Last year, the Web turned 30.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, used the occasion to declare that he isn’t happy with the direction the Web has taken in recent years.
“At age 30, this is not the Web we wanted”
To understand his perspective, and why this is important, it is worth looking back at the history of the Web.
A Short History of the Web
Before the Web, there was the Internet.
The Internet was invented in the 70s, during the peak of the cold war between the USA and the USSR.
Back then, the US had a centralized computer controlling its nuclear weapons.
The US government worried an attack could disable the system and prevent them from counter-attacking.
So they built a decentralized system of many computers distributed across the country. If an attack were to happen, the defense system would remain operational, ensuring the mutual destruction of both countries.
This is a bit of a dark beginning for the Internet. This is where the idea of decentralization came from.
Then, in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web.
The Web was one of the first applications on the Internet. It enabled people to browse content easily. However, it was a highly specialized tool, mostly used by researchers and students.
This would change quickly.
Fast forward five years later, new browsers like Mosaic and Microsoft Internet Explorer brought the Web to the mainstream audience.
These were the good old days. We would surf the Internet. Web design was terrible. We had dial-up connections. It took forever to download a photo or a video. This was Web 1.0.
Web 1.0 was decentralized. It was powered by regular computers. Here’s a photo of Tim Berners-Lee’s computer. There is a sticker on it saying not to turn off because it powers the Internet.
Web 1.0 was open-source. This meant anyone could freely build on it. This enabled new businesses like Google and Amazon, which could never have happened if the Web had been private.
Finally, Web 1.0 was read-only. Meaning, for every thousand users browsing the Web, only a handful of them had the technical skills to publish content.
All of this changed around 2005, where new sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter brought Web 2.0.
For the first time, anyone could publish content online, regardless of their technical skills. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were just easier ways for people to create their own Web pages. They led to the massive popularity of the Web today.
But already at that time, people started seeing issues with these new sites. While they made our online lives easier, they were slowly building walled-gardens on the open Web. We started drifting away from the Web’s original vision.
Furthermore, the computers that previously powered the Web slowly morphed into the huge centralized data centers required to power these platforms.
The invention of smartphones sped up this phenomenon. Today we have incredible devices that let us do tons of things. Yes, they can let us browse the Web through apps such as Safari, Firefox, and Chrome.
But unfortunately, these apps are lost among a sea of other apps that are closed, private, and opaque.
What is Web 3.0?
First, understand that the term Web 2.0 is a buzzword.
It was made up by Tim O’Reilly, who, upon seeing these changes happening, created the Web 2.0 Summit. This was a big conference which brought engineers and researchers together to discuss the future of the Web.
As the idea of Web 2.0 became widespread, the question was inevitable: What will Web 3.0 look like?
Last year, there was a big conference called the Web 3.0 Summit.
Just like the Web 2.0 Summit, the conference brought together engineers and researchers. The message is clear: Web 3.0 is about re-decentralizing the Web.
Why decentralize the Web?
Unfortunately, the Web is broken today.
Why is the Web broken? There are a few reasons:
As you know, today, the Web today is filled with ads.
Why are there so many ads? Back when the Web started, it had no native ways to transmit value. People were wary about using their credit cards online. Thus, the best way to make a profit online was to offer it for free, and monetize it with ads.
This is where companies like AdWords and DoubleClick came in. By facilitating online advertising, they enabled businesses to offer their content for free.
Over time, advertising became the Web’s default business model.
This led to today’s Web, where everyone uses ad blockers, and media uses ad-blocker-blockers.
The media are losing revenue because online advertising isn’t as profitable as print advertising was.
To compensate for this, they rely on shady tactics such as clickbait, fake news, and misinformation to better monetize people’s attention. This is a vicious circle mostly caused by the Web’s reliance on advertising.
2. Data Breaches
Back in 2017, the Economist announced that data was the new oil.
Today there is a race to collect as much data as possible online. This began with the idea that user data leads to better ads. Since then, the rise of AI has only intensified this need.
Unfortunately, this data is collected in these big centralized servers, which are a hacker’s favorite target.
In 2018, there was the Equifax hack, where 143 million people had their information stolen, including their social security numbers and driver licenses. People blamed Equifax, saying they had poor security.
But companies like Facebook and Google, who employ the world’s best engineers, also had data breaches that same year.
The lesson here is that no system is completely secure. As soon as you start hoarding data in centralized servers, you create an incentive for someone to steal it. And every system can be broken into.
In 2017, 6.3 billion accounts were hacked. This is close to one account per human on the planet. I can promise you this number will go up in 2019.
Unfortunately, companies aren’t the only one hoarding data. Governments do it too. We saw it in 2014, thanks to Edward Snowden, who told the world about PRISM, which is a global surveillance program by the USA.
Beyond the USA, you have other governments like China that uses the data they collect about its citizens to give them a social score.
This is similar to the concept of a credit score, except for your whole life as a citizen. If your score is too low, you can get banned from buying plane and train tickets, among other things. This is a worrying direction.
Next, there’s censorship. Having centralized servers makes it easy for governments to block access to them.
For example, Turkey has blocked access to Wikipedia for nearly two years. Because, as we know, Wikipedia is a threat to national safety.
5 . Data Loss
Two thousand years ago, there was the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The fire burned thousands of invaluable documents from our history.
Everyone agrees this was a tragedy for humanity. Yet, this kind of thing happens daily on the Web.
Everyone has experienced it. You try to access a link and get a 404 error. The link is broken. The page is lost.
The average life span of a website is about 100 days.
Every month, 2% of the links online disappear forever.
These are devastating numbers when you think how important the Web is today in terms of culture and information.
Non-profit organizations like the Internet Archive foundation are trying to back up the Web, but given the speed at which the Web is growing and disappearing, this is an impossible task.
In short, things are bad
There are many problems with the Web. What do we do with them?
While preparing this presentation, I read a book called Designing an Internet by David D. Clark, who is one of the founding fathers of the Internet.
The title itself says it all: Designing an Internet.
Upon reading this book, we understand that the Web as we know it today, is the only one of its possible interpretations. It is made up of components, who were created by people like you and I. They had deadlines, and made compromises.
In the last 30 years, these components haven’t evolved to catch up with the problems of the Web today.
Web 3.0 is an effort to update these components in order to fix the problems I mentioned above.
Web 3.0, which we refer to as Web 3 for short, will bring along three major changes:
- Money will become a native feature of the Internet
- Decentralized applications offer users new capabilities.
- Users will have more control over their digital identities and data.
Earlier I mentioned that advertising became the default business model of the Web because there were no trusted ways to transmit value on it.
Thankfully, an invention recently came along which solve this problem. This is an invention which I believe will have a major impact on our society in the coming decades.
This invention is Bitcoin.
The Bitcoin Revolution
In 2018, I gave a talk about blockchain and Bitcoin. I argued that it doesn’t matter whether Bitcoin ends up being just a fad or not. Because it created a snowball effect. It completely changed the way we think about digital money.
Bitcoin brings two major innovations.
- It allows digital scarcity. For the first time in history, we can create items that are both digital and unique.
- It allows you to spend money online without any intermediaries.
These two innovations will bring what we call the Internet of Value.
The Internet of Value
To understand how big this is, consider how Web 1 and 2 revolutionized the free flow of information.
Technology transformed every single kind of media: the newspaper, the phone, television, books, radio, photography, encyclopedias, etc.
These are all components of our society that were completely transformed by technology in the last 20 years.
Overnight, it became possible for anyone to send information at any time, anywhere in the world, for free, instantaneously. This completely changed our world.
Today it feels like we live in the future. We are able to talk to anyone, anywhere, instantaneously.
But, if you look carefully, what is weird is not the technological revolution we experienced. It’s every other part of our society that remained curiously unchanged despite this huge technological revolution.
A lot of what hasn’t changed has to do with value.
Just as Web 1 and 2 brought an explosion in the free flow of information, Web 3 will bring an explosion in the free flow of value.
Just like it happened with information, in the coming decades, the transfer of value will become global, instantaneous, free, and accessible to everyone.
While Bitcoin could disrupt cash or gold (depending on who you ask), the value revolution goes far beyond that.
Think of every component of society that requires scarcity — stocks, bonds, IDs, real estate, etc. All of these could be transformed by Web 3.
This is huge.
The idea behind decentralized apps is to take the innovations powering Bitcoin — blockchain, cryptography, peer-to-peer networking, and consensus algorithm — and to add them to Web applications.
As I explained, Bitcoin lets you transact without any intermediaries. Why couldn’t we use the same ideas to build other applications?
For example, when I use a chat app like Messenger. Just like the previous example, if I want to chat with my friend like a child, I need to raise my hand and ask for permission. In the end, companies like Facebook own my conversations with my friends,
Isn’t that weird? On the other hand, I could use a decentralized chat app like Orbit. This is a simple app you can use right now. It enables you to chat with your friends without any intermediaries.
So there is this crazy idea that we could take every application we use today on the Web.
For instance, Airbnb, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube all have decentralized versions being built, with no central authority or power.
Today there are a ton of decentralized applications:
This is a movement. In all areas — whether it is money, banking, payment, advertising, supply chains — people are building decentralized versions of the apps we use today.
How can we build decentralized applications?
As I mentioned earlier, this is about changing the Web infrastructure itself.
The Web infrastructure will have its native payment layer with projects like Bitcoin (of course, Bitcoin isn’t the only project. There are many other competing cryptocurrencies).
On top of this, we can also add a decentralized storage layer. This will store the source files needed for the apps, such as images, videos, text, etc. In this regard, the IPFS project is worth mentioning.
In broad terms, IPFS lets you create a local Web. What do I mean by this?
Today if I want to download an image, I will most likely download it from the cloud.
IPFS leverages the networking capabilities of these devices, such as Wi-Fi, to create an interconnected network. With IPFS, I can still download files from the cloud, but once I have it, anyone can get that file from my device.
This brings many benefits.
1. Censorship Resistance. Earlier I mentioned Turkey has been blocking Wikipedia for nearly two years. Hacktivists created a decentralized version of the Turkish Wikipedia, running on the IPFS network, which Turkey can’t block. This is the kind of innovation that aims to solve the censorship problem I mentioned earlier.
2. More permanent. I did a lot of research in preparation for this talk. I saved these links in my bookmarks. I can promise you that if I try to get back to these links in a few years, some of them will be lost.
However, with IPFS, I could decide to save these pages to my device, and anyone could access them from my computer. Even if YouTube or Medium were to disappear, as long as one device in the world hosts the file, it will remain accessible.
In addition, IPFS also has a built-in version history.
This is similar to features such as Time Machine on Mac. This is a popular feature found in many software today. It allows you to browse the previous version of a file. This is built-in directly into IPFS.
It is the kind of project that aims to solve data loss.
So far, governments have had been in charge of managing our identities by issuing passports and driver licenses.
But strangely, in recent years, private companies have also become identity managers. Today, we get these kinds of forms all the time on the Web asking, us to give all sorts of personal information.
For smaller companies, identity is hard to manage. Thus, recently, big tech companies such as Facebook and Google and facilitated things by becoming identity managers on the Web.
Once again, isn’t it a bit weird that private, profit-seeking companies are now in charge of our identities?
This is an issue that our friend Tim Berners-Lee has been trying to address for a long time. He wrote and gave a lot of talks on the matter.
Last year, he announced a new project aiming to change this. The project is called Solid, which stands for Social Linked Data.
Here is a quick breakdown of how it works.
The idea is that rather than give their information to private companies, users store their private information in a pod — a Personal Online Data Storage unit. Users can store their names, addresses, phone numbers, etc. In other words, any information related to your online identity.
Pods are encrypted and can be hosted wherever the user wants: on their devices, servers, or even possibly on a blockchain.
The vision is to able to connect to Web apps using a button like this. However, because we remain in control of our data, we can granularly control which application has access to which information.
To understand what I mean, consider how you currently manage notifications on your phone. You have this list of apps, and you can choose the type of notification each of them can send. Imagine having the same control, but with who has access to information instead of notifications.
Solid is a recent project. It’s still is under construction but you can try it here.
To be honest, it is not very good right now. It doesn’t work very well. However, there are many other projects in the world of cryptography such as uPort and Blockstack aiming to solve the same problem each in their own slightly different ways.
Despite the many projects, the core idea remains the same: people are in charge of their data. This brings many benefits.
1. No more forms
The first one being no more forms. I don’t think anyone likes to fill forms. It is repetitive and frustrating. The idea with a decentralized identity is that you will write your information only once and everything will connect from there.
2. One way data flow
Credit cards are a completely outdated payment technology. When you use a credit card, you give the merchant your card number, expiration date, and security code. In other words, you give them the password to your money.
With this information, the merchant can charge you as much as he wants without your consent. This is why there is so much fraud with credit cards.
On the other hand, when you send a Bitcoin, instead of giving away your password, you cryptographically sign the transaction. The signature is unique and valid only for that transaction. Thus, it is impossible for the merchant to charge you again without your consent.
If you think about it, we have the same problem with identity.
When I give my Social Security Number to a website, I give them the password to my identity. They will save it on some unsecured server and after a while, it gets stolen by a hacker.
Why couldn’t we use cryptography here? Rather than giving away the password to my identity, I could cryptographically sign a transaction that proves I am who I pretend to be. Then, no one can steal my identity.
This is the basis for a more secure, decentralized identity.
Decentralization is much safer.
As I mentioned earlier, no system is completely secure. There will always be data breaches and hacks. We can’t promise that no one will access your Pod. But because that data isn’t stored on a centralized server, we won’t see cases where a hacker breaks into a server and steal 150 million social security numbers. To steal 150 million decentralized identities, someone would have to hack 150 million pods, which is pretty much impossible.
These innovations should help with problems such as data hack and surveillance.
Making developer’s lives easier
I’ve shown how Web 3 will bring new, native Web layers for payment, storage, and identity. These innovations should also make it easier to develop Web apps.
Consider an app like Uber. To build such an app, you need to assemble a lot of components such as a payment, storage, and an identity management system.
Then, another company like Lyft comes along with a similar app. They need to build these components all over again. There is a lot of duplicate work.
The idea of Web 3 is to take out these components, decentralize them, and give them back to the users. The users win, but so do the developers, since each of these components only needs to be built once.
If Uber and Lyft don’t want to use these decentralized components, it’s fine, because the decentralized versions of Uber and Lyft will use them.
This innovative infrastructure should help prevent monopolies by making it easier for developers to build Web apps.
What does Web 3 look like?
All of this is interesting, but you’re probably asking yourself: How the hell do we browse Web 3? Well, there are many ways.
- Extensions we can add to the browsers such as @metamask.
- New browsers like Brave.
- Web portals like MyEtherWallet.
- Mobile apps like Coinbase Wallet.
Let’s talk a bit about MetaMask. I believe it’s one of the most elegant solutions so far for browsing Web 3.
Then you can connect to your wallet, giving your browser a whole lot of new capabilities to interact with blockchains such as ethereum. This enables you to use Web 3 applications, such as Compound Finance by Robert Leshner or Cryptokitties by CryptoKitties.
His new project is a browser called Brave, which blocks ads and trackers by default. This makes it the fastest browser on the market. It is about four times faster than Chrome.
Brave has been developed to work with a cryptocurrency called Basic Attention Token. When I use Brave, for example, to watch YouTube, I can click on the BAT icon to access my wallet.
With this, I can tip money to any content creator online, directly through their website.
There is also an auto-contribute feature, which lets me set aside a certain amount of money per month. Once this is done, I can browse the Web, and Brave will automatically share the money to the different pages I visit.
Brave is currently available on desktop, tablets, and phones both on Android and IOS. It has 5.5 million monthly active users. It’s a great introduction to the world of cryptocurrencies.
This is the kind of project that should make us less reliant on advertising on the Web, by facilitating payments straight from the browser.
In this article, we saw how the Web has evolved in the past 30 years.
We learned about Web 1.0, which was read-only and decentralized. Then the big tech companies appeared. They made it easier to use but also centralized it along the way. This was Web 2.0. Now, Web 3 will allow us to interact with each other without any intermediaries. It will re-decentralize the Web.
Because most of the changes will be at the infrastructure level, this will be a slow and nearly invisible transition for most people. Maybe they will need to learn how to use a wallet, or to interact with blockchains. Maybe they will need to use different browsers. But overall, things will remain mostly the same for Web users.
If you think about it, human history has always been going back and forth between centralization and decentralization.
For example, back in the cavemen days, everyone was on their own. It was the survival of the fittest.
Eventually, people understood they were stronger and more efficient together. So we slowly started gathering in tribes, which evolved into cities and countries. This culminated with monarchies, where a few kings ruled over everyone, leading up to terrible abuses of power.
People got fed up. They revolted and cut the king’s heads, leading to anarchy, another form of decentralization.
After centuries of back and forth between the two extremes, we came up with a balanced system: democracy. It possesses both centralized components such as a president, and decentralized components such as a vote for each citizen.
If you think about it, it is pretty much the same with technology. We started out with these huge centralized mainframes, which took up entire floors.
After seeing the weaknesses of such a system, we created decentralized systems, Web 1.0. It was great but hard to use.
Then the big companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter came in and made the Web more accessible. This was Web 2.0.
To be clear, I don’t believe these companies are bad. On the contrary, they brought incredible contributions to the Web and to our lives. I believe their existence is a net benefit to humanity.
Web 3 isn’t about replacing them. It is simply to push things back towards a more balanced and democratic Web.
The Internet of Things
This will be incredibly important, considering where we are going with every object in our house being eventually connected to the Internet.
Consider the Nest Thermostat. This is a device that gathers sensitive data about you, such as in which room you spend most of your time.
In 2014, Google acquired Nest. This worried a lot of people about whether Google would be using that data.
The issue here is, why would I need to rely on his promises to protect myself from my thermostat? Before Nest, I didn’t have to worry about my thermostat sending my private data all over the Internet.
We shouldn’t have to rely on promises from Google or Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg to protect us from our devices. This is the whole point of Web 3.
While Web 2.0 was about relying on promises such as don’t be evil, Web 3 is about changing the infrastructure itself in order to build a Web where people and big corporations just can’t be evil.
Want this talk at your tech conference? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here are my owns and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.