The Tower of Babel: How the Public Service Internet Tries to Save Messaging and Ban Big Social Media

This blog post is part of a series that examines the public interest internet– the parts of the Internet that do not make Facebook or Google headlines, but quietly provide useful public goods and services without requiring the scale or business practices of tech giants. Read our previous installments.

How many courier services do you use? Slack, Discord, WhatsApp, Apple iMessage, Signal, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams, Instagram, TikTok, Google Hangouts, Twitter Direct Messages, Skype? Our families, friends and colleagues are dispersed in dozens of departments, none of which communicate with each other. Without even trying, you can easily accumulate 40 apps on your phone that allow you to send and receive messages. The numbers are not going down.

Companies like Google and Facebook – which once supported interoperable protocols, even using the same chat protocol – now reject them.

This is not the first time that we have been in this situation. In the 2000s, users had to choose between MSN, AOL, ICQ, IRC, and Yahoo! Messenger, many of which would be integrated with other larger services. Programs like Sabir and Adium collected your contacts in one place, and made end-users more independent of one service – or worse, having to choose the friends you care about enough to join another messaging service.

Thus, the proliferation of messaging services is not new. What is new is the interoperability environment. Companies like Google and Facebook – which once supported interoperable protocols, even using the same chat protocol – now push them back. Even upstarts like Signal try to dissuade developers to build their own unofficial clients.

Finding a way to put all of these services together can make many internet users happy, but it won’t thrill investors or tempt a giant tech company to buy your startup. The only form of recognition guaranteed to anyone who tries to untie this knot is legal threats – a lot legal threats.

But that hasn’t stopped voluntary contributors to the wider public interest Internet.

Take Matterbridge, a free / open source software project that promises to link “Discord, Gitter, IRC, Keybase, Matrix, Mattermost, MSTeams, Rocket.Chat, Slack, Telegram, Twitch, WhatsApp, XMPP, Zulip”. This is a thankless task that requires its contributors to understand (and, at times, reverse engineer) many protocols. It’s hard work, and it needs to be updated frequently as all of these protocols change. But they manage it and provide the tools to do it for free.

Oddly enough, some of the people working in this field are the same people who dedicated themselves to connecting different messaging services in the 2000s, and they still do. You can watch one of the main developers of Pidgin live coding on Twitch, reusing the code base for a new era.

Pidgin was able to survive in the desert for a long time, thanks to the institutional support of “Instant messaging freedom», A nonprofit organization that manages its limited finances and makes sure that no matter how slow things are, they never stop. IMF was launched in the mid-2000s after AOL threatened the developers of Pidgin, then known as GAIM. Originally conceived as a legal defense organization, it has remained to serve as a base for service operations.

We asked Gary Kramlich of Pidgin about his dedication to the project. Kramlich quit his job in 2019 and lived off his savings while undertaking a serious overhaul of the Pidgin code, something he plans to maintain until September when he will be cash-strapped and will have to resume. paid work.

“It’s about communicating and bringing people together, allowing them to speak as they please. It’s enormous. You shouldn’t need 30GB of RAM to run all of your chat clients. Communications operate on network effects. If the majority of your friends use a tool and you don’t like it, your friends will need to take that extra step to include you in the conversation. It forces people to choose between their friends and the tools that work best for them. A multiprotocol client like Pidgin means you can have both.

Many public interest Internet projects mirror this pattern: spending years working in relative obscurity on subjects that require concentrated work, but with little immediate reward, under a cloud of legal risk that frightens commercial enterprises. This kind of work is, by definition, work for the good audience.

After years of slow, patient, and inglorious work, the time for Pidgin, Matterbridge and others to lay the groundwork has arrived. Internet users are frustrated beyond breaking point by the complexity of managing multiple chat and messaging services. Businesses take note.

It’s a legally risky bet, but it’s a smart bet. After decades of increasing legal restrictions on interoperability, the law is changing for the better. In an attempt to break the lockdown of major email providers, the American congress and EU are considering mandatory interoperability laws that would make the job of these developers much easier – and legally more secure.

Interoperability is an idea with time at home. Frustrated with ubiquitous tracking and invasive advertising, free software developers have built alternative front-ends to sites like Youtube, Instagram and Twitter. Coders are tired of waiting for the services they pay to add the features they need, so they create alternative clients for Spotify, and Reddit.

These tools are already achieving the goals that regulators have set for themselves as part of the Big Tech taming project. The public interest Internet offers us untracked alternatives, interoperable services and tools that put user needs and human development ahead of “engagement” and “visibility”.

Interoperability tools are more than a way to redefine or combine existing services – they are also ways to create full-fledged alternatives to incumbent social media giants. For example, Mastodon is a competitor to Twitter based on an open protocol that allows millions of servers and multiple custom frontends to interconnect with each other (Peertube does the same for the video).

These services thrive, with a seven-figure user base, but they still struggle to convince the creator or average user of Facebook or YouTube to change, thanks to the network effects enjoyed by these centralized services. A YouTube creator may hate corporate bossy moderation policies and unpredictable algorithmic recommendations, but they still use YouTube because that’s where all the viewers are. Every time a creator joins YouTube, they give viewers another reason to keep using YouTube. Every time a viewer watches something on YouTube, they give creators another reason to post their videos to YouTube.

With interoperable clients, these network effects are offset by lower “switching costs”. If you can merge your Twitter and Mastodon feeds into one Mastodon client, it doesn’t matter if you are a “Mastodon user” or a “Twitter user”. Indeed, if your Twitter friends can subscribe to your Mastodon posts, and if you can use Mastodon to read their Twitter posts, then you don’t lose whatever by leaving Twitter and becoming exclusive to Mastodon. In fact, you could Gain doing so because your Mastodon server may have features, policies, and communities that are better for you and your needs than Twitter – which has to satisfy hundreds of millions of use cases – can ever be.

Indeed, it seems that Twitter executives have already anticipated that future, with their support for Blue sky, an internal initiative to accelerate this interoperability so that they are in the best position to survive it.

Right now, right now, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of developers who support millions of the first users to build a vision of a post-Facebook world, built in the public interest.

Yet these projects are very rarely mentioned in political circles, nor do they receive political or government support. They are never taken into consideration when new laws on intermediary liability, extremist or harmful content or copyright are enacted. If ever a public institution considers them, it is almost always the courts, as the advocates of these projects fight legal insecurity and terrifying and terrifying letters from lawyers demanding that they stop pursuing the public good. If the political establishment is serious about untangling big tech, it should work with these volunteers, not ignore or oppose them.

This is the fifth article in our public service Internet blogging series. Read more in the series:

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