End-To-End Encryption is Too Important to Be Proprietary
The EU’s Digital Markets Act is playing on the hardest setting (and it doesn’t need to).
The EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) is set to become law; it will require the biggest tech companies in the world (Apple, Google and Facebook, and maybe a few others) to open up their instant messaging services (iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and maybe a few others) so that smaller messaging services can plug into them. These smaller services might be run by startups, nonprofits, co-ops, or even individual tinkerers.
The logic behind this is sound. IM tools are the ultimate “network effects” products: once they have a critical mass of users, other users feel they have to join to talk to the people who are already there. The more users who sign up, the more users feel they must sign up.
This gives the big platforms enormous power, for good and for ill. Start with the good: when Facebook turned on end-to-end encryption for Whatsapp in 2016, they endowed billions of users with state-of-the-art privacy.
But then there’s the bad: Mark Zuckerberg and his executive team are the benevolent dictators of Whatsapp. Benevolent dictatorships work well, but fail badly. By definition, benevolent dictatorships aren’t accountable (that’s why they’re called “dictatorships”) and that means that any time a benevolent dictator messes up (or sells out) you are stuck.
This is much worse when network effects are on the dictator’s side. If you object to Whatsapp’s administrative policies, you can’t just quit — you either have to convince all your friends to quit with you, or give up on the customers, communities and friends who stay behind.