IGF 2020 WS #290 Unlocking the Internet: Stakeholder Perspectives of Interoperability

Monday, 16th November, 2020 (17:20 UTC) - Monday, 16th November, 2020 (18:20 UTC)
Room 2
About this Session
This round table event will bring a diverse group of civil society organisations, SMEs, as well as consumer organisations’ representatives to discuss how increased interoperability could be a future-proof way to solve some of the most intractable issues of the Internet platform market.

Organizer 1: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Organizer 2: Civil Society, Eastern European Group
Organizer 3: Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Speaker 1: Michał Woźniak, Technical Community, Eastern European Group
Speaker 2: Ian Brown, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Speaker 3: Szymielewicz Katarzyna, Civil Society, Eastern European Group
Speaker 4: Annika Linck, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 5: Maryant Fernandez Perez, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Round Table - Circle - 90 Min

Online duration reset to 60 minutes.
Policy Question(s)

We propose to limit the session to three thematic blocks of policy questions: 1) Overarching concepts, 2) Stakeholder perspectives, and 3) Technical angle. Below we have also included a series of sub-questions and claims. Many of these are also critical in nature, in order to stimulate a fruitful discussion. While it will not be feasible to cover all questions, we hope this indicates the issues that we see as relevant. The exact content will be developed by the panelists and moderator, and potentially other organisations if the MAG proposes a workshop-merge. **What kind of interoperability do we need to achieve broader stakeholder inclusion and real-choice for users, consumers and SMEs on the Internet? (Overarching concepts) > Considering the current policy environment, how would increased interoperability relate to concerns around 1) harmful content, 2) fundamental rights online, and 3) market concentration? > How would interoperability measures on the platform layer help achieve a more inclusive Internet governance as well as user experience? **What is platform interoperability’s value for internet consumers and users beyond the conceptual claims? (Consumer, User & SME perspectives) We would look to discuss a series of claims made by interoperability proponents and to what extent they are true: > Claim 1: “Users and consumers won’t be forced to use dominant social networks, which is the case right now”; “they will also be able to choose the one that reflects their values and has the best content moderation policy”. > Claim 2: “They will be able to send messages across different services”. Will users really appreciate this change? > Claim 3: “There will be new, better services that feed on our data (previously controlled by dominant platforms)”. What is the view of SMEs? Would increased interoperability lower the barriers to compete? > Claim 4: “interoperability gives consumers practical control over their personal data”. **Interoperate with whom and with what? (Technical perspective) > If interoperability allows for a broader set of new actors offer new interconnected services and assuming that third parties will seek "access to users who are now locked in the walled garden" in order to compete, how do we protect users and consumers from being spammed with too many "invitations to connect”/offers to try a new service provider? > If everybody can benefit from the obligation to interoperate, how do we ensure privacy/security standards in this new market? > Looking beyond companies and services, which particular functions should/could interoperate more? What are the implications for the inclusion of new stakeholders, as well as users and consumers, if interoperability is realised for: private messages; public newsfeed; users’ profile data; user interactions and behavioral data?

Interoperability is a broad topic, and key for a successful workshop is to define at the outset what we will not consider. Moreover, we propose to discuss the issue from the perspective of three stakeholder groups that are relevant for the policy conversation: consumers, users and SMEs. The specifics of the issues, challenges and opportunities are outlined in our policy questions under point 7.


GOAL 4: Quality Education
GOAL 5: Gender Equality
GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
GOAL 10: Reduced Inequalities
GOAL 17: Partnerships for the Goals


The Internet has become increasingly centralised. This has consequences on several dimensions, including how the Internet is experienced by users, consumers and SMEs. Inclusion online is dependent on the ability of a broad range of stakeholders to have real-choice between alternative solutions and to provide alternatives if they so wish. Inclusion online is one of the things at risk when gatekeepers have extensive market power to engage in anti-competitive behavior. Faced with this new internet reality, national competition and antitrust action has arguably not been keeping up. Governments all over the world are reviewing, comparing and updating their legal frameworks and regulatory tools. The aim is to open up the platforms market. This round table event will bring a diverse group of civil society organisations, SMEs, as well as consumer organisations’ representatives to discuss how increased interoperability could be a future-proof way to solve some of the most intractable issues of the Internet platform market. While policy efforts aimed at direct content regulation have drawbacks in terms of fundamental rights and competition cases are both arduous and uncertain, policy aimed at enabling, promoting or requiring interoperability for certain market-dominant platforms through Open Standards arguably holds the most potential to open up the platform market to competition. It does this by lowering the barriers of entry to challengers with different business models. By extension, this would empower consumers and users across the world by offering them real choice in the platforms market. Increased interoperability between platform services has potential implications for inclusion online across several dimensions. It matters for for example to stakeholders such as: users that need features that are not in the standard client, or do not suit the commercial plans of a narrow set of incumbent platforms; users with old/different/niche devices and OSs that are no longer supported; inclusion of users that speak rare or endangered languages; smaller competitors not stemming from the traditional tech hubs; or simply users that feel that they are not fully in control of their internet experience. An interoperable internet is an internet that includes all of the above. Thus policy efforts promoting interoperability could have far-ranging legal, economic and human consequences. With this as the backdrop, we plan to host an interactive round table allowing for several stakeholders to contribute. This matters especially because there are several interoperability policy efforts being proposed across the world, experiences and insights of which should be shared. We plan to have initial presentations by experts to set the problem and the different solution models, followed by open discussion among all participants, breaking down the time into smaller slices on specific subsets of the issues and stakeholder perspectives. PROVISIONAL AGENDA: > Introduction and welcome (OpenForum Europe) > Tour de Table to encourage an interactive session (structure depends on number of attendees) > Expert introductions from panelists (5-7 min presentations: Consumers, SMEs, Technical, Legal) > Questions from moderator and attendees + discussion > Final statements from panelists As the agenda suggests, we are not proposing an overly experimental round table format. The reason for this is partly to make sure that the stakeholder groups represented on the panel have a chance to outline their perspective of specific implications of interoperability. The issues at hand are legally, technically and socially quite complicated. Moreover, in our experience, a more structured format helps online attendees to contribute in a meaningful way. That being said, we will leave half of the time allocated to us open for attendees to raise questions and comment on the experts statements. The diversity of the attendees are in the end what makes the IGF a very valuable forum for discussion. In our experience, this approach is sufficient for active participation.

Expected Outcomes

As a Brussels-based think tank, we aim to have this event feed into a follow-up event in Brussels around the time when the European Commission publishes its proposal for the Digital Services Act, marking the start for the co-legislative process. The experience with the GDPR suggests that this will be a process watched by stakeholders across the world. As the opportunities and challenges of a shift in the European platforms regime holds the potential to affect internet governance and the experience of the internet for consumers and users globally, we hope to create links between stakeholders represented at the IGF and the discussions in Brussels. We hope to support other stakeholders in preparing similar follow-up workshops in their respective jurisdictions as well. A report of the workshop, including the discussed set of actions/policies, will be created for further distribution to all relevant stakeholders. We hope that the workshop will help in building relationships and alliances that can feed into and enrich the policy discussions around platform regulation taking place all over the world.

We selected a round table format for the event as it is more interactive by nature. We will start off with a section encouraging participation. Depending on the size of the audience, a tour de table could be done. If the group is too large, the audience could be asked a couple of first yes/no questions followed by voting by raise of hands (this is also a function that Zoom provides). It's important to make sure that the audience is warmed up to the idea of participating. In our view, technology can help in many cases, but doesn’t necessarily ensure audience participation. ‘Roving mics’ is tried and true for increasing participation in our experience. The moderator will also remind attendees repeatedly throughout the event that they can ask questions of panellists and of one another. On top of this, we will encourage attendees to get involved in advance of the event and to continue feedback and discussions in our follow-up communications after the event.

Relevance to Internet Governance: The centralisation of the Internet on the infrastructure, applications and services of a few large companies leads them to dominate the market and to take up a fundamental role in the definition and enforcement of online policies. Policymakers, civil society and SMEs have raised concerns that the network effect of such big user bases, and the "walled garden" design of many of these services, make it increasingly difficult for new, competing applications and services to emerge, arguably stifling competition and innovation. As a consequence, the theme of platform regulation has become the focus of political and community action in several countries, with law proposals being tabled in many of them. Interoperability, the subject of our workshop, is often thought to be a useful concept to address this problem. For example, it was mentioned by the European Commission among the possible provisions of the upcoming Digital Services Act, and the ACCESS Act has been proposed in the US Senate. By adopting as policy the requirement for Internet platforms to interconnect with others and allow the users of third party apps to exchange messages and content with their own users, the barrier of the network effect could be overcome, and new entrants could enjoy a chance to succeed. This policy, if adopted, could have a major impact on the shape of Internet service markets, especially for applications like instant messaging and social media. This, in turn, could boost the chances of reaching many of the sustainable development goals, by facilitating the inclusion of new classes of users that for various reasons cannot use the original app provided by the platform, and the birth and flourishing of local but globally-compatible apps from every part of the world. The workshop thus aims at discussing whether the concept of interoperability could actually keep these promises and be as effective as its proponents expect. By bringing together and inviting multiple stakeholder groups from as many global regions as possible, we hope to promote a comprehensive discussion that could reflect the global views and inform policies in many different places.

Relevance to Theme: Interoperability is at the heart of Internet governance, and has implications across the thematic tracks. However, we aim to broaden the conversation around interoperability beyond data access/interoperability/portability between platforms, which is often the lens through which it is discussed. Lower barriers of entry, and real choice for all stakeholders once online, is the potential that increased interoperability holds. It increases the ability of all stakeholders to engage, not just those chosen by a limited group of gatekeepers. Interoperability, when done well, allows for a more diverse set of platforms and caters to a broader set of users wants and needs, which is an important and necessary step to ensuring everyone’s voice is heard and treated equally in decision-making processes. It allows for more actors from more than just a few regions of the world reap the social benefits of going online and participating in the digital economy.

Online Participation


Usage of IGF Official Tool. Additional Tools proposed: It is likely that we will want to provide a platform for remote participation that is built on Open Source software, in contrast to Zoom.


1. Key Policy Questions and related issues
How could increased interoperability be a future-proof way to solve some of the most intractable issues of the Internet platform market?
Standardisation: how could mandated interoperability standards lead to a more inclusive internet? And how do we ensure that the development of those standards is inclusive as well?
If everybody can benefit from the obligation to interoperate, how do we ensure privacy and security standards in this new market?
2. Summary of Issues Discussed

Areas of broad agreement:
The main area of agreement was that interoperability is a proven way to increase competition and lower barriers to entry in the platforms market. Not just the panelists agreed with this, but as indicated by Dr. Ian Brown’s opening statement, many judicial and civic institutions such as European Commission, US Congress members, the UK Competition and Markets Authority, as well as several lawyer and economist association, are looking into interoperability to solve issues identified with the so called gatekeeping platforms, in areas such as social media, instant messaging, search engines and beyond.

Civil society groups have also included interoperability in their policy documents for platform regulation, as it holds the potential to increase the control of citizens over the media they consume and give them real choice when it comes to for example providers with higher privacy.

Areas needing further discussion and development:
There is still a conversation needed around the pacing of the interoperability mandates, and for which solutions it is the most useful. In addition, it will be important to always discuss the topic in the context of consumer/user privacy. It was agreed that in a European context, the GDPR lays a good foundation, but if not enforced properly, interoperability will not solve the underlying privacy issues. We also didn't have enough time to dig deep into the core internet governance issues that need to be solved, if the standards on which interoperability will be based, will be successful.

3. Key Takeaways

Interoperability is at heart of the Internet. On the layer(s) above the internet, however, interoperability has been limited by applications that use network effects to protect their dominant position. Increasing the interoperability of these layers above the already interoperabile layer, holds the potential to spur more competition, which in turn could lead to more start-ups and SMEs to enter the market in order to deliver solutions that are more user-centric.

One of the stand-out agreements between two stakeholders was the one between the SME-representative and the consumer representative. They both argued the potential of increased interoperability for their respective stakeholder groups.

In terms of ways forward, policy, legal and technical discussions need to be continued. It was agreed that around the presentation of the coming platform regulations from the European Commission this is especially true. Making sure that interoperability mandates will open up competition in the internet platform market, as it has done in earlier networked markets, these issues will have to be addressed by several stakeholders, with a broad societal perspective.

6. Final Speakers

Vittorio Bertola, Open-Xchange
Michał Woźniak, Technical Community, Eastern European Group
Ian Brown, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Annika Linck, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Maryant Fernandez Perez, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

7. Reflection to Gender Issues

Gender issues were not discussed by any speaker. The stakeholder perspective that we designed the session around did not include gender.

8. Session Outputs