Keyword: Interoperability

multiple grafted cacti in pots
Different types of cacti can be grafted onto each other, creating a way for two plants to grow together. Is this succulent interoperability? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Yercaud-elango)

This is an entry in our Keyword series, where we try to define the terms you’ll often hear when people talk about building a better Internet and put those keywords in their current context.

Interoperability — it’s a gruesome nugget of tech jargon that refers to a fairly fundamental tenet of the Internet. Simply, it means that different applications and devices can share the same data with one another.

The image above depicts cactus grafting: a technique wherein two cacti are cut and stuck together, creating a way for the two plants to share nutrients and water, therefore growing together. The cacti can be grafted successfully because their tissue shares something in common, and the same principle underlies interoperability too.

As users, we enjoy interoperability online daily.

Email is a prime example of interoperability in action. You can read and send an email message to anyone, regardless of what device you’re using or what provider hosts your email. 

Your data belongs to you: you can move it wherever you want and use it to talk to whomever you want.

Want to switch from using Gmail’s email client to using Microsoft Outlook? No problem. Thanks to the fluid interoperability you’ll have all your old messages and contacts on hand instantly. The same basic principle extends to podcasts and Single Sign-On authentication. You can access the same podcasts in the same way using any provider, and you can use your login credentials from Google to log into plenty of other websites and apps.1

While interoperable technologies are incredibly common online, most of the major online spaces we access foreclose interoperability. Big social media companies like Facebook are a prime example.

I found this out the hard way when I stopped actively using Facebook several years ago. It’s a shame that I ultimately left behind casual conversation with family friends and people who I used to run into all the time in various cities where I’ve lived. That was a genuinely nice aspect of my online life until a few years ago, and I truly miss those random interactions with people I don’t call or text with any kind of regularity. 

You may hear the term data portability during conversations about interoperability: it’s simply the ability to take the data that belongs to you and move it wherever you wish. Facebook’s interoperability is poor because our data there isn’t portable. I can’t take my list of Facebook contacts and import them to another social network, and I can’t communicate with my Facebook friends using an external chat client like iMessage or even Facebook’s sister product WhatsApp. I can easily transfer contacts between email providers or switch them from my iPhone to an Android, but I can’t do that when I try to jump ship from Facebook to Mastodon.

Enter adversarial interoperability. Cory Doctorow has done a lot of writing on the concept, defining it as:

“[Creating] a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them. Think of third-party printer ink, alternative app stores, or independent repair shops that use compatible parts from rival manufacturers to fix your car or your phone or your tractor.”

This strategy is one potential solution to the interoperability problem, wresting control of our technology or data from the companies who sell and administer that tech and data. 

There’s a good historical example of successful adversarial interoperability. In the early days of instant messaging, users could only chat with other users who used the same proprietary chat client they did. So if you used MSN, you couldn’t chat with someone who used Yahoo!. This was the late 1990s equivalent of not being able to use your Twitter Messages to contact someone who is using Facebook Messenger. Along came ICQ, a third-party client that figured out how to connect these proprietary clients.

Here, adversarial interoperability meant that a new piece of software was developed to communicate with anyone anywhere, in a manner similar to how talking on a phone works. Thankfully, I can talk to any of my friends who use a prepaid Cricket plan even though my cell service is provided by Verizon—ICQ applied the same principles to instant messaging. Yahoo!, Microsoft, and AOL tried to shut out the ICQ protocol, but users loved the ability to chat across clients so much that those companies gave in and let ICQ persist. ICQ was ultimately gobbled up by AOL and folded into AOL Instant Messenger.

What might a contemporary equivalent of ICQ look like? In the case of social networks, this might mean building a social network aggregator that allows you to remain in touch with your friends on Facebook, whether or not Facebook permits it. We’re experimenting with exactly that kind of software, and we call it Gobo.

Adversarial interoperability is intended to put pressure on manufacturers and tech companies from the bottom up, but it is not the only path towards a more interoperable Internet. Setting new standards for data and software ownership would make significant progress towards a more interoperable Internet too.

Hence, a clause in a proposed piece of EU legislation called the Digital Markets Act mandates that large corporations open up their proprietary chat clients to make them interoperable with others. Other legislation could prohibit Facebook’s hoarding of our personal data or ban software locks that manufacturers place on everything from tractors to ventilators, making it so that consumers have the right to repair and modify the hardware they purchase.

Data portability could be mandated by federal regulation such as Internet privacy laws, and new platforms could collectively set norms for interoperability by making users’ data portable by default. For example, a common JSON-based protocol for organizing data used across social media platforms—or even just a uniform way to identify data with a Single Sign-On login—would go a long way towards creating a new default mode online.

As with many problems facing today’s Internet, the ideal set of solutions would be a mix of regulation, evolving consumer expectations, technical innovation, and market pressure. It’s very possible not all of those need to click into place simultaneously for a newly interoperable status quo to take hold, but the confluence of those would likely ensure that we don’t once again slip into the siloed version of the Internet that we know today, with our personal data rendered proprietary and therefore quite difficult to use as if it were truly ours.


  1. Ethan points out a pretty important caveat to the claim that email is a paragon of interoperability: “email may not actually be interoperable anymore because Google’s mailserver will refuse to correspond with most self-hosted mailservers.”

By Mike Sugarman

Director of Media at Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, UMass Amherst

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