the post-dotcom bubble World Wide Web with its emphasis on social networking, content generated by users, and cloud computing from that which came before.
This era of the Internet has culminated in the concentration of economic power in a few of the largest corporations, a phenomenon that is termed Big Tech. Facebook (Meta), Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google (Alphabet) are known as FAANG, the dominant Big Tech players. Centralization of control and concentration of power go hand in hand.
The digital economy that has emerged from Web2 is based on either extracting fees from users, as Netflix does with subscriptions and Amazon does with Prime, extracting profits from selling goods as Amazon and Apple do, or selling ads as Facebook and Google do. In each case, the business model relies on positioning the Big Tech company as the dominant supplier in the supply chain. If you produce movies, you have to go through Netflix to reach your audience. If you produce goods, you have to go through Amazon to sell to your customers. If you produce iPhone apps, you have to go through Apple’s App Store to offer apps to users. If you want to advertise, you have to go through Facebook and Google to reach your audience. In every case, Big Tech is an intermediary that gets rich as the middleman.
One feature of Web3 is the incorporation of digital currencies (crypto). This would disintermediate payments by potentially eliminating banks, credit card companies, and payment processors. The payer and the payee would transfer funds directly with a transaction on a blockchain, which itself has no controlling entity and is therefore decentralized (assuming we are talking about Bitcoin, not some shitcoin). Financial transactions paid in crypto require no middlemen. Digital transactions have concentrated power into Big Tech because integration with the fiat financial system is expensive and subject to onerous regulation.
Integrating a crypto payment protocol natively into the Web is a game changer. Not only would it begin to decouple commerce from the fiat financial system, it should also begin to alter the relationship that users have with service providers and each other. Fiat payment processors impose an asymmetric relationship between participants: merchant and consumer. Crypto eliminates that asymmetry by enabling anyone to send funds to anyone with an address who can receive them.
Google and Facebook have thrived on advertising dollars because of the asymmetrical relationship imposed by the fiat payment system. The Social Dilemma is a Netflix documentary that explains how the ad revenue model provides social media companies perverse incentives to design systems that encourage harmful behavior among the user base. Engagement becomes divisive. Information bubbles form. Users become addicted to dopamine hits. All to lure more eye balls and clicks so that advertisers can be charged for more impressions and conversions. Users hate seeing ads, but it is the price they pay to receive free services, as their engagement is monetized. The users become the product that is sold to advertisers.
How does eliminating fiat asymmetry fix this? Users on social media are content creators. Their opinions are an organic source of reviews, endorsements, and complaints. Every day the most compelling content goes viral because the audience is won over and engages enthusiastically. What if a decentralized social media platform, instead of directing advertising dollars to Big Tech, rewarded users for content creation and promotion? Users could be paid to post quality content with their compensation being proportional to the positive engagement they receive from others. This could be achieved through tips from the audience and from promotion fees charged for boosting content. The key is rewarding users for positive contributions. This institutes an incentive structure that increases personal fulfillment and social cohesion. This is what we want to enable with Web3.
Jack is backing an alternative to the Web3 vision called Web5 (Web2 + Web3) through an organization named TBD with open source projects for decentralized identity and decentralized web nodes for personal data storage that work with distributed web apps. On the surface, as I have not had an opportunity to look deeper into this Web5 initiative, the overview seems closely aligned with what I independently have imagined. I feel the potential kinship to what this project is doing.
The Web5 project appears to be directionally attractive with regard to how the problem space is framed. However, we need to examine the solution approach to see if the protocols and architecture being proposed are also attractive. The Web3 approach is decidedly not attractive for the reasons that Jack has highlighted. I credit him for being a vocal dissenter, when honest dissent is warranted.
I will dig deeper into Web5 and offer some insights from my own perspective. If this turns out to be closely aligned to my own passions, I may volunteer to contribute.
The trucker’s freedom convoy in Canada has revealed how individuals are vulnerable to tyrannical (rights violating) actions by governments and corporations cooperating with authoritarian diktats across jurisdictional boundaries. Maajid Nawaz warns of totalitarian power over the populace using a social credit system imposed via central bank digital currency (CBDC) regimes being developed to eliminate cash. “Programmable” tokens will give the state power to control who may participate in financial transactions, with whom, when, for what, and how much. Such a regime would enable government tyranny to reign supreme over everyone and across everything within its reach.
Centralized dictatorial power is countered by decentralization, especially that which is designed into technology to become unchangeable by humans after the technology proliferates. The design principle is known as Code is law. The Proof of Work (PoW) consensus algorithm in Bitcoin is one such technology. CBDC is an attempt to prevent Bitcoin from becoming dominant. Criticism of PoW using too much electricity is another tactic. National and supranational powers (above nation states) are working against decentralization in order to preserve their dominance. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is installing its people into national legislatures and administrations to enact policies similar to those of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to concentrate globalized power for greater centralization of control.
We look toward Web3 and beyond to enable decentralization of digital services. As we explore decentralized applications, we must consider the intent behind distributed architectures for decentralization. What do we want from Web3?
Traditionally, we think about availability with regard to failure modes in the infrastructure, platform services, and application components. Ordinarily, we do not design for resiliency to the total loss of infrastructure and platform, because we don’t consider our suppliers to be potentially hostile actors. However, global integration and the unholy nexus of multinational corporations with foreign governments to impose extrajudicial punishments on individuals, who reside outside the jurisdiction of governments hostile to their cause, put them within the reach of unjust laws and tyrannical diktats of authoritarians. It is clear now that this is one of the greatest threats that must be mitigated.
Web3 technologies, such as blockchain, grew out of recognition that fiat is the enemy of the people, and we must decentralize by becoming trustless and disintermediated. Eliminate single points of failure everywhere. Run portably on compute, storage, and networking that are distributed across competitive providers in adversarial jurisdictions across the globe without cooperation. When totalitarianism comes, Bitcoin is the countermove. Decouple from centralized financial systems, including central banking and fiat currencies. Become unstoppable and ungovernable, resistant to totalitarianism.
To become unstoppable, users need to gain immunity from de-platforming and supply chain disruption through decentralization. Users need to be able to keep custody of their own data. Users need to self-host the application logic that operates on their data. Users need to compose other users’ data for collaboration without going through intermediaries (service providers who can block or limit access). Then, to achieve resiliency, users need to be able to migrate their software components to alternative infrastructure and platform providers, while maintaining custody of their data across providers. At a minimum, this migration must be doable by performing a human procedure with some acceptable interruption of service. Ideally, the possible deployment topologies would have been pre-configured to fail-over or switch-over automatically as needed with minimal service disruption. Orchestrating the name resolution, deployment, and configuration of services across multiple heterogeneous (competitive) clouds is a key ingredient.
Custody of data means that the owner must maintain administrative control over its storage and access, as well as having the option of keeping a copy of it on physical hardware that the owner controls. Self-hosting means that the owner must maintain administrative control over the resources and access for serving the application functions to its owner, and for that hosting to be unencumbered and technically practical to migrate to alternative resources (computing, financial, and human).
If Venezuela can be blocked from “some Ethereum services”, that is a huge red flag. Service providers should be free to block undesirable users. But if the protocol and platform enables authorities to block users from hosting and accessing their own services, then the technology is worthless for decentralization. Decentralization must enable users to take their business elsewhere.
Privacy is a conundrum. Users need a way to identify themselves and authenticate themselves to exert ownership over their data and resources. Simultaneously, a user may have good reason to keep their identity hidden, presenting only a pseudonym or remaining cloaked in anonymity in public, where appropriate. Meanwhile, governments are becoming increasingly overbearing in their imposition of “Know Your Customer” (KYC) regulations on businesses ostensibly to combat money laundering. This is at odds with the people’s right to privacy and being free from unreasonable searches and surveillance. Moreover, recruiting private citizens to spy on and enforce policy over others is commandeering, which is also problematic.
State actors have opposed strong encryption, and they have sought to undermine cryptography by demanding government access to backdoors. Such misguided, technologically ignorant, and morally bankrupt motivations disqualify them from being taken seriously, when it comes to designing our future platforms and the policies that should be applied. Rights are natural (a.k.a. “God-given” or inalienable), and therefore they (including privacy) are not subject to anyone’s opinion regardless of their authority or stature. Cryptographic technology should disregard any influence such authorities want to exert, and design for maximum protection of confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Do not comply. Become ungovernable.
While the capabilities and qualities of the platform are important, we should also reconsider the paradigm for how we interact with applications. Web2 brought us social applications for human networking (messaging, connecting), media (news, video, music, podcasts), and knowledge (wikis). With anything social, group dynamics invariably also expose us to disharmony. Web2 concentrated power into a few Big Tech platforms; the acronym FAANG was coined to represent Facebook (now Meta), Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google (now Alphabet). With centralized control comes disagreement over how such power should be wielded as well as corruption and abuse of power. It also creates a system that is vulnerable to indirect aggression, where state actors can interfere or collude with private actors to side-step Constitutional protections that prohibit governments from certain behaviors.
David Sacks speaks with Bari Weiss about Big Tech’s assault on free speech and the hazard of financial technologies being used to deny service to individuals, as was done to the political opponents of Justin Trudeau in Canada in response to the freedom convoy protests.
Our lesson, after enduring years of rising tension in the social arena and culminating in outright tyranny, is that centralized control must disappear. Social interactions and all forms of transactions must be disintermediated (Big Tech must be removed as the middlemen). The article Mozilla unveils vision for web evolution shows Mozilla’s commitment to an improved experience from a browser perspective. However, we also need a broader vision from an application (hosted services) perspective.
The intent behind my thoughts on Future Distributed Applications and Browser based capabilities is composability. The article Ceramic’s Web3 Composability Resurrects Web 2.0 Mashups talks about how Web2 composability of components enabled mashups, and it talks about Web3 enabling composability of data. The focus is shifting from the ease of developing applications from reusable components to satisfying the growing needs of end users. Composability is how users with custody of their own data can collaborate among each other in a peer-to-peer manner to become social, replacing centralized services with disintermediated transactions among self-hosted services. The next best alternative to self-hosting is enabling users to choose between an unlimited supply of community-led hosted services that can be shared by like-minded mutually supportive users. The key is to disintermediate users from controlling entities run by people who hate them.
Here is a great analysis of the critiques against today’s Web3 technologies. It is very clarifying. One important point is the ‘mountain man fantasy’ of self-hosting; no one wants to run their own servers. The cost and burden of hosting and operating services today is certainly prohibitive.
Even if the mountain man fantasy is an unrealistic expectation for the vast majority, so long as the threat of deplatforming and unpersoning is real, people will have a critical need for options to be available. When Big Tech censors and bans, when the mob mobilizes to ruin businesses and careers, when tyrannical governments freeze bank accounts and confiscate funds, it is essential for those targeted to have a safe haven that is unassailable. Someone living in the comfort of normal life doesn’t need a cabin in the woods, off-grid power, and a buried arsenal. But when you need to do it, living as a mountain man won’t be fantastic. Prepping for that fall back is what decentralization makes possible.
In the long term, self-hosting should be as easy, effortless, and affordable as installing desktop apps and mobile apps. We definitely need to innovate to make running our apps as cloud services cheap, one-click, and autonomous, before decentralization with self-hosting can become ubiquitous. Until then, our short-term goal should be to at least make decentralization practical, even if it is only accessible initially to highly motivated, technologically savvy early adopters. We need pioneers to blaze the trail in any new endeavor.
We need a general purpose Web architecture for dApps that are not confined to a niche. I imagine container images served by IPFS as a registry, and having a next-gen Kubernetes-like platform to orchestrate container execution across multicloud infrastructures and consuming other decentralized platform services (storage, load balancing, access control, auto-scaling, etc.). If the technology doesn’t provide a natural evolution for existing applications and libraries of software capabilities, there isn’t a path for broad adoption.
We are early in the start of a new journey in redesigning the Web. There is so much more to understand and invent, before we have something usable for developing real-world distributed apps on a decentralized platform. The technology may not exist yet to do so, despite the many claims to the contrary. This will certainly be more of a marathon, rather than a sprint.
In the journey to developing Web3, we must understand what is motivating decentralization. We are attempting to reinvent the Web to address deficiencies that have placed individuals in jeopardy of censorship, cancellation, and political persecution at the hands of Big Tech platforms, state actors, and adversarial groups intent on harm. Historical ideals to preserve the “free and open Internet” have been abandoned. If a “free and open Internet” is to be preserved, it cannot rely on the honor and voluntary cooperation of humans. Technologies must become permissionless, trustless, and unassailable, so that dishonorable and uncooperative humans can coexist.
Protecting a user’s right to free speech by having the user take custody of their own data, and ensuring that data cannot be made inaccessible.
Protecting a user’s right to free association by ensuring that data in the user’s custody can be published to whatever audience the owner wishes to reach.
Protecting an audience’s right to free association by ensuring access to data published by others, and ensuring that applications can compose that data for the intended use, including for social collaboration.
Protecting a user’s access to platform capabilities for providing the application services that process that data.
Protecting a user’s ability to transact business with others without being subject to third party intermediaries cancelling them.
Protecting a user’s privacy by ensuring the user can share their data only with others who are granted authorization. In some circumstances, a user may want to remain anonymous, so that their real-world identity cannot be exposed for doxxing. Hostile detractors often try to cancel people by targeting their business, sources of income, reputation, relationships, sensitive information, even their personal safety.
Let’s keep these requirements in mind as we explore technologies that can help realize Web3 in restoring the ideal of a free and open Internet in the face of large factions of society who are hostile to (or wobbly on) freedom and openness.