Facebook thumbs down

Peer pressure targets Zuckerberg’s social media monster with #DeleteFacebook

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Is mob rule the way to delete Facebook? If users flee from Facebook, is there a better alternative?

A couple of days after Channel 4 News ran its first story on Cambridge Analytica’s apparent misuse of personal data captured by Facebook, pink posters appeared over the road from the social-media giant’s UK headquarters near Euston station in London. The work of artist Jeremy Deller, who became famous for a similar poster campaign lampooning Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ phrase during the 2017 general election, the posters explain how to delete a Facebook account in six steps.

The revelations about Facebook saw thousands of people claim on competing social-network Twitter that they were ready to #DeleteFacebook over what seems to be one more misstep by the Mark Zuckerberg company. What Deller’s instructions do not convey, however, is other options available to unhappy users who want to continue on a social network where they have more control of what personal data makes it into the hands of marketers and political campaigners. Or a network that does not benefit from making the promotion of falsehoods the default.

Just over a week after the election, and following denials that the prevalence of fake news on the network was an issue, Zuckerberg published a post on his timeline that claimed Facebook would try to police these problems more aggressively in the future. But the business model behind social media and much of the web represents a large part of the problem. It is a consequence of decisions taken early in the development of an internet business model: one that goes back to the first group of web start-ups, such as Yahoo! and Infoseek. In a 2014 column for The Atlantic, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, called the reliance on advertising revenue by a series of online companies “the original sin of the internet.”

Zuckerman worked with MIT Media Lab researchers Chelsea Barabas and Neha Narula on a report published in August 2017 analysing the feasibility of challenges to the dominance of players such as Facebook and Google.

Narula, who is the director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, says: “Advertisers are trying to get larger and larger numbers of eyeballs and clicks, so a popular website is much more appealing to advertisers. This drives the push towards more clicks, viral articles and things that are sensational. That said, even if the advertising-funded business model wasn’t predominant, there are other reasons why more sensational material would rise to the top. But, certainly advertising is the largest contributor.”

The rapid fall of MySpace, as well as the more UK-centric Friends Reunited a decade ago, shows social networks are vulnerable to mass migrations to competing services. But are users simply going to jump to another service that shares the same core problems as the original service? Businesses such as Facebook have been built according to concepts such as Metcalfe’s Law, which says the value of a network increases exponentially with the number of participants. An ad-funded social-media company doubles up on this effect as both the core product and the revenue depend largely on raw numbers.

Beyond the commercial issues, felling Facebook just at the technological level is a difficult task. Facebook covers a number of requirements and over time has carefully interlinked them. It is a store of personal data that lets it handle access control for many other online services. Some sites rely on Facebook’s willingness to confirm the identity of a user and so will not allow a sign-in using just a name and password. Facebook lets users network with each and curates content intended to keep them engaged. This combination lets the company gain an unusually deep ability to apply behavioural monitoring and tie it unequivocally to real people. Not only that, it can use behavioural monitoring to promote content that keeps them on the site. A completely different technological and commercial model might be the answer.

“It blows my mind that it’s taken us nearly ten years to wake up to the fact that social networks built with an interest in profit alone aren’t going to build products that are very healthy for us. In many ways we’re just now waking up to the negative effects of social media today,” claimed Aron Beierschmitt, founder of social-network start-up Postly, at the Blockstack Berlin conference in early March, before Channel 4 News ran its exposé of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data.

Not many years after Facebook’s transition from its origin as a university campus contact organiser to global service, technologists tried to break the stranglehold of advertising. In 2010, Eben Moglen, Columbia University professor and one of the key people behind the copyleft concept that underpins free and open-source software [FOSS], launched the Freedom Box. The project was started as a way of building a distributed social network that would keep data on users’ own servers, which could be as simple as the network routers that already provide internet access.

“The human race has susceptibility to harm but Mr Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record. He has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age... Facebook is the web with, ‘I keep all the logs, how do you feel about that?’ It’s a terrarium for what it feels like to live in a panopticon built out of web parts,” Moglen claimed in a February 2010 speech for the launch, pointing to Jeremy Bentham’s design for a circular prison where inmates could easily be kept under constant surveillance by wardens in a central watchtower. “We’re not going to win the war on internet freedom with Facebook on our backs.”

The Freedom Box work inspired the creation of a distributed Facebook competitor called Diaspora, but that has users counted in the tens of thousands. At the time of Moglen’s speech, Facebook had just surpassed 400 million active users. By summer 2017 Facebook claimed it had counted two billion users active within a single month. As of the end of last year, the number was still increasing at a rate that easily competes with the number of people claiming on Twitter they were ready to quit Facebook.

‘It’s taken us nearly ten years to wake up to the fact that social networks built with an interest in profit alone aren’t going to build products that are very healthy for us.’

Aron Beierschmitt, Postly

Some social networks have tried to sidestep the advertising problem and the unwillingness of users to go down the DIY route by simply charging users. Vero launched in 2015 with the promise that it would not attempt to derive revenue from its own users’ data by charging them directly. The first wave of users could sign up for free. Others who join later will have to pay membership fees.

Vero was hit with the same kind of backlash that has greeted networks like Facebook over the years, with what some commentators saw as demands for excessive rights to user content and difficulties deleting accounts.

Effective competition may not come from a single player with better terms and services but from an approach that merges the user control of a FreedomBox with the convenience of cloud-based computing. A new wave of would-be social networks are piggybacking on the Bitcoin bubble but are coming up with novel ways of using the blockchain concept to support the networks. Some have adopted the moniker Web 3.0 or Dapps, for decentralised apps, to distinguish their offerings from the Web 2.0 generation exemplified by Facebook and Twitter. For them, the blockchain relieves them of the need to build centralised server farms. Instead, the processing migrates to systems controlled by the users themselves.

Beierschmitt claims: “With all the token mania it’s sometimes hard to stay focused on the more important movement: decentralised applications. After doing some R&D, we realised this decentralised movement makes our solution possible, which is to build a social layer for Web 3.0 where privacy is the default. Users own and control their own data and social-graph. Developers have the freedom to innovate. And users, developers and publishers are all aligned. No longer will data live siloed in one application with one company.”

Postly is among a number of companies, such as Sola, Stealthy and Steemit, aiming to build decentralised replacements for today’s Web 2.0 social-media services. Further down the stack, services such as Filecoin award tokens to service providers who provide cloud storage where users can store their files. In principle, these providers can enter and exit the marketplace without affecting what gets stored. Postly plans what Beierschmitt calls ‘social-engagement tokens’, another blockchain-based mechanism for managing the economy of a social network. However, these novel coins are still at the concept stage: developers need to work out effective ways to determine proof of work, which will involve more subtle and indirect measurements than those used for Bitcoin. It is far from straightforward for a service provider to demonstrate that it has delivered the storage it promises.

“The space is constantly evolving. It’s not in a steady state yet. We will see a lot of new stuff come down the line. And it won’t necessarily be based on blockchain,” says Narula. “There are a couple of really, really big issues there. The first one is scalability and performance. The way the blockchains are built they can’t handle many users or transactions. There is still a lot of work to be done. Another major challenge is around privacy. The way the blockchain is designed is to have all transactions out there in public. That’s not viable for a lot of use-cases.”

A deeper problem identified in the MIT report, Narula says, is that of usability. Although users do not have to install their own servers, they need to set up and maintain their own blockchain nodes. “How do you align that with the fact that most users don’t want to run their own node? Most users don’t want to engage with it directly.”

For the coming wave of blockchain-based applications to become successful, they have to be at least as easy to use as Facebook. It is unclear whether the decentralised apps will deliver on that ease of use.

Daniel Dresner, lecturer in information and cyber security and governance at the University of Manchester, says: “I don’t see blockchain cutting through without a lot of support, education and behavioural change among the people.”

There are bigger questions, Dresner adds: “It’s all well and good talking about blockchain, but who has access to the information? How is it syndicated? What happens if the wrong information gets on there?”

At a purely technological level, decentralised applications cannot guarantee they will deliver a less intrusive experience than Facebook. Narula says the venture-capital funding model that helped drive Web 2.0 leads to the same tendency to consolidate power in a few winners. “There is a possibility that these things can be different but we have to be very careful about it.”

Even with apps that avoid the governance issues that have tripped up Facebook, giving users more control over their data in decentralised applications does not necessarily guarantee their data will not be harvested.

“Unless we drastically change the way we architect these systems and applications, from the ground up, it will always be the case that users are leaking a lot of data no matter what they do,” Narula says. “I pretty much assume when I install an app on my phone that it’s storing all that data in the company’s data centre. I feel that people don’t assume that and are surprised when it happens. Unless we change things from the ground up, that will continue to be easy to do.

“A lot of interesting functionality comes from the fact that companies are aggregating user data and looking at it. Take Alexa, Siri or Google Home,” she continues. “Those things are useful and their quality depends on their access to data. It’s not the case that we simply want to stop companies collecting user data. Because we will miss out on innovation. We have to think very carefully about how it’s OK for data to be used. There isn’t a technology-only solution. There are tools from both the technology and legal side that need to be deployed: decide what’s OK for companies to do with user data.”

Dresner concludes: “The technology is evolving rather faster than we are. Like all major changes you need transition periods. Technology is often a step forward and a step back. We also put our personality into the things we create, which leads to bad things as well as good.”

MIT Media Lab Decentralised Web report

A question of trust

Social networking

The key problem for any application is one of trust. How do you know that you are talking to the right machine? I may send a link to my holiday snaps to the server that handles your data. How do you know it is truly me and not a criminal using the message as a Trojan horse for malware? Sites such as Facebook provide a way for users to determine who they are communicating with, though it is far from foolproof. In the Web 3.0 environment, there is no central authority you can ask. This is where, in the current incarnations, blockchain technology comes in.

As a cash substitute, Bitcoin has provided an important proof of concept for the underlying blockchain technology for demonstrating trustworthiness. It also provides a way of paying for the network that supports the application, using the concept of mining for tokens.

To be granted a Bitcoin, miners provide a core service to the network. They process transactions and append a record of them to a chain that dates back to the first token ever made. To ensure the blockchain record cannot be edited, miners calculate a protection code – a hash. This has come with an unwanted environmental cost. Bitcoin’s anonymous creator decided the rate at which the coins are mined should be limited so, as miners have competed to be first to publish hashes, the complexity of the hash has been pushed higher and higher. The result? By spring of this year, Bitcoin miners needed close to 900kWh of electricity to complete a single transaction, according to Digiconomist.

The new wave of blockchain applications, such as those that support social media, should be less resource-intensive as they have far less need to enforce artificial scarcity. However, the blockchain approach can lead to big demands on storage space because each and every transaction needs to be recorded in the chain. Across a global network, there is a limit on how many transactions you can perform per second.

Technology being developed for micropayments may provide a way to scale up the number of transactions a blockchain can perform. Neha Narula, director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, points to so-called layer-two solutions. “Systems such as the Lightning Network allow people to do trustless peer-to-peer payments in tiny quantities. With layer two, as long as things work out and nobody has problems, everything stays off-chain. Ideally, this would represent most of the activity.”

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