WTF is interoperability?

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This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

Proposed antitrust legislation that quickly passed through committee in the U.S. House of Representatives recently could force the biggest tech platforms to allow other systems to connect with their tech more readily. The concept is interoperability, and though it’s not a new idea, it’s something we may hear a lot more about in coming months. 

So what’s interoperability?

Think of interoperability as the ways in which technologies function in conjunction with other technologies. Take email. If the way email worked was not interoperable, we wouldn’t be able to send an email using Gmail to someone’s Yahoo email account. But because email systems are interoperable, we can.

Why is it an antitrust issue?

When tech is built in such a way that it does not speak the same language as other technologies or erects barriers preventing other systems from connecting with it or from tapping into its data pipelines, it can prevent those other technologies from enabling certain capabilities, stifling their growth. As interoperability proponent Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it, “Interoperability is a key policy for a pro-competitive Internet” because it “undermines network effects that keep users locked into a conglomerate’s ecosystem” and “removes barriers for new entrants by letting small players piggyback on the infrastructure developed by big ones.”

Proposed legislation could force tech platforms including Facebook and Google to give other companies more access to information flowing through their systems. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter in some ways thrive by allowing outsiders to use sanctioned developer tools to build features that work in their ecosystems. When a company builds shopping tools that work inside WhatsApp conversations, that’s an example of interoperability, and arguably it helps Facebook-owned WhatsApp. But, because interoperability can open opportunities for upstarts to build new tech that works with those dominant systems, it could create threats to tech giants.

Aren’t there already a lot of open tools that enable interoperability?

Sure. For example, APIs — application programming interfaces — allow people to use Google or Facebook logins to sign in to other companies’ websites. And Twitter lets all sorts of companies build tech that works in conjunction with its platform and taps Twitter data such as tweets, conversation threads and query language using an API.

“Open APIs provide developers with access to proprietary software applications or web services and allow computer programs to ‘talk’ to one another so they can request and share information,” wrote Dave Pickles, founder and CTO of The Trade Desk in a 2019 Forbes article about how the software development community can spur more interoperability.

What are some ad tech examples of interoperability?

In the world of ad tech, interoperability might look like an advertiser telling Google to send The Trade Desk a record of all the conversion data associated with a brand or a campaign, said Adam Heimlich, CEO and cofounder of Chalice Custom Algorithms, a firm that builds custom algorithms that work in conjunction with ad tech systems such as demand-side platforms. In this way, if Google or other platforms controlling much of the digital ad market were required to allow more data access, it could help level the playing field, because a DSP might be able to use that information to improve its models in the hopes of ensuring that the appropriate ad inventory gets credit when someone clicks-through to buy something.

“To me it opens the door for competition around this data,” said Heimlich. “It’s a locked set of values, and when the data gets unlocked, those values also get unlocked.”

Is scraping a form of interoperability?

Tech that scrapes or crawls other technology — such as browser extensions that collect sites’ HTML code — is considered a class of interoperable tech. People often build tech that piggybacks on other tech in ways that could violate terms and conditions of the dominant tech. That’s why rules mandating increased interoperability are bound to spawn increasingly heated debate and pushback by the big platforms.

Take the growing crop of consumer-facing data monetization browser extensions. By lowering barriers preventing people from using outside tech like browser extensions or apps to monetize the data they generate on Facebook, Twitter or Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, rules requiring platforms to allow more interoperability could have important implications for firms building these tools and people who want to benefit more from the data they generate. Increased interoperability would help academic researchers whose tools have been kicked from social media platforms, too.

What about portability? I thought it was all about allowing people to transfer their photos and stuff.

That’s a big part of it, and one we hear most often from legislators who are worried about the stranglehold big tech platforms have on our digital lives and virtual assets. Consider data transfer — typically referred to as data portability — to be a subset of interoperability. Data portability is the sharing and movement of data. If forced to, platforms like Google might have to allow people to give consent to let another service access information associated with a friend’s shared location so people could see where friends are outside the Google Maps environment.

Aren’t there privacy concerns?

Indeed. “Interoperability is data sharing, and that has inherent privacy risks,” EFF staff technologist Bennett Cyphers told Digiday. He and others expect tech platforms to use privacy and security risks as a key argument against increased interoperability, which could be a red herring in some cases.

“There is a lot of space between those two ideas,” said Cyphers, who suggested that legislation that mandates increased interoperability could attach certain conditions that protect privacy, such as by requiring that data can only be transferred and employed for specific uses or not allowed for purposes not agreed to by people. In the end, he said, there could be improved privacy protections in place in the U.S. for certain personal data shared as a result of increased interoperability compared the limited protections for data gathered passively.

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