Twitter Funds Team to Develop an Open and Decentralized Standard for Social Media
Social media has increasingly come under pressure during the last few years over privacy and its misuse for political purposes. This pressure is continuing to grow through national and international regulation. In May 2019, Vitalik Buterin (co-founder of Ethereum) wrote:
Control over users’ data and digital possessions and activity is rapidly moving from an asset to a liability. Before, every bit of control you have was good: it gives you more flexibility to earn revenue, if not now then in the future. Now, every bit of control you have is a liability: you might be regulated because of it.”
That regulation already includes data localization, the right of users to remove all their content, and stringent regulations over the protection and use of user details. It is still expanding. The UK Conservative government, now with an unassailable majority in parliament, will reintroduce its digital harms policy. This will make websites responsible for the legality of all content — they will not be able to claim that they are merely conduits with no responsibility (like the postal service) for other people’s content.
If control over users’ data has become a liability, then the social media giants are those most at risk. Twitter seems to be responding to such concerns. On December 11, 2019, founder Jack Dorsey announced, “Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media.”
His primary concern is that a centralized social media can no longer scale to enforce a “global policy to address abuse and misleading information.” The second is that the value of social media is moving from purely hosting shared content towards algorithmic recommendation of content; and the third is that existing arrangements tend to focus on content “that sparks controversy and outrage, rather than conversation which informs and promotes health.”
The solution, he suggests, may lie in new technologies — such as blockchain — that could provide durable decentralized hosting, governance and monetization. To this end, Dorsey says Twitter will fund a team of up to five engineers for a project termed BlueSky (@bluesky). Twitter will choose the team lead, who will then choose the rest of the team. Twitter itself will not be involved.
Technically, this seems a viable approach. There are already such systems, like Diaspora, Mastodon, and Minds. Ed Yu, the founder of StrongSalt, believes a decentralized social media platform could go further to solve the growing social media regulatory problems by adding encryption, specifically searchable encryption.
The addition of searchable encryption, he told SecurityWeek, could build “a new social network where not only privacy is preserved by default (all posts are anonymous and encrypted to outsiders and the service providers) but still can be viewed/searched/replied/shared by people they trust/allow with varying degrees of permissions set by the original author.”
Users’ posts would be hashed, ensuring non-repudiation and attribution, and protected within a public blockchain. “This type of social network would promote participation by the voiceless while holding them accountable. The goal of this new type of social network is to preserve the original intent of inclusion in social networks while limiting the vitriolic attacks/online bullying of the vocal few.”
It is worth noting that all these ‘new’ technologies already combine within Yu’s StrongSalt products — so Dorsey’s project is eminently feasible
In terms of Dorsey’s stated purpose, this approach would be decentralized, secure, would highlight or limit the manipulated spread of disinformation, would allow for easy selection and removal of users’ personal content, would place control over user content in the hands of the user, and make compliance with increasing legislative regulations more easy. In Buterin’s terms, it takes control of data out of the hands of the platform owner, and stops that data being a liability.
Monetization is a different matter. It is fundamentally a commercial rather than a technical issue (although it may be provided through technology). While the technical aspects of Dorsey’s proposal are generally considered to be realistic, the commercial aspect is causing some concern. Mastodon, one of the existing social networks already providing much of Dorsey’s proposal, tweeted, “Jack is many things, but an idiot he is not. He’s whip smart. He knows we exist, he literally follows us. This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”
Chris Morales, head of security analytics at Vectra, is similarly unconvinced. “This proposal,” he told SecurityWeek, “sounds about as open and decentralized as Facebook wanting to make an open and universal currency. Which I don’t think is really that open and still in the interest of the for-profit business proposing the standards.”
Jack Dorsey, he continued, “wants to make an open standard using Twitter engineers that will integrate Twitter as central to the open source standard. The claim is the Twitter team will work with other people to make it open, of course still using Twitter. This is the same argument used by Facebook. He is even using the same ‘blockchain’ buzzword to claim open source that Mark Zuckerberg used for the Facebook currency.”
The proof of all puddings, however, is in the eating — that is, whatever BlueSky cooks up. The difficulty is in why Dorsey wants to develop an open platform that others can use. He could develop the platform for purely Twitter’s own use, and get everything he’s looking for. Making it open will encourage the development of other social networks — and the more there are, the smaller each one is likely to be. The continued dominance of Twitter in Twitter-like social media would likely be guaranteed.
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