Will ONO emerge as Facebook with a conscience?

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ONO social network founder Ke Xu (Image via @ONOsocial).

Social media has been a cut-throat business in recent times but, writes Dr Samuel Douglas, at least one newcomer is aiming to take a surprisingly ethical approach.

THE SAGA of Facebook’s collusion with Cambridge Analytica is yet to run its course, and stories of fake news and arbitrary censorship are still fresh in people’s minds.

So, as yet another report emerges of a leak of private user data, it can be hard to feel that Mark Zuckerberg has either the inclination or capability to act in the best interests of those on his network.

In response to these problems and powered by emerging blockchain projects, a swathe of decentralised applications (DApps) are seeking to give people an alternative to the centralised and somewhat hegemonic approach of the Facebook/government complex.

A project that has recently started to capture wider attention is the ONO social network, which has launched in China and is set for international release in June.

ONO has some features familiar to those following the new wave of social media DApps vying to become the next big thing. It’s open-source, will run on a blockchain (in this case EOS) rather than centralised servers and seeks to incentivise user behaviour through the reward of a tradeable cryptocurrency token — ONOT.

What really sets this project apart for me, even before its full launch, is the detail and thought with which ONO’s white paper sets out a vision of how to protect the rights and well-being of its users.

The core of this ethical framework is the Common Program. Containing no vague appeals to "caring" or "responsibility to shareholders", this is more a declaration of rights than a corporate code of conduct. The values it describes include user rights to equality, freedom of expression and religion, privacy, property, freedom from discrimination and the right to participate in the governance and decision-making processes of the network.

Structurally, the ONO white paper describes a more organic approach to governance. The idea is that the network will function as a decentralised autonomous corporation (DAC). Interestingly, the justification claimed for such a structure is in the philosophy of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Chapter 80 of the Tao, which is cited at the start the description of ONO’s structure, is densely packed with ideas, laying out a vision of society where people are well-cared for, tolerant but firm, happy and conspicuously free from government interference in their everyday lives. The core concepts of simplicity and to not "sweat the small stuff" have been interpreted in the past to apply as much to society as individual lives, in the form of "governing lightly".

It’s this aspect that seems to drive the rationale of the ONO DAC. Fundamental rights are to be protected from the top down, but communities and individuals can also make their own decisions at a grassroots level.

One of the organisational features of how the network will protect users is the "Super Partner" position. Super Partners are not employees of ONO, though they will be compensated in ONOT for their work. The role of this position, of which there are 51 worldwide, will be to "collapse" harmful content such as fake news, hate speech, spam and so on from view on the blockchain, as well as help run the democratic processes deciding everything from ONOT allocation for community projects to dispute resolution.

These Super Partner positions will be democratically elected. Any member can nominate and, importantly, the voting is not weighted by a financial stake in the network. Moreover, if they fail their duties to the extent that they lose the support of voters over a sufficient period, they can lose their position altogether.

Ke Xu, the young entrepreneur behind ONO, has stated that she is motivated to create a network that connects “the world together in a democratic, open and decentralised way” and that she will never sell either the network or the data of its users.

The founder seems to have good intentions and, in my experience, few corporate codes of conduct are as strongly worded as the ONO Common Program. But moral action and avoidance of the disasters and market failures that flow from negligence or outright malevolence take more than just fine words.

A concern of mine is around how the initial 75 billion ONOT are to be distributed and what could happen if a minority of users amass a large amount with the intention of using this to manipulate content rewards or otherwise dominate the network. Armed with this slightly vague question, I quizzed ONO’s Head of International Operations, Leah Stephens, via telegram, on how this possibility would be dealt with. Her response was that the same rules applied to everyone, that Super Partners would deal with abuse regardless of the wealth of the abuser, and that conflicts could be resolved via voting in referendums. She was particularly adamant that money “does not equal power on ONO”.

Nonetheless, the real tests will be how the Super Partner system works to moderate content and how the user experience plays out once ONO begins to gain popularity. We shouldn’t have long to wait for a result though, with the Chinese test version having over 200,000 users and the project’s roadmap aiming for a million users worldwide by the end of 2018. I am keen to see how the dilemmas of conflicting rights are solved by these individuals, as well as the grand experiment of being commercially successful without resorting to unethical behaviour.

Obviously, even a million users make ONO a long way from being a Facebook-killer in the short-term. But people seem ready for an alternative to existing social-media and it’s fair to say that DApps like Steemit have not delivered the decentralised content-reward experience that some users would like. Considering this, thinking that nothing like ONO can challenge the status quo strikes me as seriously premature. Remember, some people thought Myspace had an unassailable hold on the market.

It might seem like we are a long way from the action here in Australia but, in at least two ways, this is untrue. There is an Australian Super Partner candidate, Melbourne ex pat and database security specialist, Adam Waring. If confirmed, he’ll be one of the 51 ONO members carrying the serious responsibility of protecting the network from malicious activities, as well as facilitating its democratic processes. Furthermore, the organisation with overall legal responsibility for ONO, the NOME Foundation, will be based in Australia. So, whether it takes the world by storm, is a well-intentioned failure, or is just one step in an evolution towards a less destructive social-media landscape, Australians will have a front-row seat to watch the drama play out.

You can follow Dr Samuel Douglas on Twitter @BeachPhilosophy.

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