Interoperability in the Digital Ecosystem

36 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2015

See all articles by Urs Gasser

Urs Gasser

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Date Written: July 6, 2015


At its most fundamental level in the context of the digital ecosystem, interoperability (or “interop”) is the ability to transfer and render useful data and other information across systems, applications, or components. As a concept interop is central, and yet often invisible, to many parts of a highly interconnected modern society. The fact that someone can make a seamless international telephone call without thinking about things like “signaling standards” or transoceanic cables is a tribute to interop. So is the fact that someone can send and receive the same e-mail on a phone or in a browser, regardless of device manufacturer or ISP. And the development of the Internet of Things relies on interop. For that reason it is critical to develop a shared understanding how interop functions, the potential costs and benefits of increased levels of interop, and the variety of approaches for encouraging interop.

This paper begins by offering a framework for understanding interop as a concept. An overview diagram of the benefits, potential risks and approaches to interop includes four quadrants: What? (technological, data, human, and institutional); Benefits (innovation, competition, autonomy, flexibility, and choice, and access, diversity, and openness); Potential Risks (increased security and privacy risks, increased homogeneity, decreased reliability, accountability and accessibility, and threats to business models); and Approaches (non-regulatory and regulatory).

In theoretical terms, interoperability functions across four broad layers of complex systems: technological, data, human, institutional. For many people, it is the exchange of data through technological means that comes to mind when they think about interop. But it turns out that the human and institutional aspects of interoperability are often just as – and sometimes even more – important than the technological aspects.

This paper next offers examples of some of the many benefits and drawbacks of higher levels of interop. On the benefits side this includes: innovation, competition, choice and access. While, the potential drawbacks include: security and privacy risks, an increase in homogeneity, a decrease in reliability, accountability, accessibility, and a threat to certain existing business models.

The paper then offers a taxonomy for considering the various approaches that exist within the toolbox for managing and optimizing the level of interop. These approaches can either be deployed in a more unilateral fashion or they can be deployed in more collaborative ways. Moreover, there are approaches that can be deployed by the private sector and those that are utilized by regulators and other state actors. The paper also considers in more depth the unique role that governments and regulators can play in shaping the interop landscape.

Finally, the paper concludes by identifying some of the biggest questions and challenges that confront future interoperable technologies.

Suggested Citation

Gasser, Urs, Interoperability in the Digital Ecosystem (July 6, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Urs Gasser (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States


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