Toward a Kinder, Fairer Internet?

Web3 could humble the tech giants. It could also turn internet users into products.

Imaga via WikiCommons

Are we on the verge of a new digital era? Techies, and the people who invest in and comment on them, have been buzzing for some time about the dawn of the Web 3.0, or Web3, era. Optimists say Web3 would take power away from the handful of platforms that dominate Web2 and give increased ownership to everyday users.

I have doubts that that ownership as currently defined would be all that empowering, or that it would fix some big problems with how information has come to be shared online.

Some context. The first website was published in 1991, ushering in what we now consider the Web1 phase of the internet. This is also called the “static web” period, in which users were largely limited to read-only content. The first big leap forward came in 2004, when the launch of YouTube kicked off the Web2 era of user participation that exploded with the arrival of social media shortly thereafter. 

Web3, some posit, is the next evolution, one rooted in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency that would decentralize the web, wrest control from a few monolithic big data companies and allow for more democratic peer-to-peer business transactions and user control of personal information. Essentially, blockchain technology means that information is encrypted in a way that only people with permission can access it, even if it’s stored on a government or corporate platform.

An encouraging facet of Web3 is its combination of the openness of Web1 and the public participation of Web2. If Web 1 was about reading and Web2 about reading and writing, Web3 would comprise reading, writing and owning. It would hopefully erode the worrisome dominance of Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta and empower individual creators to control their own content and online activity and be (more) fairly compensated for it.

Two potentially great benefits of Web3 to media platforms and producers are the reduced dependency on advertisements in favor of peer-to-peer business transactions and the data farming that determines ad placements. This model, and the constantly changing algorithms that drive it, has stripped media companies of too much power in distributing their journalism and given it to social media giants that have no hand in producing content. It’s also been one of many factors behind the disheartening Balkanization of news consumption in America. Web3, per its boosters, could be a democratizing force for the internet in general and digital media specifically.

The major hesitation I have regarding Web3 is its tethering the idea of “ownership” to cryptocurrency, which is at best a nebulous concept to most people and which even its proponents concede moves in a volatile marketplace. In Web3, users would be directly compensated with NFTs (thereby avoiding banks and other financial middlemen) for everything from sharing their Wi-Fi with strangers to racking up video game wins.

This would initially favor the tech-savviest among us, and also conceivably lead to the financialization of almost every facet of digital activity. It’s all too easy to imagine this Wild West of monetization quickly being controlled by an elite group of crypto acolytes. Would that really be an improvement over the Big Tech Four pulling so many strings today?

The question of gatekeeping—of information, data and the internet—has become a central one. And the idea of a new digital age that humbles contemporary overlords and gives power to the people is alluring. The Big Data era has turned people into products, and I’d root for a shift to people being more autonomous owners. But until the potential, good and bad, of Web3 comes into sharper focus, it seems that the money-driven basis of it all would redefine digital avarice rather than do away with it in the name of public good.