Web3 101: Part I- The Centralized Web
Jul 21, 2021
It may come as a surprise, but the web is not quite a free and open place. What was envisioned as a democratic platform quickly became a centralized system controlled by a handful of entities.
If you’ve landed on this article, you’ve probably heard that Web3 is offering a solution.
As excited as we are to build Web3, and as excited as you may be to learn about it, it is crucial for us to understand the foundation on which we are standing. Cracks have been forming in the floor of today’s web, and Web3 is looking to fix them before the entire house falls. To truly understand how these issues began, though, we have to go back to the earliest days of the web.
But first, let’s lay some common ground for what Web3 is so we know where we’re headed.
What is Web3?
Web3 is a movement to reclaim the internet.
From ad-based revenue to data collection, many of the systems used by today’s web are simply broken. Our current web is centralized - largely owned and controlled by a small group of entities who are no longer building with the user’s best interest in mind. We hand over our data and identities in exchange for services and convenience.
Web3 is working to return ownership of the web and its contents back to us - the users. Rooted in peer-to-peer networks and powered by blockchain technology, this new web is decentralized and open to everyone. Giving up personal data is no longer needed to secure trust, and our identities are once again our own.
As we will see, this was the vision for the web from day one. But over the years this vision has been swept aside and forgotten. Well, not entirely forgotten.
Today, a community of highly intelligent developers, privacy-focused cypherpunks, and ever-important meme artists are bringing these ideals back to the forefront. Web3’s development is in full swing and shows no signs of slowing down. There will be plenty of uphill battles along the way, but the industry is definitely carving out a path for itself.
With all of that in mind, let’s see how the web got its start, and where it lost its way.
The Internet’s Origin Story
Our story begins in the 1960s when DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, began their work on a project known as ARPANET.
ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, initially set out to create a way for separate computer systems to communicate. At the time, computers were huge, slow, and unable to interact with each other. But even in these early days, a man named J.C.R. Licklider saw the potential in connecting computers.
Licklider, who led ARPANET’s computer research program in 1962, envisioned an “Intergalactic Network” where anyone could access information and programs from anywhere in the world. The ARPANET team took this vision and ran with it.
By 1969, ARPANET consisted of four computers, called nodes, all at American universities - UCLA, UCSB, Stanford, and the University of Utah. The first ever node-to-node connection was made when the UCLA team successfully sent a message to their partners at Stanford. Only part of the message was actually delivered, “LO” instead of the full “LOGIN” that they had attempted to send, but this was strong proof that a computer-to-computer network could work. Just two years later, ARPANET consisted of 19 nodes, with more popping up every month.
A Decentralized Beginning
Instead of the system we have today, with most websites and information stored on centralized servers, this first iteration of the internet was created as a decentralized, peer-to-peer network. There was no central figure through which messages and information were passed, leaving it up to the network itself to handle.
This was largely a response to the threat of nuclear attacks. Because this was all being created during the Cold War, the US Department of Defense needed to ensure the network could remain intact if one or more of the nodes went offline. A decentralized communication network was the safest solution, as there was no single point of failure.
However, this system had its drawbacks. In order to communicate, each node had to know the exact address of the node they were trying to connect with. While this meant that no middlemen were needed, it unfortunately meant that everyone had to keep an address book of every other node on the network. These addresses also had to be updated every time a new node came online. This wasn’t that big of a deal in the early days, but as more and more nodes joined the network, it quickly got out of hand.
Let the Centralization Begin
This brings us to what could be seen as the first step towards centralization. In 1973, ARPANET chose Stanford to keep track of all the node addresses. While this took the strain off of individual node operators, it created a system that was now heavily reliant upon one centralized figure.
Meanwhile, other networks were popping up around the world, with their own methods of formatting information. This made it extremely difficult for separate networks to communicate with one another. To solve this, a standard format for sending information was established, along with a standard way of assigning addresses. These programs, which are still used today, were known as TCP (transmission control protocol) and IP (internet protocol), respectively. As networks began to adopt these standards, connecting them became much easier, eventually creating one large system.
With this breakthrough, though, came even more issues. As the internet grew, the number of addresses became too great for Stanford to handle, occasionally leading to errors which would throw off the entire network. Add in the growing usage of email, and you have a system that was scaling much too quickly for any one figure to manage.
DNS Is Born
To chop up the network, ARPANET created the DNS, or domain name system, in 1983. This system worked by assigning top level domains, such as .com and .edu, to computer addresses. The DNS then added its own computers to the network and assigned one computer to handle each specific top level domain. So, one DNS computer was in charge of storing and organizing all .com domains, another kept track of the .edu domains, and so on. This created an easier way to organize and use the internet, with intermediary DNS nodes retrieving and passing information from computer to computer.
While this managed to spread out the workload, it also intensified the centralization of the web.
Today, top level domains are owned and managed by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN supervises the DNS and oversees the entire system of domain name registry and ownership, controlling who is and isn’t allowed to sell domain names. Companies like GoDaddy and Namecheap are registrars - middlemen who have been granted the right to sell domains on behalf of ICANN.
When you buy a domain, you are simply leasing it from ICANN. You do not own it.
Who Owns the Web?
It may have started with IP addresses and domain names, but this centralized control over digital real estate has become the norm. Everything from domain names to Facebook content to YouTube videos is effectively owned by the platform - not the user.
As we will see next week in part II of our Web3 101 series, the issues caused by this are swelling. Our personal information, our assets, and our livelihood are all moving into the digital realm. If we cannot regain ownership of our digital world, how can we retain ownership of our digital identities?