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The Illusion of Web3

A new internet is coming, and with it, a new society. But is a truly decentralized internet really possible?

A new internet is coming, and with it, a new society. This is the dazzling promise made by advocates of “Web3.” The terms they use—blockchain, cryptocurrency, NFT—may be obscure, but their vision is clear. They seek to displace all “arbitrary authorities”—in the flesh as well as online. They are building a decentralized internet so they can build a decentralized world.

Venture capitalists are investing billions in Web3. They are out to make money, but they also sincerely proclaim certain ideals. Theirs is an updated version of a familiar illusion: that we can rid the world of authority, leaving every man the maker of his own destiny.

The internet, once seen as a zone of experimentation and freedom, is dominated by mega corporations today. Amazon, Google, and Facebook offer immense conveniences to their users. They also advance censorship, surveillance, and social control. No less than the government agencies with which they coordinate, they are vast bureaucracies that shape and limit individual lives.

Web3 seeks to combine the decentralization and freedom seen as typical of the early days of the internet (Web1) with the richness of experience and ease of use made possible by the rise of big platforms (Web2). If it succeeds, then something like a libertarian futurism might be possible. If Bitcoin can displace the Federal Reserve, what other government agencies might be rendered superfluous by new technologies?

Suspicion of government has always been close to the heart of the movement. In 2014, Gavin Wood, founder of the Web3 Foundation, connected the movement’s rise to Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance, which showed that “large organizations and governments routinely attempt to stretch and overstep their authority.” But Web3’s critique of centralization goes beyond concerns about surveillance. It presents authority itself as a threat to individual freedom.

The Web3 Foundation describes its mission as promoting a “decentralized and fair internet where users control their own data, identity and destiny.” This is much the same idea of freedom that Anthony Kennedy invoked when he praised “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It is the call for autonomy and self-definition heard in so much of American pop culture and politics.

There is much to hate about the powers that rule our lives. The internet really is dominated by unaccountable corporations that freely engage in censorship. These corporations are not merely private actors. At times they operate at the behest of government officials, labeling as misinformation what is also an expression of political dissent. Offline, things are no better. Public health officials have never seemed so imperious or incompetent.

Despite this, there are serious reasons to doubt the promises of Web3. Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of the encrypted messaging app Signal, recently decided to become better acquainted with how Web3 works by creating several digital products using its protocols—which, unlike the platform of Web2, are in theory equally open to everyone. They are supposed to ensure that users never have to rely on, or be subject to, any third-party entity.

Marlinspike’s description of what happened is revealing. He found that despite Web3’s stated goal of moving beyond platforms, Web3 products are already being handled through centralized platforms. This is not simply because Web3 has yet to reach its full potential. As Marlinspike argues, platforms that are centrally controlled can be easily improved, whereas distributed protocols are very hard to change. It turns out that a central authority can be a very useful thing indeed.

Further, the vision of independence promoted by Web3 is based on the idea of connecting independent servers. But very few people want to run their own servers. People may say they favor decentralization, but they are generally unwilling to bear its costs.

Venture capital will continue to pour into Web3 ventures, and some of the companies will likely find ways to make money. But the more radical promises made by Web3 advocates will not materialize. The successful companies will end up marketing relatively conventional centralized services with a false aura of decentralization and autonomy.

In this sense, Web3 will be the perfect economic expression of the reigning ideology. Companies that promise independence while delivering conformity are bound to find a home in contemporary America. For today, everyone knows that you should be able to define your own concept of existence. This is obvious to us because the Supreme Court and admen, our teachers and parents have all told us so.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things magazine, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.