What is Web3 and will it revolutionise the internet again?
The third generation of the web promises to put us in control of our data – but not everybody is convinced
In the beginning, Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web. It was basic by modern standards, composed of static pages and limited interaction. It was on this foundation that the modern tech giants – Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple – created something new. Web2 is characterised by dynamic, mobile-first, digital services and social media, underpinned by large platforms, and is what we’re all familiar with.
Now, a new generation may be imminent, and it has captured the imaginations of the Silicon Valley chattering class – a new technological paradigm that has been termed ‘Web3’ by Gavin Wood, a co-founder of the Ethereum cryptocurrency. What exactly Web3 is supposed to be, though, is surprisingly hard to define.
“You always have the feeling you don't really know what it is because even the people who claim to do it can't often explain what it is that they're doing and why they do it,” says Jurgen Geuter, a sociotechnologist who studies the intersection of technology and politics.
Awkwardly then, it isn’t easy to explain what Web3 means, as it has become a catch-all term for a bucket of futuristic technologies, and some of the ideas associated with it intermingle with similarly vague high-concept ideas such as the metaverse.
However, there is one common theme: Web3 advocates tend to envisage the entire web, reimagined and rebuilt using the blockchain. Here’s our best attempt to explain how Web3 might work – and answer the question of whether it really could revolutionise the internet?
Can Web3 let us take back control?
“Web3 is more about being self-sovereign, about being decentralised, and not having a sole reliance on massive corporations and the services they provide to us,” says Justin Bingham, the chief technical officer at Janeiro Digital, a software company that builds decentralised software tools.
“Self-sovereign” refers to a system of digital identity where the user maintains full control over when and where their identity data is used, instead of letting, for example, Google or Facebook decide. In fact, if Web3 is realised, it will conceivably remove the need for large companies to manage our digital lives.
“The ideal dream with Web3 is much more of a trust-based internet,” says Craig Beddis, the CEO of Hadean, a distributed computing firm that provides decentralised computational power to companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and Epic Games. “There's a lot more freedom of choice [and] the privacy element of it will be massively improved because you're not locked into services.”
“In a Web3 world, we're not as bound to a device or a service or a hosting provider. That for me is where it could take us,” he adds.
In essence, then, Web3 is the idea that all of your personal data belongs to you, and that it should be stored on a blockchain, rather than on other companies’ servers. This control isn’t just good for your privacy, but it also makes your data more interoperable.
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“You might have some data that's coming from a nutrition application that you're using, that your doctor could find really useful if you could share it with them,” says Bingham, “but they're not designed to connect and talk to each other.”
Enter Web3, where we have full “self-sovereign” control over our data. In this new era “you'll be able to make the data that you have available to whoever you think it makes sense to make it available to, in a way that's first completely based on your consent,” says Bingham.
In Bingham’s view, this could make the apps and services built on Web3 principles even better. “If there are no walled gardens, every interaction that you have around your broader data set is enriching that data set,” he says.
“You'll find that the applications that you use are much smarter because you can give them access to a broader spectrum of information. If you find that you don't like how they're using that access, you can cut them off. Because the data is all designed to be interoperable, you'll get more choice, and so it'll be a more equitable playing field.”
The obvious next question is how we get there from where the web is now. This is something Bingham is working on, as his company is working with the NHS on making blockchain distributed electronic health records interoperable with other, more traditional NHS systems. “If we can make this work with health data, we can make it work with anything,” he says.
Meet the Web3 detractors
Even though Web3 is currently little more than ideas scribbled on a whiteboard, the principles behind it and proposals about how it might work technically have already proved hugely controversial, and not everyone is a fan.
“Web3 is a grift,” says Molly White, a software developer and creator of Web3 is going just great, a website that catalogues negative stories about crypto, NFTs and other blockchain tools that fall under the Web3 umbrella. “The entire point of it is to convince people that countless cryptocurrencies or ape JPEGs, or whatever else, actually have value, at least long enough for the creators or early adopters to make money and get out before the whole thing collapses.”
In White’s view, the very premise of Web3 as a new, decentralising force is flawed. “Many proponents of Web3 present decentralisation as this big new idea when in reality decentralisation has been built into the web since day one,” she says. “Concepts like peer-to-peer sharing and even web hosting, federated social networks, and self-governing communities have been around for a very long time, and blockchains aren't necessary for any of them.”
Even if true decentralisation can be achieved, this might not actually be desirable. Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of messaging app Signal, recently published a blog post laying out his criticisms. They centred on the fact that Web3 requires standards to be agreed upon across the tech industry – which is a tortuous process compared to how platforms operated by one company can make changes and innovate much more quickly.
“If something is truly decentralised, it becomes very difficult to change, and often remains stuck in time,” Marlinspike wrote. “That is a problem for technology, because the rest of the ecosystem is moving very quickly, and if you don’t keep up you will fail.”
He goes on to cite NFT marketplace OpenSea as an example. Although the underlying tokens are stored on the blockchain, OpenSea’s developers have, in true Web2 fashion, built their own proprietary tools on top to make the platform more useful.
So is there any value in what the Web3 advocates are proposing? “I don't think there are good or useful applications,” syas White. “The projects that do attempt to use these technologies for benevolent purposes would be better served by proper, efficient databases.”
Making Web3 happen in practice
Geuter, meanwhile, sees Web3 as not just a technological project, but a political one too. “It's a very libertarian crowd,” he said. “They build this technology and through this structure of ownership, they gain resistance to censorship, they gain freedom, which mostly means freedom from restrictions of what you can say – also restrictions from tax laws, for example, and other regulations.”
He cites the example of how in his native Germany, displaying the Nazi Swastika is banned in most cases, but in a Web3 world, moderators wouldn’t have the choice to remove content at all. “Sometimes they claim Web3 is apolitical, like ‘we just write code, and we're not into politics’,” Geuter explains. “But I think it's anti-political. I think what they try to build is technology that makes political discourse impossible, because you can no longer argue and say we don't think this is okay.”
That, in a nutshell, is some of the theory behind Web3, but will it ever actually happen? Will we wake up one day to find we are logging on as our sovereign selves? “[Web3] leads, I think, to a very exciting era where the web goes back to what the original incarnation of the internet was supposed to be,” says Beddis. “It was about the people and the power and freedom to communicate and exchange points of view and perspectives and data and transact.”
White isn’t so sure, though, that Web3 will ever be taken seriously. “It may for a while, while the grift can be maintained and people believe there is money to be made, but I don't expect it will endure, no.”
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