Design for Interoperability: Why Designers Should Pay Attention to the ACCESS Act

  • Interoperability makes email the most popular and effective social network around the globe – but most of the web doesn’t work like email.
  • The ACCESS Act, a recently introduced US law, would potentially change that by allowing users to more easily port their data to other services and force large platforms to be interoperable.
  • We then take a look at four compelling reasons why your team should design for interoperability: growth, cost, innovation, and user safety.

Interoperability Today

This year is email’s 50th birthday. Email has been able to flourish amid the forces of innovation and change. The key to this longevity? Interoperability. 

Email is interoperable. This means that anyone can send an email to anyone else, on any domain (e.g., bob@aol.com can send a message to ada@gmail.com). Though this interoperability makes it easier for spammers and fraudsters, it has also helped email become popular across the globe. Today, email is a pervasive force in our professional, political, economic, and personal lives. 

But today’s platforms, like Facebook and Github, don’t work like email. On Facebook, you can only read and write posts from Facebook’s app or website (the same is true for Twitter, Uber, Airbnb, etc). Applying this same logic to email sounds absurd. It would mean you must have an AOL account to send a message to bob@aol.com

From a user experience designer’s perspective, it is clear why email has been so popular for so long. Thanks to interoperability, each person can pick and choose their favorite email app and provider while still maintaining access to the same global social network.  

Why should you design for interoperability?

Designers – especially those interested in serving the most vulnerable people in society – should design for interoperability. Yet due to the perception that interoperability is not profitable, it is not used by platforms, even small projects and startups. But the benefits of interoperability are numerous, and it’s worth arguing for it on your team – especially if you’re working on a small, charitable, public interest, non-profit, or open source project. 

First, your project is more likely to grow. The value of a social platform increases with the number of users. The more users in your network, the more likely you are to attract additional users through friend-of-a-friend connections. Similarly, the more content available on the Tor network makes it more likely for people to use it, which is a feedback loop that can accelerate growth. Arguably platforms like Facebook enforce their anti-interoperability stance precisely because of these social network effects. To be anti-Facebook means to be interoperable, and small competitive projects could turn towards building interoperability with each other to have a higher chance of success.

Secondly, there are plenty of open protocols you can use for your application that already exist. Your development team could save resources by relying on existing infrastructure instead of building everything from scratch. Snikket is a new small group chat application that uses an existing protocol called XMPP, and Element is an open chat platform that built its own custom interoperable protocol called Matrix. You can even use the email network itself to build more feature-rich applications. For example, Delta Chat is an email client that sends end-to-end encrypted chats with a WhatsApp-like interface and has become quite popular for at-risk users in repressive environments. 

Third, you might be surprised how innovative third-party clients can be. Often, so-called “unofficial” applications are a bountiful source of new ideas and fresh perspectives that can improve the value of an app. TweetDeck is a classic example of this – that became so popular it was acquired by Twitter and incorporated into the user experience of the application itself. 

What are the benefits of interoperability for vulnerable people around the globe?

Without interoperability, users do not have a choice about where their data is physically located which can impact their safety. For example, user data on gmail.com is hosted in the United States and is subject to US law. But if a user chooses Protonmail, their data is hosted in Switzerland. This matters because each country has laws that apply differently. 

One example of a law that affects people differently today is the US export law, which requires web services to block users connecting from Crimea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Cuba. It’s unclear, however, just when the government forces platforms to comply with the law (Iranian users were banned from Slack in 2018, Amazon Web Services and GitHub in 2019, and GitLab in 2020). This, among many other reasons, causes some organizations and individuals to not want to host their data in the US.

Application of law matters for many users, which is why they deserve to choose where their data is hosted.

The ACCESS Act’s Potential Impact

A new proposed law wants to force large platforms to finally give users that choice. A small group of lawmakers have introduced the ACCESS Act, or Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching Act. The proposed bill, if passed, would require platforms of a certain size to make their services interoperable and allow users to more easily port their data to other services. These new “trusted custodial services” would allow users to take their data to a provider of their choice. Sound familiar? It could work a lot like email. This could be a huge development that may lead to the expansion of social network effects, allowing small projects to integrate and interact with users on existing platforms. 

Like email, users under the ACCESS Act will have the choice of which service provider they trust with their user data, and can switch services when they no longer want to use that service. Such a move would have significant implications for marginalized and vulnerable populations around the globe. For example, under the new law an investigative journalist or LGBTQ organizer could choose to house their data in a country of their choice to prevent censorship, search, or seizure of their materials by a hostile government.

With large platforms forced to open their APIs to third-party clients, we could imagine a world where users download just a single interoperable taxi app. Small cab companies wouldn’t have to build their own taxi applications if Uber and Lyft were forced to open their platforms to each other and to the larger taxi network. Businesses would be able to just share one social media address, and reach them on all platforms, rather than listing all of their usernames for each. And we could imagine more user-friendly interfaces to chat platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams that offer end-to-end encryption and better safety features on their existing organization’s servers.

The possibilities are exciting for small open source projects, as their users would gain access (pun intended) to a larger social network. This would help small up-and-coming competitors have a meaningful chance to succeed. We’re hopeful that the web will become more connected and open, rather than consolidated and controlled by a handful of companies.