A Web of Our Own

By: Stephanie So

A catchy description of Web 3 has, well, caught on. It describes the phases of the internet as:
Web 1: read only
Web 2: read-write
Web 3: read-write-own

To give away the punch line: after considerable thought, I find this characterization unsatisfying. However, I understand how ownership may be considered the singular innovation of Web 3. In phrasing the evolution of the web this way, it succeeds in putting an umbrella over many disparate interest groups – a remarkable achievement on its own.

Given all the strife that surrounds us when we look up from our screens, it is reassuring to see so many people rallying around a common goal. That there are participants around the world who prize these values and are inclusive is a constant source of inspiration in these otherwise dark times.

Who is Excited about Web 3?

Here is a sampling of groups who have an instinctive sense for what Web 3 could become. Some have been working on their projects for years. Others, relative newcomers, have been quick to take up the mantle – putting their money, time, and energy where their mouths are as they spread the word.

To be fair, the second generation needed the first to lay the technical groundwork. So let’s back up a bit to examine the feats of the pioneers. In broad strokes:

There is the cryptocurrency crowd, who believe their financial choices should not be constrained by central banks and are determined to secure their own destinies. The vast fortunes made and hoarded are well known and mind blowing. Less visible are those who haven’t made it, so survival bias certainly skews perceptions. Whether you are in the field to hunt the returns or in it “for the tech” (or both), there has been more than enough of a track record to add digital assets to the list of properties someone might own.

There are also groups, toiling for years in relative obscurity, committed to the idea of sovereign identities. This is a digital identity you can choose and own for yourself, never to be given or taken away by the authority of a state.

Other groups of early thinkers are those who have come together with plans to own their own data, as well as experiment with self-governance. The latter has led to the formation of a proliferation of DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) who have sponsored any number of projects.

Fast forward to today, to survey all the NFT, gaming, and metaverse conversations. NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are built on the blockchain technologies that underlie crypto- or token- transfers. This is where the concept of ownership is most often mentioned. The central hypothesis is NFTs will represent exclusive ownership, and that will translate eventually to the reorganization of societies and economies in virtual reality.

To bring all of this back to the top, the common thread is a grassroots movement to reclaim individual control: this is me, these are mine. I want to own this.

The Challenge

While ownership is intended to convey privileges, a problem that remains is we have not worked out how to capture lasting benefits from digital ownership.

This is not new. It has been a problem ever since Amazon sold the first e-book. In a fantastically ironic move in 2009, mostly forgotten, Amazon remotely deleted its customers’ purchased copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. It did so without notice. Further sleuthing uncovered Amazon had previously deleted paid-for digital copies of Harry Potter and Ayn Rand as well.

Amazon and Apple have broadened their offerings from e-books and music to movies and other content, but what you are getting is a license, not ownership. DRM (digital rights management) is still up to the seller and can vary depending on the time and place. These are not the versions of ownership we are looking for.

Yet every digital good – data, content, even some cryptocurrencies – has similar vulnerabilities. How far can ownership be safeguarded in a digital world?

Web 3 : Read-Write-Rights

For me, read-write-own is the starting point for a much deeper discussion. Ownership is a social construct. The problem facing us now is this: we need to establish clear, consistent, enforceable property rights and new social norms around digital properties.

Blockchain technologies have opened the door for the web to develop in these directions. For the first time on a global scale, it will become possible to track ownership and transfers of ownership, securely, while preventing (again, technologically) the possibility that a powerful authority may interfere. Instead of resisting these incredible advances and all the gains from trade they will bring, it makes more sense to think seriously about how we can reach agreements on digital rights.

Web 2 will likely continue to evolve alongside Web3, adapting to consumer expectations and demands. Large companies, by their investments, have already acknowledged these technologies and markets are here to stay and are busy reassessing how they will fit into the changing landscape.

To reap the full potential of Web3, we will need a whole of society approach. We must collaborate across disciplines, across interests, and involve voices from technology, law, policy, and, most of all, the people. If the Web 3 movement is successful in defining and promoting human rights, it will be a giant step forward indeed.