Web 3.0: A Possible Leap from Data Monarchy to Data Democracy?

In 1995, when Bill Gates was invited to the David Letterman’s show on CBS to promote his book The Road Ahead and the first Internet Explorer by his company Microsoft, Gates struggled to convince the host of the effectiveness of the internet. He talked about new internet tools for connecting people, new ways of education and artificial intelligence while predicting the possibility of making computers with cognitive abilities. Letterman concluded the discussion on the web, saying, “It’s too bad there is no money in (the web).” A long time has passed since this interview; the conversation is conspicuously interesting to watch today as the web is on its way to evolve into web 3.0.

This was the time of web 1.0 when only 10 per cent of people in the world used the internet. However, soon it transitioned into web 2.0 and opened so many possibilities that only 10 per cent of people do not use the internet today. Decades later, there is a buzz of another transition, the web 3.0. Today, many, like Letterman, are cynical of the development while others have already jumped on the bandwagon making the transition quick and smooth.

Berners-Lee provided the foundation for the internet when he wrote the three essential technologies for the first web page. These technologies include HTML, URL and HTTP. Later on, Lee also added the Flash and JavaScript programmes. They led to the introduction of web browsers tha t ultimately started the web 1.0 era. The website of this era was static with basic features of sharing information which provided a democratic way to access information. It was read-only, decentralised and open-sourced. The infrastructure of web 1.0 allowed everyone “to publish any kind of information to anyone in the world, without the permission of any central gatekeepers.” Since then, the internet has become a preponderant force, and major tech companies have taken charge as central gatekeepers. However, efforts to redux the internet to its original decentralised form is also driving at a steady pace. Web 3.0 is one of such anticipated endeavours.

The kowtowing of the internet to tech giants like Facebook (now Meta), YouTube, Google and many others as central gatekeepers started with web 2.0 in the mid-2000s. Although, it has made it possible for users to create content and share them with millions of people online, leading to an overwhelming number of user-generated content. Mobile internet and social networks accessed by ubiquitous mobile devices like iPhones and Androids have further added to its accessibility. This era is dominated by “apps” that have played a significant role in making connectivity and utility possible. The internet now is centralised and consists of mobile, social and cloud.

The transition, if any, would be slow and imperceptible, more like an update than a replacement. Although there are many scepticisms pertaining to its application, there is little doubt that it will benefit the users in many ways.

However, the climax of “interconnectivity” is heading towards its falling action. Interconnectivity implies that unlike web 1.0, web 2.0 gets information (data) from the users. As the users browse the web to watch YouTube or Facebook or perform Google searches, they collect the users’ data. From what you like to what you eat to where you go, web 2.0 scrupulously turned to, in George Orwell words, “the big brother is watching us” phenomena. Initially, these centralised companies collected users’ data to serve them with better content and engage them to stay on their websites longer, which made them money. But later on, they realised that they could harvest this data and sell it to advertisers to make more money. These advertisements target the users directly by displaying the products the users need, want, or are interested in. That is why web 2.0 is termed “the age of targeted advertising and lack of privacy” or “data oligarchy”. There are reports of Target advertising baby products to a pregnant teenage girl, which infers that it knew of the news before anyone else. From here, it started to look like an Orwellian dystopia.

To save it further from turning into a Huxleyan dystopia, web 3.0 is underway, which includes artificial intelligence, decentralised data-networks, edge computing, and semantic web with virtual assistance. The semantic web was first coined by Breners Lee and was based on the same idea of developing cognitive abilities for machines (predicted by Gates). The idea is to decentralise the internet and shift it from “attention economy” to “ownership economy” with a more profound browsing experience.

But how exactly is web 3.0 going to decentralise the internet? Although it might seem a little too far-fetched, blockchain technology might make it possible by the digital ledger, which has become a common practice in the transaction of many cryptocurrencies, like bitcoins and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). In a Twitter thread, Bernardo Faro, a digital transformation consultant,  explained blockchain as “a database that is not managed by a single company. Instead, it’s managed by multiple people, making it a peer-to-peer database and thereby, making it decentralised [sic].”

Firstly, as is suggested, the content that the users create will be entirely owned by them. No central gatekeeper will be able to make rules or guidelines. In Lee’s words, “No permission is needed from a central authority to post anything on the web, there is no central controlling node, and so no single point of failure…and no ‘kill switch’! This also implies freedom from indiscriminate censorship and surveillance.” However, is the world ready to give that kind of online autonomy to people like terrorists, extremists and worst of all, populists?

Secondly, the online transaction systems currently charge the users for their services. For example, if someone sends money or shops online, they are charged for all the transactions they make. Web 3.0 strives to make all kinds of transactions costless. It works through keycodes that are more secure and trusted. Smart, contract-enabled distributed applications, dApps, will be used to purchase products from online stores. There are already many such programmes that are being successfully used in e-commerce. Moreover, the artists and musicians who are not paid enough for their content in apps like Spotify would own their content and have a share in the sites; thus, ownership will belong to the creators. The concept of ownership is vital here, and as far as artists, athletes and musicians are concerned, it sounds promising as they are already turning to virtual concerts and games in the metaverse and trading in NFTs.

Thirdly, the concept of a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO) is another feature that works through smart contracts. It removes the need for a central authority (hence decentralised and autonomous) by encoding rules and transaction details on a blockchain. It reduces the extra costs and gives the investors more autonomy and control. These DAOs are “open, trust-less and permission-less” and work better than CEOs or Board of Directors of any organisation. It works on smart codes that can resolve issues, hire employees and make changes while involving all the investors.

However, there is a major drawback to it. With open and trustless DAOs operating an organisation, there will be no company secrets or control. Since it is open to all, it is also susceptible to hackers. In case of shutting down an illegal organisation like a terrorist organisation or tracking down dangerous individuals, it will be challenging to do so.

In terms of effective browsing, web 3.0 will allow users to own a share of the apps and sites they use frequently. The sites will give the users tokens for their excessive use, and users, not corporations, will have a say in how the services should be governed. Through AI, the search engines would also work efficiently. For example, browsing in web 3.0 will be more efficient and personalised. In web 2.0, users are provided with many options from which they have to choose. However, in web 3.0, AI technology, would be more like a personal assistant, i.e. it can arrange the best places for the weekend getaway while taking care of all the complications. Keeping in mind Apps like Siri and Alexa, there is a probability of better and more effective searches that might make the search experience an online “utopian paradise”.

Notwithstanding  the buzz around web 3.0 and many enthusiasts suggesting it will take over web 2.0, it is unlikely to happen like it is perceived. Experts suggest it will be an amalgam of both web 1.0 and web 2.0. The idea that it will entirely supersede the big giants making trillion-dollar losses and giving up all their control is superficial. The transition, if any, would be slow and imperceptible, more like an update than a replacement. Although there are many scepticisms pertaining to its application, there is little doubt that it will benefit the users in many ways. It has the potential to decentralise data and give more autonomy to the users, thus democratising the data. But the central authority has some benefits; after all, considering users hand out their data to them willingly. With no guidelines and authority, many users might lose the right track. However, since it is too early to jump to conclusions, and considering technology has not disappointed us with new innovations, let us hope it will eventually lead us to the world of flying cars that we were promised long ago.

Uzma Saif

Uzma Saif is an Assistant Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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