If you are a proud member of the NEAR ecosystem, you may already be familiar with the Open Web concept. If not, we would recommend watching a brilliant keynote by Illia Polosukhin made at WebSummit two years ago.
In this article, we will try to dive deeper into the concept and understand - why do we think that the Web is still closed, and why do we need to open it?
Beginning of the Internet era
We will start from the very beginning - talking about the Internet in general - understanding why it became such a phenomenon that we can’t imagine our lives without it. Initially, a research project on machine connectivity under the hood of the United States military, evolved into a global network that connects billions of people and brings around 15% of the global GDP - but what were the success factors that drove it? Of course, there were a lot of them, but we can clearly see that there is a pattern that is still driving technology adoption - open standards.
The Internet Protocol Suite, known also as TCP/IP, is the set of protocols that defines how the computer network should be organized - starting from the colors of the wires up to the language that software applications can use to communicate with each other. The most important factor was that the TCP/IP was open - so even such industry grands like IBM and AT&T have dropped their internal proprietary standards in favor of the open one. This led to a revolution in the industry - once companies ended the competition on how to connect computers, they could focus on the computers and the applications, while the interoperability layer guaranteed that they would be able to communicate with each other.
And we still see that the open standard principle works nowadays - most of the software that is used by millions of developers worldwide is Open Source. Proprietary software (like Oracle) still holds a significant share in this market, but it will eventually become smaller and smaller as most of the infrastructure software is shipped with Open Source model in mind, even if it is created by for-profit companies like Google and Facebook.
The first version of Web - 1.0
Once the Internet reached some significant growth factor in the late 90s, it was still pretty hard to believe in those times that we will eventually come to what we have right now. Most of the websites were just static pages with some basic information, and if you wanted to put something on the internet - a picture of yourself or your blog for example - you had to know what HTML is and how it works, you had to know how to set up and where to host a web server, and you had to manually update the information, making this process almost impossible for the normal user of present days.
The rise of Web 2.0
After the Dot-com bubble, using the Gartner terminology, the Internet had passed through the “Trough of Disillusionment” and people started thinking: “How can we onboard more people on the Internet? How can I make it more interesting?” . Well, the answer was pretty simple - you need to build tools that would reduce the barrier for the normal person to create something on the Internet - and connect them so they can do something together. Starting from the first steps of adding comments to websites and creating the first forum engines, it ended up being the world of “platforms” - like Facebook, Youtube, Instagram - you name them all.
One of the cornerstones of Web 2.0 was that a user needs to have an account on the website that identifies them and ties all content and actions to this account. The second one was about user-generated content: a comment, a video, a photo, anything else - everything was carefully recorded and ready to be displayed to other users.
While the social graph is not something that characterizes Web 2.0 product, it also helped in user acquisition and engagement. Your friends are on Facebook - you will eventually end up there, as the balance between digital and “normal” life starts changing. “If it’s not on Instagram, it didn’t happen” - probably not the best principle, but that’s why you see thousands of cell phones recording any concert of any music star. People started sharing more and more information through social media - and now we’re in a situation where Facebook or Google may know more about you even more than yourself. We will put a special accent on that in the next section
Privacy and ownership concerns
While almost everybody uses at least one social media platform, messenger, or streaming service - can you name a person that had ever read the terms and conditions of the service? Yes, right, that thing under the link where you need to mark a checkbox “I agree” and get access to the application. Probably a vanishingly small portion did.
With all the data the largest internet companies accumulate using the right terms of service, they get incredibly big power, basically turning them into some sort of gods. With the help of Big Data, they can predict your next move - just based on your social graph and usage patterns. They change your mind - with the help of ads and classified “special algorithms to show you the most engaging content”. They dictate what you talk about and what you avoid. We won’t dive deep into this sensitive topic, but basically now it’s a corporate decision made without any public discussion. Basically, they tell you what is good and what is bad. Although some people can resist that, there are billions of others who can’t. There are so overloaded with content they they just don’t have the cognitive resources to see the big picture.
All of this is possible mostly because all T&Cs of all platforms contain something like “we can use your data to make our platform better and share it with 3rd parties”. And nowadays there are even some monopolies, like YouTube, so if you want to stay in touch, you have no choice but to obey the rules. This is an endless topic, and we don’t want to dive into the details - we promise we’ll make another article about that.
But is there something that we can do about it?
Web3 - a hammer looking for nails
Bitcoin, widely known for more than a decade, has first introduced the concept of blockchain as the underlying technology of a peer-to-peer electronic cash system. Being a huge success by itself, it opened the gate for the brightest minds of our era who started thinking not only about monetary use cases but also about a more generalized decentralized execution environment. Ethereum being the first, followed by Polkadot, NEAR, Solana, and others, has shown the bigger picture of the new paradigm of trustless code execution, basically putting the user into the center.
Web 2.0 term “account” has evolved into “wallet” - something that is fully controlled and operated by the user, while platforms have limited access to users’ data and only when given explicit consent. There is still a place for centralized services in the crypto industry, especially when it comes to exchanges and investment vehicles. However, the slogan "not your keys - not your money" and recent incidents such as crashes on platforms like Celsius, FTX, and the rise of decentralized finance (DeFi) alternatives have had a significant impact. These developments have solidified the idea that Web 3 and the crypto industry are privacy and ownership focused. But there are still some challenges that keep people in the hands of Web2 companies, and we will try to emphasize them.
Several years ago blockchain technology was promised to make a revolution - you could hear that it would change every aspect of our lives. But years passed, and we don’t see the present days as they were described. Web3 industry continues being mostly monetary focused - and it’s not bad to have something else to put on the table.
Well, there was a fun year of NFTs - but it has passed, and you can barely imagine a person still being happy about a picture of a monkey he bought for several thousand dollars. Decentralized Finance pushed back the dominance of centralized exchanges - but in most cases, it’s just changing one token for another or yield farming (in a broader sense). And still, everything is focused on the token price - the price goes up, everybody celebrates and takes profits; the price goes down - everybody is disappointed and tries to find a new project with a big marketing budget to spend on user acquisition.
Crypto and Web3 are not the same thing
Combined with the market cycles, the monetary focus makes the adoption of the technology harder and harder. Many people have the mindset “Crypto is something where I will lose my money”, and that’s not a surprise - once you enter the Web3 world, all you see is money. Staking and yield farming - in a nutshell, all mechanics are designed in a way that you should buy something and don’t sell it. All other use cases are just drowning - why would anybody use a social network, or a streaming service, or something else, if he came here for money? This focus puts the wrong incentives, and with all technology that we have, our community still talks about Web3 in an old-fashioned Web2 application - X (mostly known as Twitter). The web is still closed - but how can we open it?
The Open Web
If we had to state in one sentence what is the Open Web, we would say: “The better version of the Internet, that provides free access to anyone and has the user in the center of all interactions”.
Let’s try to state some principles that would help in expanding this definition:
Open source. We can’t force every application to become the open source one as it is a hard business model, but we can let users have open-source alternatives when it comes to certain platforms. Yes, proprietary software should still exist, but it should not enforce itself as the only way to access certain functionality.
Transparency. Once the user starts using the application, he should have a clear understanding of how this application works, what data it stores, and how it uses this data. Consent to sharing certain data with the application should be crystal clear and should not be hidden under the layers of legal language that a regular person can barely understand.
Interoperability. Applications should be built so they can interact with other applications at the user’s consent. Imagine a world where we have a messenger standard and all messengers are interoperable instead of 4+ similar applications installed just to talk with different people.
Decentralization. The systems that could be decentralized, should be decentralized. This removes the single point of control that can eventually become the single point of failure. While decentralization adds some operational costs, at the same time it makes competition more fair and thus results in a better service.
Self-sovereign identity. The user’s digital personality should be under his full control, and we should explicitly decide what data he wants to share with the certain application. No centralized service should have an exclusive ownership over user’s data
Security. User and application data should be encrypted and processed with the understanding that every second there might be a leak somewhere that should be prevented. Statements like “trust us, it’s encrypted” should receive zero tolerance unless the encryption process and security policies are open and can be audited by the public commuinty.
Education. The Open Web should educate the user on every aspect of the digital world, making their choice more straightforward.
This is not an extensive list, but probably it would help in understanding what is meant by Open Web.
How do we open the Web?
Well, it is a long journey, as most of the companies would resist this movement. But this is inevitable - like open source software started replacing proprietary software, and even republics replaced monarchies a long time ago. But this is a game that should be played by both sides. As our life becomes more and more digital, users start caring more about the processes that happen in the digital world. “How does this application store my data? What data do they share and with whom? Do I really control what is happening inside? Do I have an easy way out? If the service is free, where does the revenue come from? What does the application share, and what does it hide?” - these types of questions would eventually arise more and more. And no one should ever scruple on asking these types of questions.
On the other hand, there is a huge opportunity for new companies to change the application landscape that exists nowadays. There are billions of things that giants like Facebook and Google can not do - due to the scale, their business model, or vision. Like cryptocurrencies disrupted the financial markets in certain aspects, there is a blue ocean of opportunities that are not yet fulfilled. If you respect the user, they will pay back much more than if you treat them as a piece of data to target the ad.
So, what can you do now? Choose Mastodon or Near.social instead of X. Choose crypto instead of bank. Join this early, and in several years you wil find yourself being the pioneer of the Open Web.