In his 2019 essay "Adversarial interoperability: reviving an elegant weapon from a more civilised age to kill today's monopolies", Cory Doctorow sets out the concept of adversarial interoperability, which could be summed up as follows:
“Interoperability” is the act of making a new product or service work with an existing product or service: modern civilization depends on the standards and practices that allow you to put any dish into a dishwasher or any USB charger into any car’s cigarette lighter.
But interoperability is just the ante. For a really competitive, innovative, dynamic marketplace, you need adversarial interoperability: that’s when you create 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.
Facebook's advantage is in "network effects": the idea that Facebook increases in value with every user who joins it (because more users increase the likelihood that the person you're looking for is on Facebook).
In the history of IT, monopolies have been destroyed when their direct competitors have found a way of breaking this advantage by making themselves transparently compatible with the standards, protocols and products of the monopolistic company.
Adversarial interoperability was once the driver of tech’s dynamic marketplace, where the biggest firms could go from top of the heap to scrap metal in an eyeblink, where tiny startups could topple dominant companies before they even knew what hit them. Once Facebook could give new users the ability to stay in touch with MySpace friends, then every message those Facebook users sent back to MySpace—with a footer advertising Facebook's superiority—became a recruiting tool for more Facebook users. MySpace served Facebook as a reservoir of conveniently organized potential users that could be easily reached with a compelling pitch about why they should switch.
But the current crop of Big Tech companies has secured laws, regulations, and court decisions that have dramatically restricted adversarial interoperability. From the flurry of absurd software patents that the US Patent and Trademark Office granted in the dark years between the first software patents and the Alice decision to the growing use of "digital rights management" to create legal obligations to use the products you purchase in ways that benefit shareholders at your expense, Big Tech climbed the adversarial ladder and then pulled it up behind them.
From adversarial interop to adversarial bridges
Social networks, whose content is deemed far less "noble" than Wikipedia, films, documentaries, academic works or books, should benefit just as much from the argument that "information seeks to be free", a phrase from one of the first hacker conferences in 1984. Every user should be able to guarantee free access to their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram 'posts', by virtue of protecting free access to information and knowledge, which is currently hampered by today's social networking platforms. For example, the last five years have seen the emergence of militant use of Instagram, with accounts using their audience to disseminate and popularise scientific or political concepts. Instagram has no business restricting access to these resources produced by creators who are "imprisoned" on their platform by abusive conditions of use.
It's about time we used this forced interoperability to allow users to switch from Facebook to the social network of their choice: Cory Doctorow insists that this goes further than the idea of 'data portability', which allows disgruntled consumers to export their data to another network, because it is not based on the efforts of the legislator or the platform owner. This also breaks down the network effect: you don't just port your data, you also access the data of users who remain on the platform in question.
Through their network effect, current social networking platforms do not give their users a choice about the conditions of use of their tools. This is because refusing to "negotiate" with them means depriving themselves of a connection to the human communities present on these networks, who do not necessarily have the resources to seek out an alternative platform, which moreover (without an adversarial bridge) would deprive them of their audience.
At Technostructures, our plan to stand up to this monopoly of social network platforms rests on 3 pillars, strongly linked to the operation of adversarial bridges :
- bridges, by creating access to the content of one social network for users of another, can break the "chasse gardée" of current social networks. For example, libr.events is a browser extension project (part of the Tracking Exposed initiative) designed to copy and republish data from proprietary social networks to free and decentralized platforms, and already bridges public events from facebook.com to the Mobilizon social network.
- a pirate point of view on the broader question of access to culture and knowledge (and direct payment outside conventional distribution channels), but also on the right to obtain information, news or opinions shared by entities or friends via the social networks we want, and with the algorithm we want. And what this implies for copyright, author-ice rights and laws protecting platform oligopolies.
- self-hosting and the multiplication of hosting instances, which share the task of redecentralizing the Internet by offering instances of alternative distributed social networking (e.g. Mastodon, Synapse...), but also of providing the possibility of simple bridging, thanks for example to YunoHost and its integration of bridges such as Mautrix-Signal or Mautrix-Whatsapp.
Adversarial bridges for free access to social network content
The Kazarma project is based on the desire to bring together two already open, free and interoperable technologies for the exchange of "distributed Pub/Sub" messages, ActivityPub and Matrix. What these two technologies have in common is that they enable the distribution of events (Matrix) / activities (ActivityPub) whose specifications are extensible, making it possible to integrate any kind of data, whether semantic or less structured.
One of Technostructures' objectives in demonstrating the usefulness of these bridges is to launch public bridges enabling free access to social network content. This mainly takes the form of a Matrix server (Synapse) to which various extensions called Application Services have been added.
Among the priority networks, we would like to bridge the following ones:
- ActivityPub apps: Mastodon, Pixelfed, Peertube
- chat apps : Facebook Messenger, Signal, Telegram
- proprietary social networks: Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok
A second component of the bridges adversariels project could be to draw on a selection of content, i.e. a database (edited by Technostructures) of articles, images and media selected for their quality (e.g. infographics, popularization articles and videos) and to work on the quality of the "bridging" between YouTube channel, Instagram, Medium, and their ActivityPub equivalent: Mastodon, Peertube, PixelFed, text blogs...
- Kazarma bridge (ActivityPub / Matrix)
- Bridge Facebook events to Mobilizon (through libr.events) and to Matrix (through Kazarma), as well as from other proprietary event platforms than Facebook: Demosphere, Meetup...
- "Hostile" bridging Instagram for Pixelfed
Adversarial bridges demand data portability
The Digital Markets Act is on track to come into force at the end of 2022. This regulation, created by the European Commission, aims to prevent the abuse of monopolies by vendors such as Apple and its tyrannical App Store with its inevitable tax.
It defines "gatekeeper" figures to describe social networking platforms that have a "stranglehold" on their users (Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.).
The DMA specifies the following two obligations in particular:
- enable users to unsubscribe from essential gatekeeper platform services as easily as they subscribe to them;
- enable third parties to interoperate with the gatekeeper's own services;
The first point boils down to requiring "data portability" from one service to another. The second point, whose wording is vague, could define a requirement for partial or complete interoperability with platform services, but we'll have to wait for the first judgments to discover the real practical application of these legal requirements, which could just as easily weaken the current ecosystem of open protocols.
When it comes to demanding interoperable APIs directly from platforms, adverse interoperability is complementary and puts pressure on these platforms.
These different battles are part of the same desire to change current laws and practices to free up code and information:
- The concept of adverse interoperability and its strategic implications.
- Redecentralize's legislative fight for open APIs and the "Public Money = Public Code" campaign.
- Kopimi and the Pirate Party's batte for access to culture
- Aaron Swarz's fight for access to knowledge
Pixelfed vs. Instagram: David versus Goliath?
Instagram, (taking over from Snapchat, then in the process of handing it over to TikTok) has redefined social network consumption by intensifying the exchange of video streams between individuals.
While Instagram suffers from numerous scandals (quantifying, among other things, the percentage of nudity in photos to better retain its audience), and its impact on the self-esteem of its users becomes well known, no political alternative to the bulimia of attention demanded by Instagram or TikTok sees the light of day.
But the advantage of an alternative Instagram (of the Pixelfed type) with "adversarial bridge" capabilities to Instagram would be (apart from being able to continue consuming Instagram users' stories) to be freed from Instagram's restricted story editing interface: to be able to add their own gifs and music to their stories (and not just the gifs present on Giphy, or the music only present on Spotify), or to be able to implement an algorithm (or not) of their choice (see below the question of alternative feeds).
A further constraint lifted is the addition of external links in "stories": on Instagram, each user is allowed only one hyperlink to external resources (on the profile). To insert a link to an external web resource in an Instagram story, it is necessary to pay for a premium account, a symbol of the platforms' stranglehold on users' ability to take advantage of the open, hypertextual nature of the Internet.
Access to information and social networks can only be free with the possibility of replacing the "feeds" monopoly of closed ecosystems (e.g. Instagram) with an alternative feed implementing the algorithm we want (or the lack of it, for example by displaying the latest posts in the reverse order of their creation, like Twitter's "Tweets most recent from your subscriptions" mode).
The feed algorithm, for example, could be expressed in Lua. The Matrix ecosystem includes systems for server-side aggregation.
At Technostructures, we aim to:
- support this pirate point of view on the broader question of access to culture, knowledge, information, news or opinions shared by entities or friends via the social networks we want, and with the algorithm we want;
- that, where appropriate, public or private structures work on these code projects, enabling interoperability battles against the platform giants.