It was over four years ago that I coined the term “Web 3.0.” Back then, it was clear to me: Ethereum—the platform I cofounded—would allow people to interact in mutually beneficial ways without anyone needing to trust each other. With technologies for message passing and data publication, we hoped to construct a peer-to-peer web that lets you do everything you can now, except there would no servers and no authorities to manage the flow of information.
These days, with key components still missing or dysfunctional, with scalability still wanting, and many projects suffering from compatibility problems, I don’t always find it easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or how we will get there. But the important points are unchanged from before: Centralization is not socially tenable long-term, and government is too clumsy to fix things.
What precisely is wrong with the web today? In short, it’s a big baby. It has grown old without growing up. While connecting the far corners of the globe with a packet-switching network and hypertext platform is an incredible achievement, the web has become corrupted from its own success.
Rewind to 1990s and the internet was a very different place. Google was still a .org domain, open-source software was being described as “cancer” by one of the fiercest monopolists of all time, and “information superhighway” and “internet addict” were gaining traction as terms for the newly anointed. People (well, teenagers like me) still ran their own websites and email servers, and “net neutrality” was something fishermen argued about when buying trawlers. The fabric of the internet was yet to become warped by the shape of society. It was still rather barebones and empowering, reflecting its academic and enthusiast roots.
In the 20 years following, the “World Wide Web” would change the nature of society—this we know. Critically, though, the basic technical architecture of the internet provided no backstop against changes happening in the other direction. Society was bound to imprint itself back on the web.
The internet today is broken by design. We see wealth, power and influence placed in the hands of the greedy, the megalomaniacs, or the plain malicious.
Technology often mirrors its past. It acts in line with the previous paradigm, only faster, harder, better, or stronger than before. As the global economy went online, we replicated the same social structures that we had before. Partly, we have the web to thank for the modern divides between rich and poor, between powerful and impotent, and between enlightened and under-informed.
The internet today is broken by design. We see wealth, power and influence placed in the hands of the greedy, the megalomaniacs, or the plain malicious. Markets, institutions, and trust relationships have been transposed to this new platform, with the density, power and incumbents changed, but with the same old dynamics.
Take how we pay for things online. On Web 2.0, you are not empowered to make payments per se. In reality, you must contact your financial institution to do it on your behalf. You are not trusted to do something as innocuous as pay your water bill. You are treated like a child appealing to a parent. If you wish to contact your friend online, then likely you will need to appeal to Facebook to relay your message.
The goliaths that run these services—often critical to our lives and jobs—have no (obvious) evil intent, but nor do they act with benevolence or principle. They make money from our fealty, feeding us our information, and cutting us off when inconvenient.
Most of us don’t fear government or corporate intrusion on our lives, but there are well-documented case where their interests are not aligned with our own. Look at Wikileaks. In 2010, a broadly respected set of journalists that publishes information generally in the public interest was targeted and cut off by major financial institutions like PayPal and Visa without any legal grounds. If you wanted to give a perfectly legal charitable donation to Wikileaks, you effectively couldn’t.
With so much of the world’s data channelled through so few cables, the inconvenient truth is that unless we put in place open software protocols, our increasingly digital society will continue to be at risk from malicious “authorities” both within society and (as in the case Russian tampering of our elections) from outside. Those who wish to protect the peaceful, liberal post-war world order need to realize: Our present digital architecture will magnify society’s maladies, not limit them.
Web 3.0 is an inclusive set of protocols to provide building blocks for application makers. These building blocks take the place of traditional web technologies like HTTP, AJAX and MySQL, but present a whole new way of creating applications. These technologies give the user strong and verifiable guarantees about the information they are receiving, what information they are giving away, and what they are paying and what they are receiving in return. By empowering users to act for themselves within low-barrier markets, we can ensure censorship and monopolization have fewer places to hide. Consider Web 3.0 to be an executable Magna Carta—“the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
If society does not adopt the principles of Web 3.0 for its digital platform, it runs the risk of continued corruption and eventual failure, just as medieval feudal systems and Soviet-style communism proved untenable in a world of modern democracies.
The adoption of Web 3.0 will be neither fast nor clean. With entrenched interests controlling much of our digital lifestyles, and interests often aligned between lawmakers, government and technology monopolists (consider how the NSA’s Prism program enlisted the help of Facebook and Google), some jurisdictions may even attempt to make components of the new web illegal. Already Russia has outlawed bitcoin and the U.K. has expressed a (ridiculous) desire to outlaw strong cryptography.
If society does not adopt the principles of Web 3.0 for its digital platform, it runs the risk of continued corruption and eventual failure, just as medieval feudal systems and Soviet-style communism proved untenable in a world of modern democracies. Aspects of this new system, including bitcoin or the InterPlanetary File System, will gain traction first, probably in niche areas, much as Linux found traction “under the radar” in server backrooms. As technology matures, and traditional firms inevitably slow their innovation and treat their products as cash-cows (see Microsoft), the advantages of Web 3.0 will grow. It will be no more possible to outlaw Web 3.0 than it was for cities and countries to ban Uber, Airbnb, Grindr, and Wikipedia.
From a user’s point of view, Web 3.0 will look barely different from Web 2.0, at least initially. We’ll see the same display technologies: HTML5, CSS, and so on. On the back-end, technologies like Polkadot—Parity’s inter-chain blockchain protocol—will connect different technological threads into a single economy and “movement.”
We’ll use web browsers, but they might be called “wallets” or “key stores.” Browsers (and components like hardware wallets) will represent a person’s assets and identity online, allowing us to pay for something, or prove who we are, without needing to appeal to a bank or identity service. There will still be room for trusted parties, insurance outfits, backup-services and so forth. But their tasks will be commoditized and their activity verifiable. As these service providers are forced to compete in a global, open and transparent market, web users will be relieved of price-gouging and rent-seeking.
Web 3.0 will engender a new global digital economy, creating new business models and markets to go with them, busting platform monopolies like Google and Facebook, and giving rise to vast levels of bottom-up innovation. Cheap government attacks on our privacy and liberty like widespread data trawling, censorship and propaganda, will become more difficult.
To be sure, we can’t predict the first successful use-cases of this new platform and when they might appear. As with the development of the internet before it, the timeline could be measured in decades rather than months. But when Web 3.0 emerges, it will bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “the Digital Age.”
Gavin Wood is a cofounder and former CTO of Ethereum, and the founder of Parity and Polkadot.