It is seldom that the committees of standardization institutes and politics complement each other so well that the advantages of their common goal are immediately apparent. This can currently be observed with messenger services: EU politicians are calling on messenger manufacturers to open their platforms to one another and to create ways for cross-manufacturer communication of WhatsApp, iMessage or Skype. This can be seen in the final draft text of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) that was leaked in early May.
- Messenger should soon be able to communicate with each other across manufacturer boundaries.
- The EU defines interoperability by law.
- For the implementation, manufacturers can fall back on protocol work done by the Internet Engineering Task Force.
Appropriately, the works Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) on suitable protocols, so that the messenger manufacturers can save themselves this work. If this happens, the Messenger developers will catch up with the phone manufacturers, for example, who have been demonstrating how interoperability works for decades.
So far, smartphone users in particular have been under pressure to keep installing new clients in order to be able to communicate with as many people in the vicinity as possible via messenger. Many do not give in to the pressure and remain excluded, while others waste their time: installing more and more messenger apps, registering on more and more platforms and learning more and more operating concepts. If the smartphone to which all the messengers are tied gets lost, the waste of time starts all over again.
The current text passages on messenger interoperability go back largely to the commitment of the European Parliament; it sees them as a pro-competitive measure. In the trialogue, it prevailed against weaker guidelines from the EU Commission, while the EU Council did not even have the issue on its agenda.
The draft law envisages several stages: First, the large, dominant companies such as Facebook or Microsoft (called gatekeepers in EU slang) must open up their services for exchanging text messages to inquiring competitors – if the small Messenger Wire wants cross-compatibility, they must Play WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Skype.
Nine months of anticipation
If the law comes into force, companies that have been classified as gatekeepers have six months to establish basic interoperability. The smaller competitors then have to apply for the exchange with a gatekeeper themselves and give the big one three months. The EU understands basic interoperability to mean bilateral text communication and the exchange of voice and video messages between the users of two services.
The messenger developers should be given four years for interoperable group chats including video, voice and image transmission, and four years for cross-group interoperable voice and video calls Document leaked by privacy and Interop researcher Ian Brown.
The Council and Parliament still have to pass the law later this year. It could come into force along with its sister Digital Services Act (DSA) in 2023.
Ian Brown has also found toads in the current draft that will probably have to be swallowed: Brown finds the deadline for cross-platform video calls too long, especially given that this form of communication has been heavily used since the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the large platforms can delay the connection of small competitors, for example by raising well-founded security concerns with the EU, for example regarding service integrity.
In Brown’s opinion, it is also unfavorable that only very large companies are subject to the condition (over 45 million active users, at least 7.5 billion euros in sales in the last three financial years). Many small competitors – such as the commercial service Threema – have already signaled that they do not want to participate in cross-platform communication. That could strengthen the big ones, Brown worries.
He worries less about end-to-end encryption. This expressly classifies the EU document as a non-negotiable obligation. Metadata, such as IP addresses or user IDs, should only be collected in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation.
In the draft law, the EU writes that the Commission can request European organizations to develop standards for interoperability. Experts believe that this will not be necessary, as there are already well-advanced specifications from the Internet Engineering Task Force that the messenger industry can agree on as a standard. For example, Message Layer Security (MLS) is under discussion for encryption. The current MLS draft goes back to a suggestion by Rohan Mahy, vice president of messenger provider Wire. But the open source protocol Matrix is also considered a candidate.
The IETF has been working on the encryption of conversations between two or more participants in the Messenger Layer Security group since 2018. The architecture and details of key handling and authentication are nearing completion. Originally the authors had no interoperability in mind, but as the draft now stands it provides a good basis for authentication of messages and group members and for key handling in group chats as well.
A new IETF working group is now to clear the final hurdles in order to first develop a basis for discussions between users of different providers in accordance with EU requirements. Mahy campaigned for this at the IETF meeting in Vienna in March. He believes that at least basic functions for calls between different messengers could be developed within six months.
This is also the deadline that the EU legislator grants to European providers for the basic implementation of interoperability.