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The past few months have been, to put it mildly, unkind to Facebook. A long string of damaging reports peaked earlier this month, when it was uncovered that the social network had lost control of 50 million users’ personal data and never disclosed the breach. The discovery appears to have finally spooked the public – Facebook’s stock has plummeted, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is launching an investigation, and a rising wave of users and critics are calling to #deletefacebook.
That user anxiety is absolutely justified – in fact, critics have been warning about using Facebook being a risk to privacy for years. The social network has become a relentless and largely unaccountable tracker of its users’ movements and activities all across the web, and even in the real world.
Of course, those warnings were ignored in part because Facebook trades that data for things we really want. We love the promise of keeping in touch with friends and family, keeping up with events, and having one central way to manage it all. We like having one way to log in to an array of websites and services. We might even admit we like the convenience of seeing ads tailored to our individual tastes. As we recently described, that appeal has helped Facebook and similar networks draw attention, and revenue, away from publishers with more conventional relationships with readers.
As we process our conflicting feelings about Facebook, a key question is whether there’s some way to preserve the best features of social media while getting rid of its worst aspects, including its threat to both user privacy and the online publishing industry. The answer, thankfully, is: Absolutely. And one of the major reasons it’s possible is blockchain—the technology behind Bitcoin.
Blockchain promises, for a start, to revolutionize digital identity. In the present day, Facebook, Google, and Visa quite literally own your ability to prove who you are on the internet. But blockchain makes it possible for people to establish and prove their online identity independently, according to blockchain expert Kaliya Young, better known in online professional circles as Identity Woman. “Of course the identity woman has identity problems,” she laughs, explaining that many find her name challenging.
Young was part of an early-2000s Silicon Valley cognoscenti that foresaw everything from Uber to social networks and those services’ problems. In 2005, she co-founded the Internet Identity Workshop, which has since held regular workshops on a problem that, until recently, has proven mostly intractable.
“We said we need to support the development of open standards for user-centered identity so that people are empowered with their own digital roots on the internet . . . [That would] avoid the problem of one big company—the worry at the time was Microsoft—owning everyone’s identity, or governments becoming the default identity provider.”
That concept is now often referred to as “self-sovereign identity.” It was a forward-looking vision, so forward-looking, in fact, that it was hard to convince foundations and nonprofits to support the work. Young found herself having to describe the very concept of a social network before she could explain why they would become a problem. It turned out there were deep technical challenges, too. According to Young, for nearly 15 years attempts at an independent identity system hit one roadblock after another.
Now blockchain, along with smartphones, has changed the equation. The system Young describes would allow individuals to create private encryption keys, stored on a blockchain and managed through their phone. Those keys could be used to prove a user’s identity online, and because blockchains are open and decentralized, Young says it “solves one of the problems that are hard to solve, which is, how do you have a root of authority, centered on the individual, that no one else owns or controls?” Systems like this are being planned and constructed right now, by players from IBM to smaller upstarts, including Sovrin and Evernym.
Such a system would also solve what Young calls the "phone home" problem, allowing users to verify their identity anywhere without requiring checking back in to a central server for verification. That means verifications aren’t actively monitored at all—Any more than the DMV knows where you’ve used your driver’s license to prove your age. One proposal among developers would even use a different identifier for every site—preventing any outside observer from correlating them to build a profile.
But none of this, Young says, means giving up the sort of personalization that benefits internet users. Young has been pushing the idea of the “Data Raindrop,” a discrete packet of data that improves a users’ experience and lets publishers sell high-quality ads but doesn’t connect directly to an individuals’ identity.
“I would be happy to say, I’m a woman, I live in Oakland, I’m over 40, I like to go camping,” Young explains. “That is information [about me] that may help you understand who your readers are. Great. That doesn’t mean you need to know who I am.”
“I’m willing to exchange information, I’m not willing to be stalked and tracked. Those are different.”
Distributed identity will also benefit publishers, creators, and consumers by cutting the greedy middleman out of their online relationships. “When I followed my favorite environmental group or my favorite band,” Young says, “I wanted to actually hear everything they have to say. And the fact that Facebook is holding them for ransom, to get that post about what they’re doing to me. Are you kidding me? This ends that whole racket.”
But all of that only matters if users actually adopt this new identity infrastructure. Here, again, blockchain offers a huge opportunity, via its most famous feature: Cryptocurrency. In the public mind, cryptocurrency and blockchain are often confused. To clarify, cryptocurrency is one of many structures that makes blockchain work, most fundamentally by providing financial incentives for the network of hosts that run servers. In the same way that money helps guide the broader economy without any central planning, cryptocurrency helps allocate resources on decentralized networks.
But those incentive systems can be much more creative than simply paying out to server operators. A recent whitepaper for a proposed blockchain-based ad network called PreVue Blockchain (who generously supported the creation of this article) proposes something wild: Actually paying readers a small portion of the revenue from ads they view in the cryptocurrency that fuels its anti-ad-fraud blockchain system. That would provide a direct incentive for the kind of opt-in data sharing Young describes, and because blockchain interoperability is becoming easier, it’s not hard to imagine a system like PreVue Blockchain working in conjunction with a decentralized identity system to handle the data.
It could go further. What if readers got small payouts for useful fact-checking contributions (ala Wikipedia) or providing feedback on content they enjoyed (or didn’t)? It becomes about much more than rewards. Readers could wind up feeling much more directly committed to publishers (not to mention more tolerant of advertising) because they would be stakeholders, in multiple ways.
Many of these ideas are in the very early stages of development. If you want to compare blockchain’s evolution to that of the world wide web, we’re in roughly 1993 right now. But the case of Facebook only drives home just how important it is. We simply can’t afford to trust centralized megacorporations to own our data, our identities, and our relationships.
And Kaliya Young (or, yes, Identity Woman) has a surprisingly upbeat message about the decentralized identity systems that will be fundamental to making that great escape: They’re just around the corner, with enough support.
“It’s not quite implementable tomorrow,” she says, “But it’s implementable next year. Please, all the people in publishing who want to support individuals having their own decentralized identifiers and connecting to their platforms, jump in and make it happen!”
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