Facebook CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg is expressing an interest in utilizing blockchain technology for account authentication and validation.
The technology entrepreneur disclosed this interest during a wide ranging discussion with Harvard law professor, Jonathan Zittrain. As part of the discussion, Zuckerberg reiterated elements of a personal challenge he set out in January 2018.
At that time, the Facebook CEO focused on an emergent topic in technology – the consideration of centralization versus decentralization. He stated:
“A lot of us got into technology because we believe it can be a decentralizing force that puts power in people’s hands […] But today, many people have lost faith in that promise.”
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He identified encryption and cryptocurrencies as technology that’s trending as a counter to centralization. He suggested that they “take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands.” As part of his consideration, he concluded:
“I’m interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies, and how best to use them in our services.”
Fast forward to this week’s interview with Professor Zittrain and it seems that Zuckerberg is following up on his personal challenge. He articulates that he has a specific interest in improving authentication on the Facebook platform. In considering this, Zuckerberg is leaning towards the use of blockchain technology in order to achieve this. He states:
“You basically take your information, you store it on some decentralized system, and you have the choice of whether to log in in different places, and you’re not going through an intermediary.”
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Reading between the lines, it would appear that what he is setting out is in line with his thinking back in January 2018. That is to say, a move away from authentication which is currently centralized to a decentralized model – for the betterment of the user.
He goes on to explain why he feels this may be the correct approach:
“There’s a lot of things that I think would be quite attractive about that. For developers, one of the things that is really troubling about working with our system, or Google’s system for that matter, or having to deliver services through Apple’s App Store is that you don’t want to have an intermediary between serving the people who are using your service and you.”
However, Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm falls short of suggesting a fully decentralized Facebook. His view is that with complete decentralization, “there’d be nobody who could cut off their access.” In such a scenario, he feels that individual users would be empowered on the one hand, but on the other “it really raises the stakes.”
“It’s a lot easier to hold accountable large companies like Facebook or Google than a series of third-party apps. You’d also have more cases of abuse, and the recourse would be much harder.”
Personal Data Risk
Recourse may well be relevant in consideration of what the Facebook founder sets out – and likely, it’s not far from his thoughts in this context either. In December 2015, it emerged that Cambridge Analytica – a British political consulting firm – had harvested personal data from millions of Facebook users accounts without their consent.
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The issue developed into a fully fledged scandal in 2018 and in April, Zuckerberg testified before U.S. Congress to answer for the company’s failings in protecting users personal data. He has been asked to attend similar hearings internationally but as yet, has failed to do so.
Facebook sells advertising but the extent of the value of the data it collects is not to be underestimated. The company achieved revenues of a staggering $40 billion in 2017. Blockchain technology is seen as one means through which people will be able to take back control over their personal data.
A Different Approach?
In October, a blockchain-based marketplace for personal data emerged with the launch of Wibson. Wibson CEO Mat Travizano confirmed at the time that “consumer data is now the worlds most valuable asset”. Through its blockchain network, personal data can be traded on the terms of the individual. They can decide when and to whom they sell their data – and for what purpose.
Many of those who have been enthusiastic about blockchain technology have highlighted social media platforms as ripe for disruption. They feel that such platforms should be fully decentralized. To that end, there are quite a few active projects trying to achieve exactly that – including decentralized alternatives to Facebook. However, such approaches are in their infancy. Furthermore, they have definite hurdles to overcome – not least of which is a sustainable economic model to support them.
Nothing ever stays the same and it would seem that Facebook is being forced to respond to political and societal pressures. Concurrently, other approaches are being taken to change the social media landscape for the betterment of society. No doubt there will be further developments in this respect in the near future.