Demonopolizing the Internet with Interoperability

How to shift power away from big tech and back to communities and individuals

Cory Doctorow
Published in
4 min readSep 23, 2021


Midcenutry advertisement for the Hush-A-Phone.

The Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery has just published my editorial, “Competitive Compatibility: Let’s Fix the Internet, Not the Tech Giants,” explaining how interoperability was once an engine for competition and user empowerment — and how that ended.

As the title suggests, regulators are fed up with Big Tech’s abuses, but they’re not sure what to do about it. One approach is to “fix the companies” — like forcing Facebook to fight “disinformation” or making Google filter all user content for suspected copyright violations.

The problem with this approach is that it’s not clear whether the tech companies can solve these problems (for example, no copyright filter can distinguish between permitted uses like parody or commentary and infringing ones).

A rule that requires Big Tech to throw everything at unsolvable problems will make the cost of entry into the tech sector so expensive that Big Tech will get to rule unchallenged, forever. And the problems still won’t get solved.

There’s another approach, though — rather than fixing tech companies, we can fix the internet. We can empower communities and individuals to escape monopoly platforms, through interoperability.

If you don’t like how FB moderates its platform, interop would let you leave — and still stay connected to the family, community and customers you leave behind.

My article sets out a taxonomy of interoperability:

  • Cooperative: When you interoperate through an API or a standard (like web browsers and servers)
  • Indifferent: When a company takes no steps to help or block interop (like when you plug a USB adapter into a car lighter)
  • Adversarial: Interop against the wishes of the interoper-ee, overcoming whatever defenses they put up to prevent interop. This has a long and honorable tradition — Apple reverse-engineering Microsoft Office for Iwork, say.