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WhatsApp interop explanation proves how unnecessary the DMA is for chat apps

Published Mar 7th, 2024 12:35PM EST
iPhone 15 Pro showing the App Store ahead of iOS 17.4 beta release
Image: José Adorno for BGR

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It’s March 7th, the big deadline day for the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The law came into effect on Thursday, so all the big tech companies operating gatekeeper services must have updates in place to accommodate the requirements. For Apple, it’s iPhone sideloading support via iOS 17.4. For Meta, that means WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger interoperability (interop, as Meta calls it) chats.

How about users? I’m a European who will be able to take advantage of all these DMA-related benefits. I already know I don’t want sideloading on iPhone (or Android, for that matter). But interoperability seems like the dumbest requirement of the DMA, a feature I don’t want to take advantage of in WhatsApp or any competing instant messaging app that might be labeled a gatekeeper. 

Meta’s explanation of how WhatsApp interop will work is also the best explanation for the unnecessary interoperability requirement. Why go through all this trouble to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place? 

What is interoperability?

Meta explained in a detailed blog post all the work behind making WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger compatible with competing chat apps that ask to be supported. 

That’s what interop hinges on. First, a WhatsApp rival must want their app to work with Meta’s chat platforms. Even if that’s achieved, it’s up to the WhatsApp/Messenger user to choose whether to enable the functionality. 

Meta says it wants to preserve end-to-end WhatsApp encryption after interop support arrives. It’ll push WhatsApp and Messenger’s Signal encryption protocol for third-party chat apps. Other alternatives can be accepted if they’re at least as good as Signal. 

How will it work?

Meta has been working for two years to implement the changes required by the DMA. But things will not just work out of the box starting Thursday. A competing service must ask for interop support and then wait at least three months for Meta to deploy it.

It might take longer than that for WhatsApp and Messenger to support that service. Rinse and repeat for each additional chat app that wants to work with WhatsApp. 

That’s a lot of work right there, both for Meta and WhatsApp competitors. I can’t see how any of this benefits the user. The interop chat experience isn’t worth it to me. Here’s what you’ll get in the first year. Because yes, the DMA has specific requirements in place for what features interop chats should offer: 

Interoperability is a technical challenge – even when focused on the basic functionalities as required by the DMA. In year one, the requirement is for 1:1 text messaging between individual users and the sharing of images, voice messages, videos, and other attached files between individual end users. In the future, requirements expand to group functionality and calling.

Thankfully, the DMA also focuses on privacy and security. That’s why WhatsApp and Messenger will focus on ensuring that chats remain end-to-end encrypted. I’ll note that Messenger end-to-end encryption started rolling out months ago, and it might not be available in all markets.

Screenshot from WhatsApp beta 2.24.6.2 shows you can disable interoperability and choose which third-party apps to chat with.
A screenshot from WhatsApp beta 2.24.6.2 shows you can disable interoperability and choose which third-party apps to chat with. Image source: WABetaInfo

What does Meta have to gain out of this?

Meta’s blog does a great job explaining what’s going on under the hood with interop chats between WhatsApp and third-party apps. It underlines all the massive work and resources Meta is deploying for this.

I’m actually kind of in awe of Meta’s willingness to comply with these DMA provisions. All this effort makes me wonder what Meta can gain from the whole interoperability thing. Maybe the endgame is converting even more users to WhatsApp and Messenger, but I digress. After all, it’s not like Meta could avoid complying with the DMA.

I’ll also say that Meta doesn’t seem to restrict interoperabiltiy to the European Union, as Apple does with iPhone sideloading. Or, at least, restrictions aren’t the focus of this blog, though the title clarifies it’s about chats in Europe: “Making messaging interoperability with third parties safe for users in Europe.”

The obvious warning

While Meta also explains how encryption and user authentication will work, it acknowledges that it’s not in full control. Therefore, it can’t promise the user the same level of security and privacy for Whatsapp interop chats as Whatsapp-to-Whatsapp chats: 

It’s important to note that the E2EE promise Meta provides to users of our messaging services requires us to control both the sending and receiving clients. This allows us to ensure that only the sender and the intended recipient(s) can see what has been sent, and that no one can listen to your conversation without both parties knowing. 

While we have built a secure solution for interop that uses the Signal Protocol encryption to protect messages in transit, without ownership of both clients (endpoints) we cannot guarantee what a third-party provider does with sent or received messages, and we therefore cannot make the same promise.

[…] users need to know that our security and privacy promise, as well as the feature set, won’t exactly match what we offer in WhatsApp chats.

If you care about WhatsApp interoperability should read the entire blog post at this link. Then promptly disable the feature once WhatsApp informs you that interop support is ready.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.