Digital Market Act: Proposed EU law could force WhatsApp and iMessage to work together

The European Union is about to approve the Digital Markets Act, which would oblige big tech companies to open up their services to wider competition

technology


March 25, 2022

Messaging apps on an Italian iPhone

Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

The European Union took its latest shot at big tech companies with the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a proposed law that will open up the market to smaller competitors and give consumers more choice and freedom.

The EU has launched a series of lawsuits against tech companies over the past two decades on the assumption that they are acting monopolistic or unfairly: Google, Apple and Microsoft, among others, have faced lawsuits. The DMA wants to eradicate these alleged practices in one fell swoop.

What does the law say?

The final text hasn’t been released yet, but we already know it’s going to be far-reaching – and biting. Technology companies must allow their services to be connected to those of competitors so that users of WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, both owned by Meta, can communicate seamlessly with Apple’s iMessage.

People are also given the right to remove preinstalled software from devices they buy, allowing you to remove Google software from a Google-sold laptop or Apple’s built-in apps from an iPhone.

Businesses will also be banned from automatically cross-promoting their services, so Google’s web search, for example, won’t be allowed to show their other services like YouTube Music at the top of search results, or demote competitors like Spotify.

Which companies does the law apply to?

Businesses that meet a range of requirements: those valued at $75 billion or more, those with at least 45 million monthly users, and those operating through an app, website, or social network. This captures obvious candidates like Meta, Google and Apple, but also smaller companies like Booking.com. Any company found to be in violation of the law can be fined up to 10 percent of its worldwide sales and up to 20 percent for repeat violations.

When do these changes start?

The draft text of the legal act was provisionally adopted by the European Parliament on March 24, but is subject to formal approval by both the European Parliament and the Council. Once that is done there will be a 20 day buffer before it becomes law and the rules will come into effect six months later.

What happens to people outside the EU?

Due to the complexity of offering different services in one country, EU legislation is likely to be adopted as global by most businesses, meaning the benefits of greater consumer choice are not limited to Europe. A similar thing happened with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which aims to protect consumer data. Some countries that have a lot to do with the EU have passed similar laws to streamline trade, while some companies have decided to introduce tougher policies around the world for the sake of simplicity.

Are there any disadvantages?

The bulk of the proposals relate to business practices rather than technology, but experts have warned that interoperability of messaging services poses a major technical hurdle. Neil Brown of UK law firm decoded.legal believes it risks compromising the end-to-end encryption currently offered to users of some services like WhatsApp. “I fear that those pushing for this do not understand the implications of what they will force service providers to do,” he says. “Or worse, they understand the implications and still push for it.”

Can’t tech companies find a solution?

Keith Martin of Royal Holloway, University of London says almost all messaging services use the same basic approach to cryptography, a technique known as Diffie-Hellman key exchange, but tend to add their own “bells and whistles”.

“Theoretically, you can still have end-to-end encryption if everyone uses perfectly compatible protocols, which is probably not the case right now,” says Martin. “It is very complex to make the cryptographic protocols largely compatible. It’s not something anyone can do quickly. I would imagine it will be a messy process for the people implementing these apps.”

But Martin says the law could ultimately benefit safety. “I think standardization and verification are a good thing,” he says. “I think there would potentially be a net gain for security if it meant we had more high-quality, secure standards that everyone uses. There is an argument that this is a better world.”

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