Many people have lost trust in the current internet status quo. But that is paving the path to its next evolution, which we call Web 3.0. As we collectively awaken to the industrialized theft of our data by the digital goliaths who have taken ownership of the web, we find ourselves searching for answers. How do we solve such a systemic problem?
This problem is core to how Web 2.0 is architected. As users, we have no option but to place our trust in intermediaries that don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. We need an Internet that relies less on intermediated trust, and more on cryptographically-verified truth.
Corporate giants such as Facebook and Google may have started out with the best intentions, molded in visionary mission statements like “don’t be evil,” and an idealism fueled by the possibilities of the World Wide Web. But they are both now vast stock-market-listed corporations that exist in a rules-based game where the maximization of profit comes before all else. Google’s market value is $800 billion, Facebook’s over $500 billion.
Unless we put in place truly open source protocols that enable people to freely interact in a peer-to-peer environment, we risk an Internet that will magnify such forms of control and inequality, rather than limit them.
Thankfully, people are starting to care. I remember vividly when I first downloaded WhatsApp. But I had to share my entire address book to get started, and I got a feeling that something just wasn’t right. Why should I have to hand over all this information just to ping a text message to a friend? I have always tried to resist sharing such personal data. It felt like I was being stubborn, in an almost futile act of resistance against something so much bigger than any individual.
If we want to contact a friend we put our trust in Facebook. If we want to share paying for a meal in a restaurant, we can settle a bill with PayPal or its mobile payment service, Venmo. Anyone who wishes to share their thoughts in a public forum can use Medium or Twitter. But that also means they can be censored or shadow banned.
The problem is that the tools we’re relying on are broken. Our fallback is merely “trust them”–trust those very same organizations that are incentivized to keep our tools broken.
Over the past two decades of the Internet, we’ve witnessed enormous societal change. It has changed the face of our central business districts and made the likes of record stores and video rental shops almost obsolete. However, as our imagination inspired new services and applications, there was no backstop to prevent the entrenched societal power structures from manifesting on the Internet. If anything, power exerted digitally has become stronger, more hidden and less accountable that in the conventional structures of the past. Power has become more subtle in its execution and more concentrated in the hands of the very few.
The rise of Bitcoin and Ethereum has spearheaded the arrival of blockchain – and decentralized consensus protocols – into the mass consciousness. Many people now have heard about the mysterious hack of a fortune at a crypto exchange or someone who got rich on CryptoKitties. Far fewer are aware that blockchain – together with other quickly-maturing cryptographic and peer-to-peer technologies – offers an answer to the subtle erosion of personal privacy that is so important to our liberty and freedom.
Bitcoin, for example, is distributed across tens of thousands of servers globally. The world’s biggest cryptocurrency is independent of any single authority. The technology underpinning a Bitcoin trade marks a new paradigm: peer-to-peer transactions can be made without the need for an intermediary. Blockchain technologies using distributed consensus algorithms make it possible for transactions to be made or services to be performed even as we circumvent the prying eyes of powerful special interests.
Gavin Wood, cofounder of Ethereum, took this idea to a new level, asserting that these technologies could form a “computer at the center of the world” and enable a new internet based on decentralized applications.
This world computer is very different from the internet cloud. The rules under which applications operate there will not be able to be unilaterally changed by the centralized operators of the past. Terms and conditions of an application will be hard coded into open protocols such that users do not have to rely on promises about how their data will be used, or the inner, hidden workings of a service.
This new model renders the need for blanket trust obsolete. It means we can rebuild the Internet the way it was meant to be – to turn it into a true peer-to-peer network where individual users are able to take back control of their lives online.
Of course, there is a lot of work to be done. Which is why Gavin and I leaving the Ethereum Foundation to start Parity Technologies together.
At Parity, we are advocates of a Web3 vision that enables these open digital commons. We’re focusing on building the tools that will make it possible to create an internet that forges a new reality, enhancing levels of freedom and personal privacy. Last year, we launched Substrate, an open-source technology stack consolidating everything we have learned building clients for Ethereum, Bitcoin, Zcash and Polkadot to make it easier than ever for developers to create a blockchain customized for specific domains or applications.
In essence this provides an off-the-shelf solution to enable people to build and launch their own blockchains. We feel such an open source, user friendly stack will help foster the sort of innovation that led to new online services like we saw in the early days of the Internet. Substrate provides an operating system for decentralized applications and a technical underpinning for building new networks. We are using it ourselves to build Polkadot, our blockchain interoperability protocol, as well as our Ethereum 2.0 client, Shasper.
Interoperability is a big hurdle facing Web3 – the biggest one at the moment, aside from the challenge of scaling these cryptonetworks. Polkadot aims to do both. It will allow different blockchains to communicate securely with each other in a scalable framework. It will also be the first protocol to effectively commoditize security, providing a shared security model that can ensure that innovative blockchains are not disadvantaged by the massive investment required to recruit miners or validators to secure their fledgling network. It means that new Web3 projects can build and grow in an interoperable environment without worrying about maintaining lower-level networking and security requirements.
We are at the forefront of making the ideals of this new Web 3.0 become manifest, with open source, extensible and future-proof technologies. We believe these technologies have the power to metamorphose ‘don’t be evil’ into ‘can’t be evil’, within the framework of hard-coded, technology-based regulation. I am optimistic that the promise of these Web3 technologies can be fulfilled. We will soon see the dawn of an age when more and more people understand how to deploy web-based technologies designed first to benefit society.
Constantly driving towards less trust, more truth will help guide us on this journey.
Jutta Steiner is a speaker at Techonomy NYC on May 14, 2019.