Geeks don’t like to be formal, but we do like to be precise. That is the
contrast that comes to mind as I attend my first IETF meeting, IETF 115 in
London in November 2022.
Like most standards bodies, IETF appears to have been formed as a reaction to
stuffy, process-encumbered standards bodies. The introductory material
emphasises a rough-consensus style, with an emphasis on getting things done
and avoiding being a talking shop. This is backed up by the hackathon organised
on the weekend before the conference, allowing attendees to get a taste of
really doing stuff, writing code to solve those thorny problems.
But the IETF has power, and, rightly, with power come checks and balances, so
although there is no formal secretary for the meeting I was in, a volunteer was
found to take minutes, and they made sure to store them in the official system.
It really matters what happens here, and the motley collection of (mostly
slightly aging) participants know that.
There is an excitement about coming together to solve technical problems, but
there is also an understandable caution about the various agendas being
We were at the meeting to discuss something incredibly exciting: finding a
practical solution for how huge messaging providers (e.g. WhatsApp) can make
their systems “interoperable”. In other words, making it possible for people
using one instant messenger to talk to people using another one.
Because of the EU’s new Digital Markets Act (DMA), the largest messaging
providers are going to be obliged to provide ways for outside systems to link
into them, and the intention of the meeting I went to (“More Instant Messaging
Interoperability”, codenamed MIMI) is to agree on a way they can link together
that makes the experience good for users.
The hardest part of this is preserving end-to-end encryption across different
instant messengers. If the content of a message is encrypted, then you can’t
have a translation layer (“bridge”, in Matrix terminology) that converts those
contents from one format into another, because the translator would need to
decrypt the message first. Instead, either the client (the app on the user’s
device) needs to understand all possible formats, or we need to agree on a
The meeting was very interesting, and conversation on the day revolved around
what exactly should be in scope or out of scope for the group that will
continue this work. In particular, we discussed whether the group should work
on questions of how to identify and find people on other messaging networks,
and to what extent the problems of spam and abuse should be considered. Mostly
the conclusion was that the “charter” of the “working group”, when/if it
is formed, should leave these topics open, so that the group can decide the
details when it is up and running.
From a Matrix point of view, this is very
exciting, because we have been working on exactly how to do this stuff for
years, and our goal from the beginning has been to allow interoperability
between other systems. So we have a lot to offer on how to design a system that
allows rich interactions to work between very different systems, while
providing effective systems to fight abuse. One part that we can’t tackle
without the co-operation of the dominant messengers is end-to-end encryption,
because we can’t control the message formats that are used on the clients, so
it’s really exciting that MIMI’s work might improve that situation.
I personally feel a little skeptical that the “gatekeepers” will implement DMA
in a really good way, like what we were discussing at IETF. I think it’s more
likely that they will do the bare minimum, and make it difficult to use so
that the experience is so bad that no-one uses it. However, if one or two major
players do adopt a proper interoperable standard, it could pick up all the
minor players, and become something genuinely useful.
I really enjoyed going to the IETF meeting, and am incredibly grateful to the
dedicated people doing this work. I really hope that the MIMI group forms and
successfully creates a useful standard. I’m also really optimistic that the
things we’ve learned while creating Matrix can help with this process.
Whether this standard begins to solve the horrible problems we have with closed
messaging silos and user lock-in to potentially exploitative or harmful
platforms is probably out of our hands.
If you’d like to get involved with MIMI, check out the page here: