Can Blockchain Solve the “Facebook Problem”?

It’s no secret that as the fabric of everyday life becomes ever more entwined with digital networks, the stakes on personal data are growing too. The advent of social networks and other evolving forms of mass communication/commerce have increased both the volume and sensitivity of such data exponentially, Trafficking in it has become big business for ad supported platforms like Facebook — offering a level of targeted hyper-specificity for advertisers (or other interested parties) previously impossible to imagine.

But this increasing weight raises complicated new questions about the ownership of such data, both in terms of privacy and compensation. Just who “owns” a person’s digital details and footprints, and the limits on their use, is still unclear and the subject of much debate.

One of the latest solutions gaining traction (or at least offering some political cover) is the Honest Ads Act, which targets political advertising ala players like Russia and Cambridge Analytica. What remains clear, is that though the issue is multifaceted, encompassing elements of economics, regulation and philosophy — transparency and accountability will be at the heart of any meaningful solution.

Trust and Transparency

Fundamentally, in a centralized platform like Facebook’s, users entrust their private data to a third party. Sure, everyone clicks the box agreeing to terms of use. And, yes, levels of privacy may be accessible to the user. In practice though, that data is in the hands of the platform, and users must trust that platform to keep it secure from hacking/misuse, as well as be straightforward in their explanation of how it is used.

It is exactly this third-party trust at the crux of current Facebook revelations.As they’ve been quick to point out, Facebook has always offered privacy controls, and mechanisms for disclosure and consent in personal profiles. Still, in practice, users have been mostly uninformed about the dynamics of Facebook’s use of their private data.

Who Sees My Photo? If Facebook Was a Blockchain

Let’s take an example. As the first graphic illustrates, in exchange for taking part in a viral and innocuous quiz, a user might consent to an advertiser accessing their “profile data,” thinking that means their name, picture and location. But users don’t normally think about their “profile” encompassing every friend, like and comment they’ve ever had, nor might they realize the ways in which that information might be used.