A team backed by Mark Cuban unveiled a project called the Mercury Protocol on Thursday, aimed at reinventing how we interact online. The project is a lot to get your head around but let's just say at the outset that, if it works, it could do wonders for beating back trolls and improving privacy.
The most basic definition of the Mercury Protocol is that it's a new type of software designed for messaging apps. It's built as a blockchain—which creates secure transaction records across multiple computers—and will allow users to participate without having to give away personal information about themselves.
The Mercury Protocol team, who set out their vision in a white paper and a Medium post, hopes that popular messaging services like WhatsApp, Signal, and Facebook Messenger will eventually adopt the software. But for now, the focus is on two of Cuban's pet apps called Dust and Broadcast.
Dust has been around for a few years (the Next Web has a good rundown) and was born in part from Cuban's desire for an alternative to Twitter, and for a tool that provides a more secure, less troll-like form of messaging and group discussions. Broadcast is not available yet, but reportedly involves letting people pay to engage in discussions with luminaries like Cuban.
One key to all this is blockchain's ability to generate tokens. These can be a form of digital money (and are driving the current "ICO" mania) but are also useful for participating in various online activities.
Under the Mercury Protocol, which is built atop the Ethereum blockchain, users will be able to earn tokens by reading a certain number of articles. They can also gain them by positive contributions to discussion groups—earning them a reputational credit score of sorts. You can see where this is going when it comes to trolls: If people have to earn tokens through constructive behavior, there will be fewer of the sort of jerks found on Twitter—where it costs nothing to harass people all day long.
According to Ryan Ozonian, the CEO of Dust and a leader of the Mercury Protocol, the only way for people to earn tokens at the outset will be through participation. In the future, though, he says there will be an opportunity to purchase them.
As for the privacy element, that comes from blockchain's ability to let people sign on without turning over personal information (a feature that has led the UN, with the help of Accenture and Microsoft, to explore blockchain as a form of ID). As the Mercury Protocol folks explain:
While all transactions on the blockchain are public, users are protected through pseudonymity because nothing on the blockchain associates their real identity with their Ethereum account ... This contrasts with the current industry norm of aggregating and selling user behavioral data to advertisers, directly tying their identities to their activities.
If all this works, it opens the door for a world in which our communication tools evolve from marketing-driven platforms populated by trolls, to ones where consumers can keep more privacy and where positive behavior is rewarded.
All of this, as I noted, is incredibly ambitious. It will be harder still given that the most popular messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp (also owned by Facebook) are unlikely to embrace anything that threatens the advertising machine that makes them filthy rich.
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But there's no question the tools are there to build what the team behind the Mercury Protocol aspires to do—and the imprimatur of Mark Cuban—who recently became a cryptocurrency convert—will certainly give it a lot of credibility out of the gate. We'll probably know within a year or so whether or not this will start to catch on, or if consumers instead choose to stick with their existing services.
One final technical note: the Mercury Protocol for now is not open-source, meaning outsiders can't inspect the underlying source code. But the team says this will change once they are confident it is secure, at which point they will release the code to the public.
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