Privacy’s Place in web3

The first part in a three part profile from Decentralized Future Council Fellow, Gabrielle Hibbert

Where is privacy in the web3 space?

Since Bitcoin’s emergence in 2008, when the pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto published their research paper on a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash, a renewed discussion on the construction of online privacy resurfaced. However, ideas on crafting online privacy far precedes the publication of Bitcoin, with events like the political movements of the cypherpunks and an early 1890 legal briefing on the right to privacy by Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis.

The question of privacy is neither a new phenomenon, nor one where collective consensus prevails. The forward movement of the web3 space has provided visibility to how online platforms are constructing the positive right to be anonymous(1) or pseudonymous online and fortifying peer-to-peer transactions.

In this 3 part series, I will outline how the evolution of privacy intersects directly with current discussions and new software being created for the web3 space. Both ideas are a continuously evolving phenomenon of an era that is founded on discovery and experimentation.

The growth of the internet and social networking (web1 to web2)

Pseudonymous spaces have existed online far before the advent of web3. Various protocols such as pgp (pretty good privacy) and Tor (The Onion Router), 1991 and 2002, respectively are early internet privacy protocols. While both protocols are still widely used, the conversation of online pseudonymity through encryption was still considered a fringe development in the context of the general public. During the early days of web1, the nature of the ‘internet superhighway’ itself was a marvel.

The ability to create B2B and SaS companies, and later social communities, spurred the early foundation of our current social (participatory) web2. With an estimated 52% of American adults using the internet in 2000, jumping 24 percentage points to 76% of American adults in 2010 (with the rate of adoption skewed to higher income earners)(2), an increasing number of American adults led many of the bulwark internet companies of the web2 era to collect data on its users.)

Many of the web2 platforms bequeathed the autonomy of publishing to the public with social networking platforms; which many took with gusto to publish, document, and photograph the quotidian. However, with massive scale social networking readily available — big data aggregation became the go-to strategy for many web2 companies to better understand macro trends, attitudes, and preferences. (3) Using web2 softwares to harness this data steadily eroded the very idea of online privacy for the individual. The positive freedom to be pseudonymous was replaced by the de-facto right to be mined, harvested, and aggregated into a data point.

The positive right to be anonymous or pseudonymous online

Legacy 1 web3 protocols such as Bitcoin were eclipsed by the discussions on big data collection, and the regulation needed to curtail trends in massive data collection. When Bitcoin did emerge to the general public, a renewed discussion on where our collective positive right to pseudonymity returned to the forview. Questions on how the users of the internet could interact with each other pseudonymously led to growing interest in privacy preserving internet browsers (Brave, DuckDuckGo), rising cybersecurity concerns, and a continued debate on how to control one’s personal information online.

Importantly, what many of the legacy 1 web3 protocols did was shift the narrative back on how we could collectively build a distributed, private networking future, where surveillance is not the norm. However, it has not been easy to parse out what privacy looks like for many new to the web3 ecosystem. In part II, I will dive into what privacy looks like and the forms it can take.

Conclusion

The push for more privacy preserving technologies within the web3 space was borne not only from a long tradition of research, but also from the societal reaction to current massive data collection and surveillance of web2. While the work is not done, the ways in which individuals can engage as peer-to-peer networks can prove to be more autonomous, sovereign, and pseudonymous than our current ecosystem if we build it the right way.

Footnotes:

  1. It is incredibly difficult to be completely anonymous online. Even if a user were to connect to a virtual private network (VPN) or an anonymous browser, a user’s connection to said services can still be known. This does not mean that the user’s identity is revealed, rather, their connection to these services is known. VPNs, anonymous browsers, and other privacy enhancing technologies services are still incredibly important and great at enhancing the anonymity of users online.

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