The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘Web3’ is on the way. Authoritarians should be worried.

An employee inspects graphics processing units at the Evobits crypto farm in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, on Jan. 22, 2021. (Akos Stiller/Bloomberg)

Anthony Vinci is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Nadia Schadlow is a fellow at the Hudson Institute and at the Hoover Institution; she served as deputy national security adviser for strategy in 2018 in the Trump administration.

The Internet once held great promise as a means of empowering individuals, but it has become yet another path of control for bad actors. Today, authoritarian governments and companies around the world track and surveil individuals; data is not private and is sold for profit; some states algorithmically “score” their citizens; and propaganda and disinformation are rampant.

Thankfully, we are on the cusp of “Web3,” a next-generation Internet that could shift the balance back toward individuals. If the United States embraces Web3, it could also offer a pivotal advantage in its ongoing competition with authoritarian states, especially China.

What is Web3? To understand, it helps to go back to the beginning.

Think of Web1 as the original one-way Web pages of the 1990s — static sites coupled with the dawn of widespread email. Web2 came to life as the Internet became interactive, allowing users to log in and create their own content. At the same time, Google, Facebook and other massive tech platforms hosted “free” services in exchange for our data. Over subsequent decades, of course, the Internet has continued to advance and grow more sophisticated, but we mostly still operate in a Web2 world.

Now, we are closing in on a new version of the Internet — Web3 — built on the blockchain, a technology that makes it possible to transact data securely, and smart contracts, which allow users to make agreements without relying on intermediaries — it’s what permits you to pay a vendor directly using cryptocurrency, no bank required. Web3 is still being developed and defined, but it’s clear that, fundamentally, it will offer a more decentralized version of the Internet.

Web3 is in its heady early days. New companies are forming daily to remove central platforms and bring decentralized, more secure services to users globally. Some focus on video-sharing services with no central repository — in contrast with YouTube or TikTok. Others are creating decentralized shared-storage options, unlike centralized cloud services.

These new services address many of the biggest problems of today’s Internet. Security is improved because there is no central database to hack. Privacy is protected because users directly control their data. Resiliency is built into Web3 through decentralization.

And this decentralization makes control by authoritarian governments much more difficult.

In 1999, it would have been hard to believe that one day teenagers would become millionaires by making videos of themselves playing video games or that political revolutions would be fomented on a website designed to share photos of college students.

Web3 could turn out to be equally revolutionary by shifting power back to individual users — which would be good for democracy and for the United States, for two reasons:

First, authoritarian states cannot abide private life because that’s where anti-governmental activities can percolate. China and Russia have already set up mechanisms to spy on and control the existing Web2 infrastructure through firewalls, censorship and coercion of technology platforms. Web3 would make such authoritarian controls much more difficult.

Second, although the United States still dominates Web2 in many ways, the Web’s current framework allows China to sweep up swaths of data to power its political and military artificial intelligence systems. The decentralization and personal data control of Web3 would make it much harder for China to maintain data dominance.

Web3 will, of course, be disruptive for good actors as well. Law enforcement will confront websites for which there are no “take down” notices and no corporate CEOs to enforce regulations. Intelligence agencies will need to find new ways to monitor terrorists. Seemingly invincible technology companies could go the way of Blockbuster. Nonetheless, the United States should not fear the rise of Web3 — it should adapt to, invest in and promote it.

Geopolitics is about relative power and relative gains. Conceptually, Web3 is innately more beneficial to Western liberal democracies, which value democracy and personal privacy. This would return the advantage to the West and force China and other authoritarian states to confront their weaknesses, change them or fall behind.

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