San Francisco, Feb. 16, 2021—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released a white paper outlining how we can usher in a new regime of interoperability aimed at breaking big tech’s grip on users’ Internet experience while still protecting user privacy.
In a white paper entitled Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability, EFF takes on one of the loudest arguments against embracing interoperability: that it will come at the expense of privacy. Interoperability will let developers build tools so users can easily move from one social media platform to another, talk to people on Facebook without needing Facebook account, have new ways to protect their private data, and be in control of their Internet experience. Access to user data will be needed for some of these tools.
More interoperability can help alleviate much of what’s wrong with the Internet today: a few dominant platforms operate monopolies, profit from surveilling users, and exercise unprecedented power over online speech. But tech giants have often argued that they need to stay closed and prevent access to user data to protect privacy. Privacy Without Monopoly challenges those claims and shows that Big Tech’s concerns are often self-serving. Interoperability will help users wrest control of their data from big platforms with privacy-preserving add-ons and tools. It can also facilitate the growth of more privacy-friendly alternatives, enable users to switch platforms en masse, and apply competitive pressure on incumbent services to be better stewards of sensitive data.
“We imagine a world where interoperability and privacy go hand in hand, and abusive monopolists are not deputized to act as a private arm of the state,” said EFF Staff Technologist Bennett Cyphers, lead author of the paper. “Making it easier for co-ops, nonprofits, tinkerers and startups to create privacy-preserving alternatives means that we’re not reliant on Big Tech cleaning up its act: users can leave the giants’ walled gardens without sacrificing their social ties and access to their communities, customers and audiences.”
To increase in interoperability Big Tech should offer application programming interfaces (APIs) that give third-party developers access to features of their products to build applications that work under or around platforms, the white paper says. To facilitate the expansion of interoperability, EFF proposes reforming and/or modifying laws governing code and data handling and employing interoperability requirements with strong rules for minimization and consent to mitigate personal data abuse. The discussion also highlights the need for federal data privacy law to protect users’ data no matter where it is.
“We support a legal regime that will unlock and encourage competitive compatibility, or ComCom, enabling competitors to develop products that work on top of or beside existing tools without having to get permission or face a lawsuit,” said EFF Special Advisor Cory Doctorow, co-author of the paper. “We must marshal our laws to protect co-ops, nonprofits and startups who wish to use APIs and other measures to ensure that their tools will work with and alongside others without having to beg for permission.”
The paper also calls for new rules for data-portability, back-end interoperability, and interoperability for user interfaces to guarantee that users will be able to control their data, exercise free choice online, and trust in the privacy of their information.
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The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading organization protecting civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, we defend free speech online, fight illegal surveillance, promote the rights of digital innovators, and work to ensure that the rights and freedoms we enjoy are enhanced, rather than eroded, as our use of technology grows. EFF is a member-supported organization. Find out more at https://eff.org.