Discussion Papers

No 437: Interoperability in a digital world – New challenges for interpersonal communications

Authors: Peter Kroon, René Arnold

(full version only available in German)


Calling someone over the telephone network or sending an SMS normally works frictionless no matter the respective networks of the interacting parties. For services such as Facebook Messenger, Signal, Threema or WhatsApp, the number of potential communication partners is limited to the users of the respective service, since these services are typically not interoperable. Policy makers in Germany and on the European level consider imposing interoperability obligations on such services. The European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) opens up this possibility for number independent interpersonal communications services with significant coverage and user base.

On the basis of an analysis of the current and upcoming European legal framework, this discussion paper sheds light on whether there is any interest for interoperability of services such as Facebook Messenger, Signal, Threema or WhatsApp from a consumer perspective. For this purpose, a representative survey of 2,044 consumers in Germany was conducted. The results show that consumers have no need for interoperability between WhatsApp and similar services. In fact the opposite is true. Consumers proactively use the technical seams between these services to separate different social groups within their personal network.

In spite of this clear consumer preference against interoperability, there may be other economic reasons for imposing an interoperability obligation. The present discussion paper also discusses possible impacts of such an obligation on innovation, competition and data protection. We were unable to identify unanimously positive effects in any of these three areas.

An interoperability obligation, in particular an asymmetric one, would likely minimize incentives for innovation and thus reduce the currently strong level of competition among OTT services for new functions. Data protection may equally suffer if an interoperability obligation is introduced for WhatsApp and similar services. Arguably, the technologically lowest level of data protection would prevail between the services of the communication partners and not the highest. Similarly, data will inevitably be exchanged between the servers of the services involved and cannot remain with the one with the highest level of data protection.

Emergency calls could be another reason for an interoperability obligation for services beyond the ones already connecting to emergency services in Germany if indeed a substantial part of the population did not rely on telephony for emergency calls. The survey for the present discussion paper cannot confirm this either. Virtually all consumers in Germany make emergency calls via landline or mobile phone calls or would do so if necessary.

Against this backdrop, the possibility for interoperability obligations of number-independent interpersonal communications services foreseen in the EECC should not be called upon.

Discussion Paper is available for download.

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