digital systems are said to “interoperate” when they can “transfer and render useful data and other information across systems, applications, or components”. In cutting off Vine’s friend feature, Zuckerberg restricted the ability of the Facebook platform to interoperate with a competitive rival. Even with user permission, Vine could no longer send Facebook users information about creating an account. Partially because of this decision, Vine went the way of the dodo, and its thriving community was lost.

Cory Doctorow often emphasizes “competitive compatibility”, which describes the ability for digital services to interoperate against the wishes of the dominant party. This adversarial relationship would rightly limit the power of big platforms to exclude their smaller rivals. Competitive compatibility would have allowed Vine to jack into the huge Facebook network to help grow its innovative service, but because such an action required Facebook’s cooperation, interoperability between the two platforms was denied.

Since Facebook--now called Meta--helped kill Vine, there has been a broad and escalating pattern of declining interoperability in social media. As platforms grew in size, their parent companies began to reduce the information they shared with competitors. For example, in its push to monetize, Twitter started limiting interoperability by cutting off service to LinkedIn. In fact, many users of Vine interpreted Meta’s decision to block them from inviting their friends as retaliation for Twitter doing the same to Instagram. It’s not possible to know how many apps like Vine were harmed by such moves.

Business imperatives drive the platforms to limit interoperability. The need for generating outsized profits creates an incentive to maximize user engagement, and a great way to ensure this happens is keeping valuable information like user-generated content and metadata within the platform. Companies like Meta effectively monopolize the data of their users, and by excluding rivals from access, they create significant barriers to competition. New businesses offering better platforms cannot enter the market because they lack access to the dominant social network. In this way, low levels of interoperability short circuit digital markets.

The federal government must intervene. Many digital markets, including social media, are highly concentrated, so users see lower quality, diversity, and innovation. Novel services like Vine are prevented from growing because the dominant platforms limit interoperability. Policy can level the playing field by requiring them to interoperate, especially with rivals. Congress could authorize the Federal Trade Commission to enforce mandatory interoperability between platforms. Regulators should implement this policy wherever levels of interoperability are too low to sustain competition.

What Government Can Do

The ACCESS Act is pending legislation that would mandate interoperability. While it’s a great start, its major shortcoming is a failure to adequately consider the specifics of the standardization process. It would simply give the National Institute of Standards and Technology 180 days to set standards for various types of social media (e.g., direct messaging and video sharing) and designate a specific standards committee for each of the dominant platforms. This structure is not nearly robust enough to handle the technical challenges and revision of standards necessary as new technologies emerge. The recent rise of audio-only social media is a great example of an innovation that standard-setters would have to grapple with.

Mandatory interoperability could take several forms. Regulation could vary in the degree of latitude platforms have to deviate from technology standards. At one end of the spectrum, Becky Chao and Ross Schulman of the Open Technology Institute advocate for a common, uniform standard for protocols, which they argue would create deeper levels of interoperability. Other analysts support weaker requirements. For instance, scholars at the University of Chicago’s Stigler Committee on Digital Platforms call for a requirement that platforms maintain open rules on how to get their computer systems to perform an action (called an open “Application Programming Interface”, or API). In this version of mandatory interoperability, platforms would have some room to set rules for accessing user data via their open API.

Regardless of the particulars, mandatory interoperability would boost overall exchange of information between platforms, and in doing so, would relieve a crucial barrier to competition in digital markets: network effects, the tendency of many digital services to grow in quality as their user bases expand. This means that smaller services are almost always at a competitive disadvantage relative to their bigger rivals.

Meta is perhaps the ultimate beneficiary of network effects. With almost 3 billion active users worldwide, Facebook’s network is colossal. This makes the task of competition much more difficult than simply offering a better service through, say, superior features or protecting privacy. Because a new platform simply can’t match Facebook’s access to a user’s friends, survival is only possible through radical differentiation. Facebook is generalist, so Twitter must be short-form, Pinterest crafty, and TikTok musical. Some may argue that these alternative platforms are evidence of effective competition, but rather, their existence highlights the fact that competition ispossible but only through large differences from Facebook.

Thinking about another market might help clarify why this is bad. Competition between grocery stores is around small differences like price and quality. Target doesn’t have to compete with Walmart by offering entirely different types of food. Without the barrier of network effects, competition in social media could work more like this. There could be a much higher number of interoperable platforms all competing for users through small differences in features or price. Imagine, for instance, the possibility of ten Facebook-esque platforms that are each slightly different and cater to distinct demographics.

How Interoperability Enhances Competition

Mandating interoperability would lower the barriers to entry from network effects, which are really about information. Larger networks simply generate higher quality information. In choosing between platforms, users generally prioritize one specific form of information: content. A bigger network increases the quality of available content because, for example, a user’s friends and close relations are more likely to be part of the network. Zuckerberg’s decision to break Vine’s invitation feature was so devastating because it cut the app off from the dominant social network, resulting in worse content for users. By contrast, Vine’s main competitor Instagram did not face this barrier.

Interoperability makes for a more open internet, which has a number of concrete benefits. Without the barrier of network effects, the number and diversity of social media services would increase substantially. Because platforms must be big to survive, they are forced to be very generic. It is strange that there aren’t similar alternatives out there to Facebook. Fewer barriers to competition would enable services to innovate upon the foundation set by the current platforms. These platforms would have to win the patronage of their users, perhaps through protecting privacy or offering features tailored to their interests.

This points to another benefit of interoperability: users would gain in importance. With a higher number of small platforms, they would all have to compete for the patronage of their users. Competition leads to higher quality services because businesses would have to work for their users. This relationship means users would have more power. An abundance of alternative interoperable platforms grants them some agency in where they view social media content. They could reward good platforms and punish bad ones by going elsewhere. Users could switch from Facebook next time Meta chooses to kill Vine or loses the data of more than 80 million people. Interoperability creates accountability for moving fast and breaking things.

But There Are Tradeoffs

Before concluding with a rosy picture, however, it is important to recognize some trade offs. Requiring companies to interoperate would profoundly change the flow of information across platforms, and this would of course have consequences for privacy and security. One possible virtue of large platforms is that they promise users control over their personal data. At least in theory, a user of TikTok can ensure that their videos stay on TikTok.

Interoperability makes this more difficult. Though much would depend on the particulars, it is easy to imagine that requiring Twitter to share tweets with similar micro-blogging platforms would make privacy for Twitter users harder to guarantee. Scammers, for instance, could collect this information through fake accounts on another platform. Because tweets would flow through a much more complex ecosystem, Twitter would be hard pressed to stop it from getting into the wrong hands.

Security problems magnify this issue. If the FTC were to mandate that Twitter use an open API to share information with competitors, there is a risk that vulnerabilities could be embedded within the API. For instance, several open APIs maintained by Facebook were how Cambridge Analytica got a hold of so much user data. Complex systems to control which parties have access to user information would have to be established. Hard questions would have to be answered about who sets these standards and what liabilities exist when data is breached. Who’s to blame when a code bug embedded within a common API is exploited to acquire the passwords and location data of millions of Twitter users?

Gus Hurwtiz penned an insightful article for Tech Policy Press about the challenges of standardizing social media. Policymakers overcame many practical difficulties when mandating that telecommunications make phone numbers portable in the 1990’s, and the information flowing through digital networks is even more complex. This perspective emphasizes the hard technical realities facing regulators of digital markets.

But progress is still possible. While there are certainly limits to government’s power to fix fundamental problems of competition, it is not made impotent by complicated digital systems. A careful approach to setting standards would effectively boost levels of interoperability. Certainly, policymakers could require dominant platforms to maintain open APIs, which would leave them some autonomy to build systems tailored to their particular context. The financial system is beginning to employ open APIs to exchange sensitive financial information with the recent emergence of Open Banking. Similar to banks, social media platforms could be required to develop their own procedures for governing access to user data within pre-specified technical guidelines. Regulators should learn from the success of Open Banking when implementing mandatory interoperability for social media.

The Spirit of the Internet

In many ways, interoperability is fundamental to the internet. We sometimes forget that the web is one unbelievably complex network of interoperable computer systems. This fact highlights just how unnatural are the barriers platforms have placed in the way of interoperability. The dominance of Big Tech diminishes the diversity of the internet, and users are helpless in the face of market power. A lack of interoperability is a major reason why Big Tech is big. This perspective casts mandatory interoperability not as clumsy regulation but a curative for the distortions of monopoly. Mandatory interoperability would make digital networks more decentralized and competitive. It would restore the spirit of the internet.


Zander Arnao
Zander Arnao is a Policy Intern at the Data Transfer Initiative (DTI) where he writes about data portability and analyzes policy developments relevant to DTI’s issue portfolio. Prior to DTI, Zander served as a Public Interest Technology Fellow at the Federal Trade Commission, supporting the enforcem...