What is Web 3.0?
It is no secret that Web 3.0 has been a hot topic of conversation this year. Despite all the buzz, the topic remains unclear to many as the technology has yet to fully manifest its way into our everyday lives. Simply put, Web 3.0 represents a vision for the latest iteration of the World Wide Web (WWW). Unlike the current structure of the internet, Web 3.0 will be shaped by decentralization, meaning that a handful of large technology companies will no longer monopolize the web. “In this decentralized world, users will own their data, privacy will be preserved, censorship will not exist, and rewards will be shared equitably” (1). Powered by blockchain, Web 3.0 will allow users to own digital assets and have greater control over their personal information (2). To understand why Web 3.0 is a step forward in the evolution of the internet, it is important to first understand its previous iterations.
The Evolution of the Internet
Coined by Tim Berners Lee, the first version of the World Wide Web emerged in 1989. Representing the birth of the internet, the web was invented to link and share information between universities and institutions around the world. Web 1.0 was rooted in information sharing, meaning this version of the internet was comprised solely of static web pages joined by hyperlinks (3). Students and instructors involved with the early internet wanted to tweak the network to involve more people and expand its reach. Users were opposed to placing any restrictions on ownership or copyright, as they envisioned a non-commercial internet that would help globalize society, decentralize control, and harmonize citizens. The terms of service in Web 1.0 alluded to this non-commercial vision by stating that businesses, commercials, and advertisements were not wanted on the internet.
In 2004, significant advancements were made as the web moved away from static webpages towards a more interactive internet that we are familiar with today. Rather than just viewing files, Web 2.0 allows any user to edit, create, and upload content by capitalizing on a “free to use” business model, as users do not directly pay for access to the internet or social media platforms. For example, some of the most common applications of Web 2.0 include TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook (4). While these apps appear free, users are covertly paying for the product by giving up their rights to privacy and personal data. As former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris stated in The Social Dilemma, “if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product” (5). Trapped by this coercive business model, Web 2.0 does not grant users control over their data and digital footprint. Instead, fueled by capitalist goals, this version of the internet grants power and control to profit-driven tech companies that commodify user data. To bring the internet back to its democratic and decentralized roots, we can embrace the idea of Web 3.0.
Why the Excitement Around Web 3.0?
Understanding a brief history of the internet explains why Web 3.0 is generating such excitement and buzz. At its core, Web 3.0 has the potential to put power back into the hands of the users. The word potential is used intentionally – Web 3.0 is still a future vision for the internet that will take time, money, and effort to build out. “The soaring claims around Web 3.0 — that it will take over the internet, upend the financial system, redistribute wealth, and make the web democratic again — should be taken with a grain of salt” (6). If current claims pan out, we can expect Web 3.0 to have the following defining features:
- Decentralization: Web 3.0 will be powered by decentralized technologies, such as blockchain and tokenized assets, that lack central control (7) (8). “Decentralization for Web 3.0 will include building critical components of infrastructure, including storage, in a resilient global network where no one person or entity could take down or otherwise control access” (7).
- Governance and ownership: “Ownership of data is the core objective of Web 3.0” (9). Users will be free to grant, revoke, or modify access to their personal data at any time. Further, Web 3.0 will have selective disclosure features, enabling users to select what information is disclosed to third parties when requested (9).
- Digital Identity: Currently, users have different digital identities, known as accounts, for different platforms. When creating accounts on various platforms, users must provide a certain degree of personal information to validate their accounts. However, Web 3.0 authentication systems will “change how your digital identity is created, authenticated, and linked to your online activity by letting users control the data that is linked to their digital IDs” (9). Web 3.0 will allow users to control their digital identity through one profile, allowing access to various platforms through a single login (10).
- Trustless and permissionless: “In addition to being based upon open-source software, Web 3.0 will also be trustless (i.e., the network will allow participants to interact directly without going through a trusted intermediary) and permissionless (meaning that anyone can participate without authorization from a governing body)” (8).
The Ecological Impact of Web 3.0
Often, we tend to get swept up in the excitement of emerging, innovative technologies without considering some of the wider implications at stake. Notably, a discussion of Web 3.0 is incomplete without considering its environmental and ecological impact. As seen with current technologies, the digital world is tethered to the physical world through server farms, data centres, and other material systems that pose significant environmental implications. Since our current version of the web contributes to ecological damage, it is understandable that Web 3.0 will not be a perfectly green, sustainable technology. However, as the next evolution of the internet, one would hope Web 3.0 will make advancements in green technology and sustainability. Yet, according to the Harvard Business Review, current research suggests that “Web 3.0’s environmental impact is vast and deeply damaging” (6). The impact can be categorized into two pillars: energy use and technology waste. First, the energy needed to power various Web 3.0 technologies is incredibly vast. The primary source of energy emerges from the Proof of Work (PoW) protocol, which is responsible for powering blockchain networks. “PoW mining involves computers performing numerous lottery-style calculations to ‘guess’ a correct number. The first computer node to guess correctly gets to mine a block. Every 10 minutes, a new block is mined in the network, and the process restarts. The more computing power a miner has, the more likely they will mine a block” (11). In short, validating blockchain transactions takes a substantial amount of energy.
While energy usage represents one half of the equation, technology waste, commonly known as e-waste, represents the other. When recycled improperly, discarded electronic devices pose significant hazards to human health because of the various toxic chemicals, including beryllium, cadmium, lead, and mercury (12). Blockchain, the foundation for Web 3.0, is one of the biggest contributors to the e-waste problem because of its PoW protocol (13). “Cryptocurrency miners have to cycle through mass quantities of short-lived computer hardware as their mining occurs on highly specialized machines that do not serve a purpose other than the singular task they were produced for, meaning the hardware becomes electronic waste after its single usage” (13) (14). Bitcoin, for example, “produces an average of one whole MacBook Air of e-waste per ‘economically meaningful’ transaction” (6). Across an entire year, “the annual e-waste created by Bitcoin is comparable to the amount produced by a country the size of the Netherlands” (6).
Prioritizing a More Sustainable Internet
To combat the environmental implications associated with Web 3.0, technologists are turning to a less energy-intensive mechanism for blockchain mining: the Proof of Stake (PoS) protocol. As a sustainable alternative, PoS eliminates excessive energy expenditure as it uses a process of validation rather than mining to verify transactions. “Validation increasingly comes from users buying in (owning a stake) to approve transactions. For example, blockchain-based software Ethereum estimates that the update to proof of stake will cut its energy usage by 99.95%, making the platform faster and more efficient” (6). An impactful reduction in energy consumption can only be achieved if the majority of the blockchain community adopts this alternative protocol.
Despite Web 3.0’s energy-intensive downside, the technology could still be a driving force in powering climate change mitigation strategies. For example, carbon capture is a lengthy technological process that involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere and transporting the gases back into the ground. Currently, carbon offset initiatives are long and inefficient processes that could benefit from faster, more robust carbon measurement mechanisms and data processing capabilities (15). This is where Web 3.0 technologies come into play.
Open Earth Foundation is a California-based non-profit that leverages emerging technologies, including AI, blockchain, and The Internet of Things (IoT), to create and deploy open-source digital solutions for our planet (16). “In support of advanced carbon markets, Open Earth Foundation is leveraging these Web 3.0 technologies to build an advanced carbon pricing mechanism that accounts for policy scenarios, various economic variables, energy projections, and other social costs of carbon” (15). Open Earth is one example of many innovative climate projects emerging in the Web 3.0 scene. Here are a few more mission-driven initiatives committed to advancing sustainability efforts using Web 3.0 technologies:
• Crypto Coral Tribe is a Web 3.0 impact investing model powered by blockchain that curates opportunities for users to invest in climate projects and earn a return. Through a collection of 6,000+ NFTs (non-fungible tokens), the organization uses its proceeds to plant thousands of corals across three continents.
• KlimaDAO is a DeFi (decentralized finance), a financial service that operates on a public blockchain. “KlimaDAO is building a carbon-backed digital currency, with each token backed by one tonne of verified, tokenized carbon reduction or removal” (17). To date, KlimaDAO has absorbed over 17 million tons of carbon.
• Plastiks is a Greentech marketplace that utilizes blockchain and NFT technology to fight plastic pollution. Their marketplace allows “recyclers to turn invoice data into NFTs. Each NFT created uses data recorded on the blockchain to certify that a corresponding amount of plastic has been recovered. Such a process creates a more transparent recycling operation while providing recyclers with an additional source of income as they can mint and sell their recovery guarantee as an NFT on the Plastiks marketplace” (18). Plastiks has recovered over 1.2 million kilograms of plastic to date, equivalent to over 140 million standard half-litre plastic bottles.
By prioritizing responsible and ethical practices, we can harness the power of Web 3.0 technologies for social good to create a more sustainable future. While there are certainly concerns with the adoption of Web 3.0, its untapped potential should not be overlooked. As we continue to explore and develop Web 3.0 applications, we must keep our shared goals of environmental and social sustainability at the forefront of our minds.