Meta, ActivityPub and the EU’s Digital Services and Market Acts

By Johannes Ernst


Imagine you are Meta executive management, and one day your lawyers come to you and say:

“We assess it as very likely that within a year or two, Meta’s social networking products will need to interoperate with social networks from other vendors, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat and the like. Europe’s Digital Services and Market Acts have come in effect, they apply to us, and while we think we can delay enforcement for a while, ultimately we will need to interoperate with other social networks if we don’t want to leave the entire European market or get sued out of existence. These Europeans are not kidding.”

You might argue with them for a bit, but if they insist that their assessment is correct, and there are no viable legal options to avoid doing this, if you were the Meta executive team, what would you do?

I think there are two key questions:

  • What exactly are you going to implement?
  • When are you going to implement it in which product?

Let’s start with the second question. Whatever you end up doing, it’s novel: nobody has ever federated social networking products at the billion+ user population level. And so nobody has any experience what kinds of problems might occur – whether technical, moderation-wise, protocol governance, fixing interop problems by collaborating with your competitors, cross-jurisdiction issues if content seeps from another social network that’s banned there etc etc. Nobody even knows what the list of potential problems even could be. So even if you are not trying to drag your feet, you will want to start small, and gain some experience how to do this, before scaling up to billions of users. I think even the most zealous regulator will probably accept that a gradual approach is warranted.

But: your existing social networking products, notably Facebook and Instagram, have billions of users. It’s not obvious how you can start small and not confuse the heck out of everybody. Works only in the EU? What if people travel or move? And the EU with its almost half a billion people is too large anyway as an initial user population.

As luck has it, you also just decided you were going to compete with Twitter. With a completely new product which currently has a user population of … zero! And given you haven’t really built it yet, you can architect it from the get-go to be interop friendly. Much easier than to refactor Instagram at the billion user scale. So why not start there?

Back to the other question: what exactly are you going to implement? Let’s assume the lawyers have also advised to you that mere lip service is not going to be good enough, the interop actually needs to work, work well, and be a reliable, supported feature, for many years to come.

It also needs to work not just with one competitor, like, say, Twitter, but at least a half dozen of them, and new ones show up from time to time you will need to interop with, too. So bilateral deals won’t work, and it needs to be based on an industry standard; either one that exists already or that is to be created. And that industry standard needs to be maintained by some standards organization that you understand, that does not give any one vendor outside influence, one whose process you have vetted and perhaps have experience with.

Enter ActivityPub. It seems to work, at least at the million-user level. And it’s the only social networking interop standard around that has been created by a bona-fide standards organizations, the W3C. None of the other protocols – like Bluesky, Nostr etc – meet those requirements; ActivityPub is really the only (existing) game in town for what you need.

Ergo: you end up with ActivityPub in your upcoming Twitter competitor, pretty much from the very beginning. Which is the most plausible reason I found in a previous post why Meta might do this completely out-of-character thing and implement ActivityPub in its new “P92” product.

Updated 2023-06-30:

  • Added Digital Markets Act in addition to the Digital Services Act; it’s really both.
  • Feedback from the Fediverse correctly points out that so far, only interop requirements for messaging services (“Whatsapp” etc) are prescribed in detail (in the Digital Markets Act). However, IMHO that misses the larger picture: I read the aim of the text of the acts as applying to all “commonly used digital services that mostly directly intermediate between business users and end users” and “where concerns about weak contestability and unfair practices by gatekeepers are more apparent and pressing from an internal market perspective” which arguably applies more to social networking than messaging services. Also, Twitter-like services are very much also used as direct messaging services as well.