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There's One Encouraging Thought Buried In Zuckerberg's 2019 Challenge

Every year Mark Zuckerberg sets a "challenge" for himself for that year, which as many people have noted, Facebook has turned into a big PR vehicle for the company. We usually don't even bother to write about it, because why bother? However, I'm intrigued by this year's "challenge" for a few reasons. The plan sounds fairly simple (and perhaps simplistic): he wants to host a series of public discussions about technology and society -- and about Facebook's role in it going forward:

There are so many big questions about the world we want to live in and technology's place in it. Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed? Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people's hands? In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric? How do we build an internet that helps people come together to address the world's biggest problems that require global-scale collaboration? How do we build technology that creates more jobs rather than just building AI to automate things people do? What form will this all take now that the smartphone is mature? And how do we keep up the pace of scientific and technological progress across fields?

My challenge for 2019 is to host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society -- the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, and the anxieties. Every few weeks I'll talk with leaders, experts, and people in our community from different fields and I'll try different formats to keep it interesting. These will all be public, either on my Facebook or Instagram pages or on other media.

This will be intellectually interesting, but there's a personal challenge for me here too. I'm an engineer, and I used to just build out my ideas and hope they'd mostly speak for themselves. But given the importance of what we do, that doesn't cut it anymore. So I'm going to put myself out there more than I've been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the tradeoffs we face, and where we want to go.

Not surprisingly, there has been plenty of mocking of this announcement, and perhaps some of it is deserved. Facebook had a bad year in 2018 for mostly deserved reasons. As we've discussed, the company tends to be its own worst enemy and many of its stupid decisions have done tremendous harm to the wider internet. Also it certainly appears that incompetent management, and conflicting priorities may very well be to blame for many of these mistakes. It deserves a wider discussion in another post, but one thing I've heard over and over and over again at this week's CES from other internet companies is how furious they all are at Facebook for making so many bad decisions and dragging everyone else down with them.

But, the reason I'm at least moderately encouraged by Zuckerberg's statement is that buried within it, he actually mentions a fairly radical idea that, admittedly, I've personally been pushing for years (including trying to suggest the idea directly to Zuckerberg), and that is that the big internet companies really should be moving to a world of protocols, backed by encryption, rather than being a full platform. The argument there, is that this moves the power and control out to the end users, rather than keeping it locked in a more centralized system. It also (conveniently) gets rid of many of the hard choices and policing requirements that are being lumped on the platforms themselves.

I've talked about this idea with tons of people -- including people at the various big internet platforms. And, frankly, the least receptive to the idea in the past has been Facebook. And, yet, buried in Zuckerberg's announcement was this bit:

Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people's hands?

That's... exactly what I've been suggesting all these years. Obviously, just asking the question doesn't mean that anyone at Facebook is taking the question seriously. But, at the very least, I'm encouraged that this concept is even on Zuckerberg's radar -- and enough so that it was worth including in his short announcement. I'd still be shocked if Facebook really does go down this road, but it's at least a positive sign that Zuckerberg considers it an idea worth thinking about. And while it may be fun to mock Zuckerberg or make wild claims about his motivations and plans, when he actually suggests something that would put more power in the hands of users and remove that power from Facebook, we should probably be encouraging that kind of thing rather than mocking it.

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