Web3’s goal of a decentralized, democratic internet is a noble one but since governments world over are deploying curbs on the Internet, it may prove to be an arduous task.
Jack Dorsey, the former CEO of Twitter, recently criticized the latest iteration of the internet, Web3. “You don’t own web3. The VCs and their LPs do,” tweeted the 45-year-old. “It will never escape their incentives. It’s ultimately a centralized entity with a different label.” Tesla CEO Elon Musk, another vocal critic of Web3 chimed in: “Has anyone seen web3? I can’t find it.” Are Dorsey and Musk’s doubts warranted, or are the two men just trolling the masses? Are they right, or are they wrong?
Although it’s not here yet, Web3 is coming. Ostensibly, this “new” version of the internet will be very different from Web2. Unlike the current iteration of the net, Web3, we’re assured, will be decentralized in nature, free from the icy, vise-like grip of centralized power sources.
If Web3 was a song, it would be John Lennon’s “Power to the People”. It will empower the masses, wresting control away from powerful conglomerates, like Amazon, Facebook and Google, for example, as well as powerful countries like China and Russia. In other words, Web3 will make the internet more democratic.
Or will it?
In 2020, the pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. Millions of people lost their jobs, their homes, and even their lives. For the average citizen, from New Delhi to New York, the pandemic brought nothing but unimaginable amounts of misery.
For Big Tech, however, the pandemic brought nothing but unimaginable amounts of profit. This year, according to Amazon’s first quarterly report, the multinational tech company’s profits shot up by 48.4 percent. Meanwhile, Apple’s revenue soared by 54 percent to $89.6 billion.
In the second quarter of 2021, the company formerly known as Facebook Inc. saw its revenue grow by $29 billion. Remember, this accumulation of wealth came before Mark Zuckerberg announced the decision to enter the metaverse. One assumes that Meta’s revenues will continue to grow exponentially.
This year, Google’s overall revenue increased by 34.2 percent. Oh, and Microsoft, with a market value of $2.15 trillion, isn’t doing too badly, either. Why discuss these companies’ profits? Because, when it comes to our online activity, the Big 5 largely control what we buy, what we see, and how we see it. The tyranny of the powerful elite is real, and it doesn’t appear to be going away.
To compound matters, autocracy also happens to be on the rise. In fact, autocracies, as opposed to democracies, are now the norm, according to a 2020 report published by the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-DEM). A decade ago, the world had 45 liberal democracies; today, that number is 37.
Monetising the next generation of the Web
Autocratic regimes are, quite literally, highly-centralized power structures; not surprisingly, they tend to place great emphasis on controlling the internet. Quite often, they are aided by Big Tech companies. As you can see, the convergence of Big Tech and Big Government does not paint a hopeful picture. Web3 is designed to promote democracies, more freedom, and dissolution of centralized power structures. In reality, though, power structures are becoming more powerful and even more centralized.
Dr. Vasileios Karagiannopoulos, a reader in cybercrime and cybersecurity and director of the Cybercrime Awareness Clinic, University of Portsmouth, UK., told TRT World that the technologies associated with Web3 - like blockchain, cryptocurrencies, IoT, etc – “will become appealing and valuable to significantly strong organisations and stakeholders."
A “pure hope of adoption of a free, non-corporate internet,” appears to be “non-realistic,” he contends. “The big tech companies and other consortia will definitely try to ride the Web3 wave in order to promote their interests as is expected.”
Dr. Karagiannopoulos warned that unless “revolutionary socio-economic changes on a global scale” occur, he cannot see how Web3 “will result in a purely user-controlled version of the Internet.”
It’s rather difficult to see any way in which the “super-rich tech conglomerates will not find a way to colonise the Web3 space and offer more appealing and user-friendly applications to users in order to monetise this next generation of the Web.”
Konstanin Escher, a User Experience expert, appears to agree. He told TRT World that he looks at the ongoing conversations surrounding the internet purely “from a customer perspective, which is where convenience and reliability come in.”
Why though? “Because both always win. Things that are simple will win over things that are complicated,” he added.
He's right. We are creatures of comfort, even if the supposed comfort is a source of profound discomfort. We become habituated to the familiar, and what’s more familiar than the juggernauts of Silicon Valley? Humans abhor change.
Escher added, “services that are reliable will always win over services that regularly disappoint you.” His comments prompted an interesting question: Why do big companies usually provide a higher level of convenience and reliability? The social and decision-making psychologist had an answer: “Because it is in their business interest to provide services that people enjoy using, and they have the money, manpower, and knowledge to do so. They spend insane amounts of cash on a stable backend and server architecture so that their service almost never breaks down."
"The fact that Facebook's downtime a few weeks ago became literal world news shows how rarely it ever happens that such services go offline.”
With Web3, big players have a distinct advantage, added Escher, because “they know their user needs and can react accordingly. They have a brand image and a significant group of customers behind them. They attract the best talents because they are able to pay higher salaries. They will most likely build better-looking products that are more fun, faster, more convenient and more reliable. I argue that people will always prefer the more convenient and reliable option, and if that option is provided by a big company, so be it.”
The Web3 utopia being sold by many evangelicals within the cryptocurrency/blockchain community deserves to be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, even if new players end up building a distributed architecture, it will be built on a platform (i.e. centralized infrastructure) controlled by Big Tech.
Although Web3 is being sold as a brand new internet, it’s really just an evolution of the current form. The servers that host Web 2.0 are controlled by a select few; one-third of the internet is essentially controlled by AWS, a subsidiary of Amazon. Microsoft owns 18 percent; Google owns 9 percent. Web3 is not a new internet; it's just a variation on the same highly centralized theme. Instead of viewing Web3 as a brand new house of sorts, it’s best to view it as an extension.
A stylish new conservatory, if you will. The keys to this house, it seems, will remain in the hands of a powerful few. Web3’s goal of a decentralized, democratic internet is a noble one. However, bridging that gap between theory and reality may prove to be an arduous task, if not an impossible one.
As technology progresses, we find ourselves sitting on the shoulders of giants. Those giants reside in Silicon Valley, and they are likely to crush anything that threatens their dominance.