Pluralistic: 24 Sep 2021

Today's links

Midcenutry advertisement for the Hush-A-Phone.

Demonopolizing the internet with interoperability (permalink)

The Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery has just published my editorial, "Competitive Compatibility: Let's Fix the Internet, Not the Tech Giants," explaining how interoperability was once an engine for competition and user empowerment – and how that ended.

As the title suggests, regulators are fed up with Big Tech's abuses, but they're not sure what to do about it. One approach is to "fix the companies" – like forcing Facebook to fight "disinformation" or making Google filter all user content for suspected copyright violations.

The problem with this approach is that it's not clear whether the tech companies can solve these problems (for example, no copyright filter can distinguish between permitted uses like parody or commentary and infringing ones).

A rule that requires Big Tech to throw everything at unsolvable problems will make the cost of entry into the tech sector so expensive that Big Tech will get to rule unchallenged, forever. And the problems still won't get solved.

There's another approach, though – rather than fixing tech companies, we can fix the internet. We can empower communities and individuals to escape monopoly platforms, through interoperability.

If you don't like how FB moderates its platform, interop would let you leave – and still stay connected to the family, community and customers you leave behind.

My article sets out a taxonomy of interoperability:

  • Cooperative: When you interoperate through an API or a standard (like web browsers and servers)

  • Indifferent: When a company takes no steps to help or block interop (like when you plug a USB adapter into a car lighter)

  • Adversarial: Interop against the wishes of the interoper-ee, overcoming whatever defenses they put up to prevent interop. This has a long and honorable tradition – Apple reverse-engineering Microsoft Office for Iwork, say.

That adversarial interoperability (we call it "competitive compatibility" or comcom at EFF) is the stick to standardization's carrot.

Dominant companies may not like having third parties plug into their stuff to give their customers more freedom, but if it IS going to happen, they'd much prefer a managed system of standards to techno-guerrilla warfare with reverse-engineers, botmasters and scrapers.

Unfortunately, the rise of monopoly tech platforms has concentrated power in the hands of a small number of execs whose companies have near-infinite cash to spend on lobbying against adversarial interoperability.

The Big Tech cartel's members all owe their existence to comcom, but like the pirate who becomes an admiral, they are all committed to preventing upstarts from doing unto them as they did unto others when they were new on the scene.

The problem with Big Tech isn't just that they're wildly imperfect – it's that they're wildly imperfect and they've rigged the system to make it painful for you to go somewhere better. Interop lowers the "switching costs" that hold you hostage.

Fixing the tech companies won't work. The problem isn't just that Mark Zuckerberg is unfit to be the unelected, perpetual lifestyle czar of 3 billion people – it's that no one should have that job.

That's why, in addition to all the antitrust remedies that trustbusters have wielded against abusive monopolists for more than a century, we need modern tools – like interoperability. Bills like the ACCESS Act will get us part of the way:

But it's not enough to mandate that Big Tech open up its interfaces – we also have to empower users and the toolsmiths who serve them to connect to dominant platforms in the ways that serve users, not corporate shareholders.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago The Viridian perspective on 9/11

#20yrsago Wikipedia is an amazing new encylopedia that anyone can edit*/;sid=2001/9/24/43858/2479

#5yrsago Despite sabotage and dirty tricks, Jeremy Corbyn wins Labour leadership race in unprecedented landslide

#5yrsago Whistleblowing Wells Fargo loan officer describes years of fraudulent, criminal culture in the bank

#1yrago WV's deabeat governor now owes $140m

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 253 words (20117 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Disneyland at a stroll
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "Everything is Always Broken, and That’s Okay," about the importance of interoperability to self-determination

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla