On Wednesday (February 20th), Mark Zuckerberg, the Chairman and CEO of Facebook, released a video of a recent discussion he had with Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain, during which Zuckerberg said that he was considering the idea of making Facebook more decentralized by implementing some kind of blockchain-based user authentication system.

This conversation with Professor Zittrain was about the future of technology and the impact of this on society, and it was the first in a series of such discussions that Zuckerberg plans to have during the course of this year.

The issue of decentralization came up when Professor Zittrain asked Zuckerberg his thoughts on Solid, a new project led by Professor Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, that is focused on the idea of “true data ownership.” Under this protocol, user data is decoupled from apps and held in some kind of “locker” that is under the user’s control, which means the user controls who can access this data and also the user is able to avoid the problem of vendor lock-in.

Zuckerberg replied:

“So, I think it’s quite interesting. You know, certainly the level of computation that Facebook is doing and all the services we are building is really intense to do in a distributed way… I think the more interesting questions there are not feasibility in the near term, but are the philosophical questions of the goodness of a system like that.

So, one of the things that I’ve been thinking of a lot is a use of blockchain that I’m potentially interested in, although I haven’t figured out a way to make this work out, is around authentication and basically giving access to your information to different services, basically replacing the notion of what we have with Facebook Connect with something that is fully distributed…

Basically, you take your information, you store it on some decentralized system, and you have the choice of whether to log in to different places, and you are not going through an intermediary, which is kind of what you are suggesting here in a sense.

OK, now, there’s a lot of things that I think would be attractive about that… But let’s look at the flip side… Question is if you have a fully distributed system, it dramatically empowers individuals on the one hand, but it really raises the stakes, and it gets to your questions around what are the boundaries on consent and how people can really actually effectively know that they are giving consent to institutions. In some ways, it’s easier to regulate and hold accountable large companies like Facebook or Google because they’re more visible, they’re more transparent than the long tail of services that people would choose to interact with directly. So, I think this is a really interesting social question…

I think if you are doing fully decentralized Facebook, that would take massive computation, but I’m sure we can do fully decentralized [user] authentication if we wanted to. I think the real question is do you really want that? And I think you’d have more cases where… people would be able to not have an intermediary, but you’d also have more cases of abuse, and the recourse would be much harder.”

It’s interesting to hear that Zuckerberg is exploring the use of blockchain technology for user authentication. As covered here, earlier this month, Facebook acquired blockchain startup Chainspace, which has described itself in the past as a “sharded smart contracts platform.” Hopefully, in the near future, we’ll find out more about other potential use cases for blockchain technology within Facebook.

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