Web 3.0 is the term used to describe the latest incarnation of the internet, following Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. However, what does the term mean, and how will we recognise Web 3.0 when it arrives on our computers? 

Let’s start at the very beginning…

In the beginning was Web 1.0. It was a fairly simple beast, with websites owned by corporations. Those sites held readable information, and only the site owners could change the sites.

Then Web 2.0 came along, and social media was born. Web 2.0 allowed people to both read and write on websites. We could share content, and engage in peer-to-peer transactions. However, the websites on which we did this were still owned by big corporations such as Facebook and Twitter.

Under Web 3.0, the internet will no longer be owned by big corporations. Instead, it will be owned by decentralised communities of users. 

A decentralised web

In a centralised internet, websites are held on servers. Those servers are owned by corporations. Whether in the cloud or on premises, there is a large computer somewhere on which the information is held. More usually, there are several computers to allow one or more to crash—a concept known as redundancy. 

In a decentralised internet, there are no servers. Instead, the information is held on hundreds of individual computers, which all hold exactly the same information. It’s redundancy taken to its logical conclusion.

This is possible through a concept known as blockchain. This is the technology behind Bitcoin and other digital currencies. A blockchain is a digital ‘ledger’: a record of data and transactions. This ledger is held on hundreds of individual computers, owned by individual blockchain users, all showing exactly the same records. When you create a transaction in blockchain, you update the chain. That update must be approved by at least 50% of blockchain users. 

Everything is public and visible to everyone with access. Nothing can be changed after the event, without permission from the whole community. 

The data are also encrypted, which means that only those with access can see them. You can amend the data—but only if you have the key to the encryption, which means that you must own the data. 

In practice, this means:

  • You can store your personal data securely. Even if it is on a server owned by a corporation, nobody except you can change the data without permission from the whole network.
  • Taking down one server can never remove the information. Servers from big corporations can be part of the distributed network that ‘holds’ the blockchain. However, they do not control it. You can take down much of the distributed network, and there will still be a computer somewhere that holds the information.

Practically perfect?

Web 3.0 is claimed to be open, trustless and permissionless. Open means that it is largely built on open source software. Trustless means that you do not need any ‘trusted third parties’ to oversee transactions. This means no more online wallets, or payment providers. Instead, you can pay someone directly, knowing that the process is fully controlled from end to end. There will also be a distributed record of the payment, with no way to manipulate it or disrupt it. Finally, permissionless means that nobody needs to seek permission from any higher authority such as an internet service provider or government body before a transaction can take place. 

Overall, then, governments can’t intervene, individuals can’t be cheated, and there is a record of everything. This all sounds very positive.

However, there are criticisms. First, Web 3.0 will never be fully decentralised. Ultimately, everything is owned by someone, and there are always incentives to keep control. It may work for isolated pockets of use, like Bitcoin, but it won’t catch on for everything. 

Second, blockchains are very energy-intensive. Running all those computers is not cheap. This is useful technology, but the environmental cost means that perhaps we should keep it for when it is really necessary. We surely don’t need it to comment on social media posts. 

The bottom line

There are already examples of Web 3.0 technology in use. Bitcoin is the best known, but there are others including some social media networks. However, can you name one? No? Neither could we. And even bitcoin, when you dig down into it, is not fully decentralised. We suggest that Web 3.0 may never become ubiquitous—and given its energy costs, perhaps this is appropriate.