Decentralized social networks are not yet ready to compete with Facebook

The unfolding scandal over manipulation of Facebook with the personal data of tens of millions of users provides low-level P2P protocols, and decentralized technologies the opportunity to make a breakthrough in the market of social networking.

However, without a developed infrastructure, which includes a cryptographic solution to two contradictory requirements – absolute privacy and complete control (without intermediaries) over access to user databased on the blockchain social Setia will be unable to retain users.

In March a former employee of the University of Cambridge Christopher Wiley (Christopher Wylie) spoke in detail about the company Cambridge Analytica not only collected, but also illegally used personal data of millions of users. A special place in his story is the possible complicity of Facebook, in all likelihood, for several years, well-informed about the vulnerabilities in the API: after long delay, Zuckerberg was forced to make a rather colorless apology, followed by promises to make every effort to resolve major PR crisis that might have legal implications.

In the center of the scandal was the use of disinformation, targeted using the most advanced technology, in real time, combining personal data (in fact, the reason of the scandal) and generators of natural language. The resulting content is designed according to the psychometric profile of the reader, were to cause changes in behavior, in particular, to influence the election results.

Legal assessment of the actions of Facebook, as the empirical effectiveness of targeting (in other words, did the manipulation on the outcome of elections), is not subject to further consideration. For developers wanting to improve or replace existing social platforms, the most interesting lesson can be seen in the public reaction to events.

In the past, a small privacy – for example, silent data collection browser to predict buying habits, rarely causing a noticeable frustration. Most of the users are neutral to targeted advertising banners. However, when user data is collected in order to influence the views and values – or as Wiley put it, «play with the psychology of the population of the whole country, without the consent in the context of the democratic process», it seems that the Cup of patience was exhausted. Bitterness was added by the fact that manipulations almost always carried out in the interests of the rich, powerful and unpleasant structures, whether the promotion of tax regulations, the spread of far-right ideology, or even the satisfaction of geopolitical ambitions of other countries.

It would seem that this is good news for innovators. The growing hostility to the merchants data draws attention to the creators of alternative platforms, but here users ‘ expectations are confronted with new challenges.

Down With Facebook — #ReplaceFacebook

Revealed tricks Cambridge Analytica, to which were added manipulation Facebook, has caused literally a barrage of hatred, which was joined even by Elon Musk wrote that he did not know about the existence of the SpaceX page in Facebook, and immediately removed it. The resulting debate focused around the following questions:

  • If not Facebook, then what?

  • Inevitable a compromise between privacy (perhaps even free will) and the quality of online service?

  • The removal of these issues in the public field is already a great result for proponents of decentralization, especially given the interest in technology of the blockchain.

    However, although the dissatisfaction with the existing status quo and is a strong motivating (push) factors, it does not provide an attractive (pull) factors. The fact is that despite the fact that now the average social network user is more inclined to consider the blockchain alternative than it was 6 months ago, he is unlikely to be impressed by her, at least not yet.

    The combination of functionality and the lack of intermediaries

    Attractive a lot of factors: is the ability to monetize browser-based activity, blockchain IDs, or transition to a self-regulating communities as the alternative to «community standards», developed in the offices of Silicon Valley and backed by an army of bots, searching for prohibited content. Finally, the absence of intermediaries.

    None of the above is not science fiction – these platforms, as well as the tools already exist for these is IPFS, Swarm, DataWallet, Akasha
    and many others. Only here to transfer to them an existing social network is a difficult task. To make a real competitor to Facebook, the platform should be able to handle the social graph with 500 billions of faces; she must be able to effectively manage user permissions for each message or post individually. Finally, it must reliably protect personal information from all sorts of hackers, and now also from corporate groups. All these problems must be solved without relying on a centralized infrastructure, even such as a typical key management system, otherwise users will again have to rely on intermediaries.

    In the first half of 2018, the blockchain platform can offer a little. For example, if you can record (or afford to record) every interaction between your friends in Facebook on the blockchain of Ethereum? How to update the status on the blockchain and at the same time to provide the desired degree of privacy?

    Of course, issues of scalability and privacy are the first priority of the developers, but their imperfections are especially visible in applications to the end user. Complicated and awkward interface may prove to be acceptable for innovators, investors and ideologues, but it is completely invalid to 2 billion ordinary people to create a social network. At the same time, the learning curve does not follow the pattern remaining from a previous innovation. The mass introduction of the first and a very imperfect e-mail applications happened only because their alternatives Fax or mail, was even worse. Now the social network based on the blockchain, will have to compete with Facebook and its streamlined functionality literally from the first day.

    Standing on the shoulders of giants

    Comparing the current stage of development of blockchain from the early days of the Internet, you need to remember that Google for recognizing it took a decade, and Facebook became a company only 10 years after launch. To be successful, the project needs a simultaneous combination of many factors, among which the development of ecosystems and open source, the presence of the desired language and set of architectures, availability of devices for potential users, and of course, the collective enthusiasm necessary to solve unexpected problems. No project is an isolated island, regardless of how much money it collected on ICO.

    You can roughly compare the infrastructure available for centralized projects in order to choose their decentralized equivalents.

    As an example, you can take a MongoDB, the underlying Twitter and the like. It was developed for centralized Internet, where data is stored on massive server farms, and not spread over thousands mynarski laptops. Besides, it was built for a world in which not much care about the fakes or immutability of the records. On the other hand can be called a number of designs for decentralized applications BigChainDB
    and Bluzelle
    key projects in the framework of the popular conception of a «fat Protocol». These are relatively young projects and they are focused on solving more complex tasks, «Database as a Service» (Database-as-a-Service or DaaS).

    The paradox of decentralized privacy

    The feeling of invasion of privacy may exist in a wide range, however, as his gain, at some point, the discomfort outweighs the convenience.

    The events of this year may not be enough to reset Facebook from the throne, however they will help to generate requirements for potential competitors and those who will come after him. The most important and simultaneously the most difficult requirement will be the need to provide potential users with compelling evidence that only they control access to their personal data. In other words, their photos, statuses and likes will only be available to a select audience (friends) and cannot serve any outside interests.

    On the one hand it seems that such a requirement is easily achieved by storing encrypted data (profiles, correspondence, status changes, etc.) in a decentralized network such as IPFS or Swarm, and to exchange data between users to use one of the many schemes end-to-end encryption (E2EE). Event history (who and when accessed the data) must be created using the appropriate mechanism for consensus and written to the blockchain. In this context, «Who» corresponds not to some member of the community and its public key, so that the identity reveal is optional.

    The scheme provides a high degree of transparency and immutability (i.e., if the data access will get the notorious Cambridge Analytica, the user learns about it). Thus, wishing to break up with Facebook get the alternative.

    However, this raises the paradox of privacy, which is an integral part of the platform. By making sure that any unauthorized access to data, the system is forced to reveal the full history of access of an army of strangers, miners, or validators. Even if the social network is working on a private sidechained attached to the main blockchain, and all validators are friends, the problem remains, albeit on a smaller scale. The problem is nobody even tried to solve it. Of course, you can call shared solutions is zk-SNARKS (the proof with zero disclosure) or ring signatures, and perhaps even homomorphic encryption, which is not yet implemented.

    However, without solving the problem, the users will be forced to sacrifice a form of privacy at the expense of another.

    Cautious optimism

    The factors that motivate people to abandon the monopoly of the Internet, getting stronger with every day, and factors of attractiveness of P2P protocols, and decentralized Internet is growing, at least at the conceptual level.

    However, don’t underestimate the fact that people take the functionality of existing networks for granted and are not willing to exchange convenience for promises of decentralization. They just don’t understand why a social network built 10 years after the launch of Facebook, unable to cope with seemingly simple functions.

    If you hurry and run such a network now, promoting it as «Facebook, only with bloccano», you can get something like the current points of virtual reality – beautiful, sophisticated, but that’s basically impossible. Instead, we should spend resources to solve infrastructure problems, focusing on user requests.

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