Interoperability Can Save the Open Web

Interview by Michael Nolan: “In his new book The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, author Cory Doctorow presents a strong case for disrupting Big Tech. While the dominance of Internet platforms like TwitterFacebook, Instagram, or Amazon is often taken for granted, Doctorow argues that these walled gardens are fenced in by legal structures, not feats of engineering. Doctorow proposes forcing interoperability—any given platform’s ability to interact with another—as a way to break down those walls and to make the Internet freer and more democratic….

Doctorow: At its root, it’s just the ability to use one thing with something else. Use any ink in your printer with any paper, use any socks with your shoes, anyone’s gasoline in your car, put any lightbulb in your light socket. There’s voluntary, mandatory interoperability, where a group of stakeholders get together and they say, “This is the goal we want all of our products to achieve, and we are going to design a framework so that we can make sure that every lightbulb lights up when you stick it in a light socket.” Then there’s the stuff where they’re indifferent: Car companies don’t stop you from putting a little cigarette-lighter-to-USB adapter into your car.

Companies can grow very quickly because tech has got these great network effects, but they also have, because of interoperability, really low switching costs.—Cory Doctorow

Then there’s the third kind of interop, the kind of chewy, interesting, lots-of-rich-Internet-history interop, which is adversarial interoperability, which in the book we call “comcom,” short for competitive compatibility. It’s the interop that’s done against the wishes of the original equipment manufacturer: scraping, reverse engineering, bots, all of that gnarly stuff done in the face of active hostility. This would be like Apple reverse-engineering Microsoft Office and making the iWork suite—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—so that anyone with a Mac could read any Windows-based office file without having to buy any software from Microsoft.

There are so many examples of this from technology’s history. It’s really the engine of technology…(More)”.