Issues for individual users
Suppose that we would like to check what our friends post on Facebook, but instead of seeing their posts in the order chosen by Facebook’s algorithm we would prefer another order. For this, we would like to use another software where we can have more control over what we would like to see first. Can this be done now? No.
Suppose that when we would like to check what’s new in the world we would open just one application, where we would see both Facebook posts of friends as well as links posted on Twitter by people that we follow, or similar information from other services. If there is some news that people we follow on both Facebook and Twitter have posted about, this news should be shown to us first. Can this be done now? No.
Suppose that when we would like to check new events that others posted on Facebook, we would like the user interface to show us whether the events overlap or not with anything that we have already scheduled on our Google Calendar. Can this be done now? No.
Suppose that when we would like to send a message to a person to which we are connected on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, Slack, Google Chat and maybe other channels, we could just send a message through a single interface and be sure that the person gets it the first time it checks messages on a mobile device, regardless of the app she will first use. Can this be done now? No.
Suppose that a freelancer, instead of having to check daily online tools such as Trello, Jira, Google Suite, Slack, and so on, could use a single interface where the relevant information from all these tools will be properly integrated and presented. Can this be done now? No.
Technically, such use cases are clearly possible, however there are non-technical reasons for which such use cases are not yet a reality.
Issues at a macro-level
More generally, there is increasing concern about the increasing dominance of big tech monopolies over the information-processing tools on which we are becoming more and more dependent, which leads to less choice and diversity of products and services, user lock-in through network effects and closed protocols, and an imbalance of power due to lack of choice. For example, European Union policy makers consider that “some markets are characterised by large operators with significant network effects which are able to act as de facto “online gatekeepers” of the digital economy” while there should be “fair and effective competition between online operators with significant digital presence and other providers in order to promote consumer welfare” and such markets should open “to new entrants, including SMEs, entrepreneurs, and start-ups, thereby promoting consumer choice and driving innovation beyond what can be achieved by competition law enforcement alone“.
Most online services prevent users to process their information with another software than the one provided directly by the online service. For example, Facebook’s terms state: “You may not access or collect data from our Products using automated means (without our prior permission)”. According to Facebook, the reason for this is: “We want people to use Facebook to express themselves and to share content that is important to them, but not at the expense of the safety and well-being of others or the integrity of our community.” However, it does not seem that the use cases exemplified above would negatively affect the safety and well-being of others and neither the integrity of Facebook’s community.
As far as I understand, the legal reasons for which such online services can prevent users to process their information with another software, and can enforce this, are anti-hacking (computer fraud) and copyright law. Although online services such as Facebook, Twitter, Google manipulate mostly content that was created by others and that they mostly do not own, they still have copyright over the arrangement of this content, over the user interface presenting this content, and so on. This copyright as well as anti-hacking laws allows them to impose such conditions regarding how users are able to use the content, and to enforce such conditions. This prevents that users do with this content things that the online services themselves are doing, although the online services have not created and do not own this content, which has been created by others and has been freely provided to the online services.
A new proposal – the right for informational enhancement
It seems inappropriate that copyright – a mechanism that was invented for a different purpose, at a time when the usage described above was not imaginable – is now used in such a manner. It seems more appropriate that, if a user can access some digital content or online service with her/his eyes and her/his mechanical actions of keyboard presses, mouse movement or screen touches, the user should be able to also use a software of her/his choice for accessing the same content.
I call this the right for informational enhancement. Briefly:
Therefore, I would like to propose legal changes that would overcome certain legal constraints of copyright and computer fraud laws, such that users would benefit of their right for informational enhancement. For clarity, this right is not meant to infringe upon more basic rights, such as the copyrights of the original creators of content or the rights of individuals regarding personal data processing.
Expected benefits and consequences
If we would have this right, we could be much more efficient in processing the vast quantity of information available online, and this would result in increased user satisfaction and empowerment, as well as in increased economical efficiencies.
For example, we could choose among several applications implementing interfaces to sources of information such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, many other “social networks” of various types that would appear in the new ecosystem, news websites, blogs and so on. The competition between these interfaces would give us a much larger choice of filtering and prioritizing content that we read and of options for tuning their recommendation algorithms.
Another consequence of the implementation in legislation of the right to informational enhancement would be eliminating the lock-in of users to the monopolistic giants of the internet (big tech) and therefore encouraging competition, innovation and improved quality of services over the internet.
Previous proposals already envisaged that regulating big tech “to force them to open up their APIs to make it possible for users to have access to each other across platforms and services” would be a key solution for solving the issues of internet monopolies.
EU institutions are already in the process of drafting and enacting a Digital Services Act that proposes, among others, “ex ante regulation of systemic operators”, centered on the actions of regulatory authorities and regulating APIs. They propose that this act should “ensure appropriate levels of interoperability requiring “systemic operators” to share appropriate tools, data, expertise, and resources deployed in order to limit the risks of users and consumers’ lock-in and the artificially binding users to one systemic operator with no realistic possibility or incentives for switching between digital platforms or internet ecosystems as part of those measures, the Commission should explore different technologies and open standards and protocols, including the possibility of a technical interface (Application Programming Interface) that allows users of competing platforms to dock on to the systemic operators and exchange information with it”.
However, such proposals imply that the big tech companies themselves will have to make extra investments and implement APIs that have the purpose of diminishing their power, contrary to their interests. This introduces the opportunity of various types of actions from these companies that would have the effect of delaying and reducing the effectiveness of the introduction of such APIs. For this to work to a minimal extent, regulators will have to permanently monitor the big tech companies, in a permanent cat-and-mouse game.
Deregulation and innovation vs. new regulations, new regulatory bodies and tight monitoring of actors with opposing interests
Contrary to proposals based on new regulations imposing APIs, our proposal of implementing the right to informational enhancement does not involve new regulations and tight monitoring by authorities, but deregulation that would enable innovation and decentralized action from any party that would be able to develop new user interfaces and apps for processing content. Crucially, in the proposed approach, both existing big tech and new companies of all kind, including new and emerging startups, will be the key actors enabling change. Our proposal just attempts to eliminate the barriers that are blocking them to act for both user interests as well as for their own interests.
Artificial intelligence as a key enabler
A key enabler of this possibility are recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. If legal barriers are lifted, AI can be used instead of APIs to parse content and ensure interoperability. Instead of existing companies having to develop APIs, applications using AI, developed by any third party, could parse content through the same interfaces that are used by humans to access content.
For example, such AI-based technologies for parsing various existing user interfaces are already used by the Romanian-born startup UIPath, enabling it to become a worldwide leader in Robotic Process Automation, reaching a value of more than 10 billion dollars.
An opportunity for the European Union
The EU is well positioned to be the early beneficiary of such an approach. While the big tech companies, mostly headquartered in the USA in China, will be more likely to prevent or significantly delay there the proposed changes, the EU has the opportunity to implement locally such legislation, for the benefit of a new, emerging local industry of developers of new user interfaces.
The currently debated Digital Services Act offers a good opportunity for such legislative changes. However, as already explained above, the current draft of this act is proposing an approach based on regulation and APIs, while our proposal is different and has advantages over that.
Moreover, the European Commission has published, in February 2020, a White Paper aiming to foster a European ecosystem of excellence and trust in AI, with policy options for a future EU regulatory framework for AI. While the regulatory proposals are driven by noble intents, the complexity of AI makes that it is not clear what and how should be regulated, and the foreseeable consequence of moving forward with this approach is that innovators in AI will be driven away from the EU, which is contrary to the intent of fostering a European ecosystem of excellence in AI.
In contrary, our proposal would enable the development of an EU ecosystem of startups and emerging companies that would use both traditional programming techniques as well as AI for building new interfaces for online services. This would significantly develop EU capabilities in AI. The international success of UIPath is a good example of such a development.
The online giants that provide online content mainly have advertising as a source of revenue. If users could freely use alternative interfaces for accessing such content, what would happen to the advertising and the sources of revenue of the content aggregators? Some possibilities are: the new interfaces would still have the obligation to serve, on behalf of the online services providing the content, the ads that the online services would serve themselves; or to share with the original online services a significant part of the advertising revenue they receive; or that the users have the option to opt out of advertising entirely and instead paying the original aggregators for their services, similarly to how paying users of YouTube Premium can access an ad-free YouTube.
Informational enhancement vs. cognitive enhancement
The informational enhancement proposed here involves software only, and should be distinguished from the more general term of cognitive enhancement. Cognitive enhancement includes education, pharmacological enhancements (nootropics), enriched environments, mental training, stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine, transcranial magnetic stimulation, genetic modifications, prenatal and perinatal enhancement, and brain-computer interfaces.
Differently from such approaches, the right to informational enhancement proposed here is limited to using software running on conventional hardware.
This is a draft of a document that will be improved iteratively, based, among others, on feedback from readers and attendees of presentations of this topic. The issue discussed here is complex and controversial, and some details about it still need further clarification.