Facebook is getting serious about blockchains

Although not much clarity has been offered, this isn't a sudden shift. Facebook's Zuckerberg has been talking about it since January.
9 May 2018

Facebook’s David Marcus is going to lead the company’s decentralized ledger explorations. Source: AFP

Can you imagine what blockchains (also known as distributed ledger technology) can do for Facebook? Mark Zuckerberg, the 33-year old founder of the company is trying to figure that out and is building a team to help him. He announced his intentions to explore the technology in a post earlier this year.

In fact, just yesterday, Recode announced that the company has moved David Marcus, the visionary behind its Messenger platform, to focus on and lead efforts to harness blockchains.

Marcus will lead about a dozen-odd specialists and will report to CTO Mike Schroepfer, the company man facilitating other exciting projects such as AR, VR, and AI.

Facebook owns the world’s most popular social media network, bought the world’s most active messaging app for US$19 billion, and acquired the most exciting photo and video sharing platform.

It’s got more than 2.2 billion active users per month on its social platform alone and according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, most of Facebook’s U.S. users have remained loyal to the social network despite revelations that a political consultancy collected information about millions of accounts without owners’ permission.

How can blockchain help Facebook protect user data?

Zuckerberg, in his post earlier this year said:

Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force. But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it.

Staying true to that spirit, here is how blockchains can help the company protect user data:

Eric Ly, CEO of Hub and former co-founder of LinkedIn recently told Forbes that centralized social media platforms collect and store the user’s data in a centralized way, solely owning the user’s data, managing it and providing access to it to benefit their business model often based on targeting ads.

The centralized approach doesn’t give users the economic benefit of the use of their data (through token rewards) nor does it allow their valuable data to be portable from one platform to another.

Using blockchains, Facebook might be able to decentralize its control over data without affecting its ad revenues negatively. Although it would be ideal for users to own their data, it might not be possible for Facebook to extend that privilege to users at this point, given their business model, but they could certainly give users more control.

However, with blockchains in the picture, many users ask: If our data is stored everywhere, how can it be private?

This is being tackled by researchers at MIT through their Enigma project, according to The Guardian. The team is creating a protocol that sits atop existing blockchains.

Enigma is exploring how to use “secret contracts”, as opposed to existing “smart contracts”, with nodes on the blockchain that compute data without ever “seeing” it.

Researchers say this lets users maintain control over personal data and prevents companies from monetizing or analyzing it for their own benefit. MIT claims that it could “unlock a new system of lending, in which prospective borrowers can establish their trustworthiness without having to give individual lenders access to their specific personal data.”

“While blockchain is great for correctness and transparency, it fails in privacy. In a future where we have decentralized social networks, we will see all likes, posts, and connections. In other words, blockchains alone cannot give people the control over their own data,” said Engima on in a recent blog post.

The answer, Enigma believes, is not blockchain — it is a complete privacy protocol that includes a blockchain. Using advanced methods of cryptography, Enigma believes it can empower society with data, yet give users the control over where and how their data is used.

Although Facebook hasn’t revealed what projects or ideas it will explore, Marcus could find a way to adopt secret contracts and tweak them for Facebook to retain some of the monetization capabilities while giving users control over what data they monetize.

Imagine being able to share your name, age, city, and all of your “interests”, without letting advertisers know what events you went to last year, what places you checked in to, and the kind of people you hang around with (their job titles and the companies they work for). That would be awesome, wouldn’t it?