In the last 20 years, the web has grown from something used only by academics and computer geeks to a utility we can't live without. That growth has come at a cost, with some tech giants dominating the platforms we rely on.
Blockchain enthusiasts say Web3 will change that. But what is Web3, and will it truly revolutionize the internet as we know it?
What Is Web3?
In 1993, Tim Berners-Lee publicly released the first-ever web browser. This was Web 1.0. It offered a new way for people across the world to access information, but navigation and design proved a challenge.
Then sites like Google, Yahoo and Facebook came along. They aggregated data and made searching a breeze. This was Web 2.0.
Today, though, many fear these internet giants hold too much power. As a result, Web3 was born. Web3, touted as the next iteration of the web, focuses on decentralization, which will ultimately give control back to the end-user. With Web3, services are available in the form of dapps (decentralized apps) that run on the blockchain network. Perhaps the most well-known of these networks is Ethereum.
Sam Richards, an Ethereum developer, explained that the appeal of a decentralized system is that it doesn’t require permissions to use. "Anyone who is on the network has permission to use the service," he said. "No one can block you or deny you access to the service."
Richards uses the example of a decentralized version of Twitter. Right now, Twitter can censor any account or delete any Tweet. With Web3, on the other hand, information cannot be censored, because control is decentralized.
Social media is not the only use for Web3, either. Supporters of the innovation cite use for gaming, communication, finance and more.
Related Article: Understanding Web3's Supporting Blockchain Technology
The Problem With Web 2.0
The current tech marketplace is dominated by a handful of companies. According to a report published by the US House of Representatives in October 2020, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google have "captured control over key channels of distribution and have come to function as gatekeepers."
The report warns that within as little as a decade, "30% of the world's gross economic output may lie with these firms and just a handful of others."
Author and privacy advocate Russ White warned about the dangers of a centralized internet, noting, "Relying on a few providers to host all the content on the internet makes it possible for just a few companies to shut down entire services or control speech."
Web3 aims to solve these issues by creating decentralized versions of popular platforms and storing data either on the blockchain or distributed services, such as the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS).
Could Web3 Really Work?
Web3's enthusiasts believe decentralization is essential, with the non-censorable nature of the blockchain a huge benefit. Some skeptics, though, disagree on these points.
Cryptographer Moxie Marlinspike believes Web3 is unlikely to succeed because the average person has little or no interest in running their own server.
Marlinspike considers the way cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have evolved so far, noting, "These technologies immediately tended towards centralization through platforms in order for them to be realized."
He stressed that much of the activity surrounding cryptocurrencies and Web3 relies heavily on Web 2.0. Actions like viewing NFTs in MetaMask rely on Web 2.0 APIs rather than directly querying the blockchain. Users interacting with OpenSea and Coinbase spend most (or all) of their time within centralized, custodial systems. And it's easy to understand why. Web 2.0 systems are slick, smooth and easy to use, but they aren't representative of the blockchain.
Marlinspike added, "Eventually, all the Web3 parts are gone, and you have a website for buying and selling JPEGs with your debit card. The project can't start as a Web2 platform because of the market dynamics, but the same market dynamics and the fundamental forces of centralization will likely drive it to end up there."
Related Article: How Is Web3 Decentralized?
Web3 and Lack of Censorship
Marlinspike focuses on the technical and usability aspects of Web3, but said, "It seems worth thinking about how to avoid Web3 being Web2x2 (Web2 but with less privacy) with some urgency."
The permanence of the blockchain makes privacy even more important. Blockchains are, at their core, append-only databases. Permanence is useful for financial transactions, but it's possible to create other content.
In 2018, researchers at RWTH Aachen University found 274 links to child pornography on Bitcoin's blockchain. These are just links, not images. However, they are permanent, and anyone who hosts a full Bitcoin node is technically sharing those links.
If Web3 were to take off and people started running decentralized IPFS file servers or using other blockchains that allow on-chain file storage, who would be responsible for child sexual abuse material, hate speech or other illegal or undesirable content?
Today, even Web 2.0 federated services, such as Mastodon — an open-source, decentralized alternative to Twitter — are struggling with hate speech and moderation.
The Permanence of Web3 Content
A traditional Web 2.0 website uses hosting, meaning it could be blocked, restricted or taken down. Individual posts can get removed. Content uploaded to the blockchain, however, is there forever.
In a Web3 world, hate speech, doxxing or simple ill-advised drunken rants would remain online indefinitely. Not even the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which outlines citizens’ “right to be forgotten,” could get rid of undesirable content.
Today, there's a perception that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are anonymous. But that’s not always true. David Gerrard, author of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum, stressed that "Bitcoin is pseudonymous, not anonymous, and carries a public ledger of all transactions."
Anyone can use a blockchain explorer to see how much cryptocurrency belongs to a certain address — including where that money comes from and goes to. The blockchain permanently records all illegal, embarrassing or misguided purchases, a fact that could come back to haunt someone years later.
The Wrong Solution to a Real Problem?
The centralization of the web is a real issue, one innovators — and potentially lawmakers — will need to address. But is Web3 the solution?
People want systems that are fast, slick and intuitive. They also want someone to turn to when things go wrong. Web3 doesn't offer that. It may continue to generate buzz in the coming years, but it's unlikely to revolutionize the world like Web 1.0 or 2.