In very basic terms, here’s what happens when you access content on the Web. Your device queries a DNS server — most people just use the one chosen by their ISP, but there are others — for the address of the web server. Then your device contacts the web server to request the content. Each web server is its own self-contained system and they come in many different forms and configurations.
A key aspect of this ecosystem is that each part is interchangeable. With the exception of the backbone of the Internet itself, nothing about the infrastructure of the Web is so fundamental as to be irreplaceable. Ever since the ‘browser wars’ of the late 90s, Web users and developers have rejected the formation of technological monopolies and gatekeepers in favour of a neutral network on which systems are interoperable through voluntary adoption of standards. This philosophy has given us a Web which is diverse and resilient.
But there is a new movement for technological monopolisation in our midst, and it’s one that is, alarmingly, receiving a lot of uncritical acceptance. Although it’s driven by the pursuit of profit, its advocates are insidiously non-corporate. Like prior attempts at technological monopolisation, those shilling it claim that it will bring innovation and a better experience for Web users, and derisively portray their critics as ignorant technophobes. But unlike those prior attempts, they co-opt the language of anti-corporatism and digital freedoms, cynically carving out a space in the current zeitgeist around concerns over the way social media and big tech operates.
‘Web 3.0’ used to refer to the fairly inoffensive concept of the Semantic Web, technologies that make Web content more machine-readable. However, the term is now almost exclusively used to refer to the completely unrelated idea of putting anything and everything onto blockchains. It’s commonly concatenated to ‘Web3’ and found alongside crypto-speak like NFT, self-sovereignty, smart contracts, DAO and DeFi.
In its most basic implementation, Web3 entails replacing the database portion of a web server stack with storing data on a blockchain instead. More ambitious Web3 advocates want to see everything, even the DNS routing, move onto blockchain, with no more web servers and all data instead processed via cryptocurrency transactions.
Imagine if someone were to suggest that all web infrastructure should share the same database. That would rightly be seen as an absurd idea — but that’s what Web3 advocates are essentially suggesting. A blockchain is a distributed append-only database, spread across multiple nodes, but it is still one single database. In the name of decentralisation, Web3 advocates in fact seek to create a new form of centralisation around the blockchain.
Web3 advocates may respond at this point that there are several different blockchain platforms to choose from. This is true, but unlike on a web server where the developer can choose their own software stack and migrate the data if they want to use a different stack, if someone were to disagree with how a blockchain project is being run the best they could do is to try and fork it, and convince enough nodes to use their fork to keep the network running. Once you are tied into a particular blockchain, it’s not meant to be easy to leave — that’s the whole value proposition for the holders of the cryptocurrency tokens that users of the chain need to buy. The promise of decentralisation is just a veneer — blockchain is in fact the worst kind of vendor lock-in.
Of course, Web3 advocates don’t consider blockchains to be a service provided by vendors. But just because cryptocurrency has given individuals a way to conduct commerce without the traditional legal structure of a business, that doesn’t make them anticapitalist libertines. It just makes their business less accountable. The idea of the Decentralised Autonomous Organisation that runs itself by consensus, where nobody is really in charge, is illusory. Some individuals will always find a way to be more influential, whether that’s through money, connections or rhetoric. A DAO doesn’t change this simple fact of life; it simply hides it with a new layer of obfuscation.
If you are concerned about how many people consume information solely through the lens of Facebook or YouTube’s algorithms, or about how much cloud server capacity is concentrated in Amazon Web Services, you are right to be. But these are issues with the culture of the Web, not the infrastructure. Alternatives to these services already exist. Moving social media onto a blockchain does not do anything to prevent it from being mismanaged. Requests being handled by a network of blockchain nodes instead of by web servers doesn’t mean that nobody is in charge of the system — it’s just makes whoever ends up in charge virtually unaccountable.
If blockchain technology becomes foundational to the Web’s infrastructure, it will be the beginning of the end of freedom of choice online. Imagine if the only road leading to your house was a toll road. If we need to transact with blockchain to use the Web, then the cryptocurrency holders become the toll road operators. The first wide-scale experiment in delivering services with Web3, NFT marketplaces, has abjectly failed to provide anything of value apart from the facilitation of money laundering. We should not hand anything of real importance over to these self-serving grifters, who claim to be motivated by the preservation of our digital freedoms but in actuality just want to create a captive market for their crypto tokens.