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Opinion

Is Zuckerberg the new face of Cypherpunk?

Zuckerberg new face of Cypherpunk?

Some of the language used in his recent privacy update is reminiscent of concerns laid out in key cypherpunk documents.

With the publication of his recent blog post, it’s clear that Mark Zuckerberg feels he, the platform he has created, and the industry as a whole, are at a watershed. Facebook has been dogged by privacy scandals for years now, with opaque policies and user data repeatedly being leaked, sold, and otherwise misappropriated on an industrial scale.

Consequently, it is ironic that Facebook will become a ‘privacy-focused platform’ that will offer end-to-end encrypted messaging, along with various other services designed to protect users and offer a safe space for communication. He acknowledges this himself: ‘frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing.’

The decision to pivot towards private messaging, while maintaining the open-sharing social network, is clearly a reflection of these concerns, and of the wider movement in a society that is now finally realising that the wholesale harvesting of personal data is a very real danger to freedom. On one level, this is purely pragmatic. If Facebook is to survive, then it needs to adapt.

And yet, there is something of the cypherpunk about Zuckerberg’s statement. Some of the language directly recalls that of Eric Hughes’ famous document, A Cypherpunk Manifesto, which laid out the values of the group that arose with the dawn of the internet, advocating strong encryption and anonymous transaction mechanisms to protect privacy. (Bitcoin was and is the product of the cypherpunk culture and community.)

‘Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally,’ he writes, paralleling Hughes’ opening line, ‘Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age.’

Zuckerberg talks about the importance of encryption for privacy and protection from hostile state forces. ‘Governments often make unlawful demands for data, and while we push back and fight these requests in court, there’s always a risk we’ll lose a case – and if the information isn’t encrypted we’d either have to turn over the data or risk our employees being arrested if we failed to comply. ’ This parallels the cypherpunk statement: ‘We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any.’

But perhaps it’s worth remembering Hughes’ statement: ‘We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence.’ [Emphasis ours] In this post, Mark Zuckerberg makes a commitment to do things differently. He positions himself on the other side of the fence – the right side. What that means in practice, whether it’s possible or sustainable for a half-a-trillion-dollar company, what impact it will have on revenues, what it means for the hotly-awaited Facebook crypto – all of these remain open questions.

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