On Doctorow’s “Adversarial Interoperability”

by on August 29, 2020 · 0 comments

Interoperability is a topic that has long been of interest to me. How networks, platforms, and devices work with each other–or sometimes fail to–is an important engineering, business, and policy issue. Back in 2012, I spilled out over 5,000 words on the topic when reviewing John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s excellent book, Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems.

I’ve always struggled with the interoperability issues, however, and often avoided them became of the sheer complexity of it all. Some interesting recent essays by sci-fi author and digital activist Cory Doctorow remind me that I need to get back on top of the issue. His latest essay is a call-to-arms in favor of what he calls “adversarial interoperability.” “[T]hat’s when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them,” he says. “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.”

Doctorow is a vociferous defender of expanded digital access rights of many flavors and his latest essays on interoperability expand upon his previous advocacy for open access and a general freedom to tinker. He does much of this work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which shares his commitment to expanded digital access and interoperability rights in various contexts.

I’m in league with Doctorow and EFF on some of these things, but also find myself thinking they go much too far in other ways. At root, their work and advocacy raise a profound question: should there be any general right to exclude on digital platforms? Although he doesn’t always come right out and say it, Doctorow’s work often seems like an outright rejection of any sort of property rights in networks or platforms. Generally speaking, he does not want the law to recognize any right for tech platforms to exclude using digital fences of any sort.

Where to Draw the Lines?

As someone who has authored a book about the importance of permissionless innovation, I need to be able to answer questions about where these lines between open versus closed systems are drawn. Definitions and framing matter, however. I use “permissionless innovation” as a descriptor for one possible policy disposition when considering where legal and regulatory defaults should be set. Another conception of permissionless innovation is more of an engineering ideal; a general freedom to connect, tinker, modify, etc. (I speak more about these conceptions in my latest book, Evasive Entrepreneurs.) Of course, someone advocating permissionless innovation as a policy default will sometimes be confronted with the question of what the law should say when someone behaves in an “evasive” fashion in the latter conception of permissionless innovation.

Doctorow would generally answer that question by saying that law should not be rigged to favor exclusion through laws like the DMCA (and specifically the law’s anti- circumvention provisions), Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, patent law, and various other rules and laws. “[T]he current crop of Big Tech companies has secured laws, regulations, and court decisions that have dramatically restricted adversarial interoperability.”

Generally speaking, I agree. I’m not a fan of technocratic laws or regulations that seek to micro-manage interoperability and which stack the deck in favor of exclusionary conduct with steep penalties for evasion. But does that mean adversarial interoperability should be permitted in all cases? Should there exist any sort of common law presumption one way or the other when a user or competitor seeks access to an existing private platform or device?

Specifics matter here and I don’t have time to get into all the case studies that Doctorow goes through. Some are no-brainers, like the infamous Lexmark case involving refillable printer ink cartridges. Other cases are far more complicated, at least for me. Does Epic, creator of Fortnite, have a right of adversarial interoperability that it can exercise against Apple and their AppStore? As Dirk Auer suggests in a new essay, this episode looks more like a straightforward pricing dispute. Epic is making it out to be much more than that, suggesting Apple is guilty of unfair and exclusionary practices that require a legal remedy.

Why not take that logic further and just say Apple’s App Store us tantamount to a natural monopoly or digital essential facility that Epic and everyone else is entitled to on whatever terms they want? For that matter, why not apply the same logic to Epic’s Fortnite platform or even its Unreal Engine? Does every other gaming developer have a right to piggyback on the juggernaut that Epic has built?

This gets to the core question about Doctorow’s concept of adversarial interoperability: Exactly what should common law and the courts say platform owners make access rights a simple pricing matter and say: “You pay or you are out.” Like Doctorow and EFF, I don’t want Apple to benefit from any special favors from laws like DMCA. Where we differ is that I would still leave the door open for Apple to exercise various other common law contractual rights or property rights in court.

I suspect Doctorow would deny any such claims by Apple or anyone else. If so, I would like to see him spell out in more precise terms exactly what Apple’s property rights and contractual rights are in this instance. Or, again, should we just treat the App Store as a digital commons with unfettered open access rights for developers? If so, would Apple be required to still manage the resource once it is a quasi-commons?

I think that would end miserably, but would like to hear Doctorow’s preferred approach before saying more. I suspect a lot rides on the distinction between “open” verses “proprietary” standards, but compared to Doctorow and EFF, I am willing to embrace a world of both open and proprietary systems, and many hybrids in between. I don’t want the law favoring one type over the other, but that means I need to endorse a generalized property right for digital operators such that they can still exclude others (even in the absence of artificial regulatory rights like DMCA creates). Again, I suspect Doctorow would reject that standard, preferring a generalized right of access, even if that means the platforms become de facto commons.

More Radical Steps

Elsewhere, Doctorow has said is that some of these questions would be better addressed through more aggressive antitrust regulation. Mere data portability or mandatory interoperability isn’t enough for him. “Data portability is important,” Doctorow says, “but it is no substitute for the ability to have ongoing access to a service that you’re in the process of migrating away from.”

In his latest online book on “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism,” Doctorow suggests that it is time to “make Big Tech small again” through an “anti-monopoly ecology movement.” That “means bans on mergers between large companies, on big companies acquiring nascent competitors, and on platform companies competing directly with the companies that rely on the platforms.” And he desires a host of other remedies.

So, here we have the convergence of interoperability policy and antitrust policy, with a layer of property confiscation layered on top apparently. “Now it’s up to us to seize the means of computation, putting that electronic nervous system under democratic, accountable control,” he insists in his latest manifesto.

What’s funny about this is that Doctorow begins most of his essays by pointing out all the ways that politics is the problem when it comes to access issues, only to end by suggesting that a lot more political meddling is the required solution. He repeatedly laments how large tech players have so often been able to convince lawmakers and regulators to pass special laws or regulations that work to their favor. Yet, in his We-Can-Build-A-Better-Bureaucrat model of things, all those old problems will apparently disappear when we get the right people in power and get rid of those nefarious capitalist schemers.

Thus, what really animates Doctorow’s advocacy for adversarial interoperability is a deep suspicion of free market capitalism and property rights in particular. In this worldview, interoperability really just becomes a Trojan Horse meant to help bring down the entire capitalist order. Am I exaggerating? “As to why things are so screwed up? Capitalism.” Those are his exact words from the conclusion of his latest book.

Adversarial Innovation & Evolutionary Interop

Still, Doctorow raises many legitimate issues about interconnection and digital access rights. But we need a better approach to work though these questions than the one he suggests.

In my lengthy review of the Palfrey and Gasser Interop book, I tried to sketch out an alternative framework for thinking seriously about these issues. I referred to my preferred approach as “experimental interoperability” or “evolutionary interoperability.” I described this as the theory that ongoing marketplace experimentation with technical standards, modes of information production and dissemination, and interoperable information systems, is almost always preferable to the artificial foreclosure of this dynamic process through state action. The former allows for better learning and coping mechanisms to develop while also incentivizing the spontaneous, natural evolution of the market and market responses.

Adversarial interoperability is important, but not nearly as important as adversarial innovation and facilities-based competition. Stated differently, access rights to existing systems is an important value, but the incentives we have in place to encourage entirely new systems is what really matters most. At some point, a generalized right of access to existing systems discourages the sort of platform-building that could help give rise to the sort of creative destruction we have seen at work repeatedly in the past and that we still need today. Taken too far, adversarial interoperability threatens to undermine this goal. Why seek to build a better alternative platform if you can just endlessly free ride off someone else’s by force of law?

Thus, I prefer to work at the margins and think through how to balance these competing claims of access / interoperability rights versus contractual / property rights. My take will be too utilitarian for not only Doctorow but also for some libertarians, who want clear answers to all these questions based upon their preferred natural law-oriented constructions of rights. The problem with that approach is that it leads to all-or-nothing extremes (complete digital property rights, or virtually none) and that approach is fundamentally unworkable and destructive. We need to work harder about how to balance these rights and values in pro-competitive, pro-innovation fashion.

There is No Such Thing as Optimal Interoperability

In sum, there is no such thing as “optimal interoperablity.” Sometimes proprietary or “closed” systems will offer the public features and options that they will find preferable to “open” ones.  “There are many reasons why consumers might prefer ‘closed’ systems – even when they have to pay a premium for them,” argues Dirk Auer in a separate essay. It could be greater convenience, security, or other things. Palfrey and Gasser correctly noted in their book that, “the state is rarely in a position to call a winner among competing technologies” (p. 174). Moreover, they concluded:

“Lawmakers need to keep in view the limits of their own effectiveness when it comes to accomplishing optimal levels of interoperability. Case studies of government intervention, especially where complex information technologies are involved, show that states tend to be ill suited to determine on their own what specific technology will be the best option for the future (p. 175)

A thousand amens to that! The law should not artificially foreclose experimentation with many different types of platforms, standards, devices and the interoperability that exists among them.

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