The internet's humble beginnings can be traced back to an experiment that eventually revolutionized how we interact, shop, learn and work, and became a digital space where anyone from anywhere in the world can receive a piece of information about any topic. The World Wide Web became a source of limitless possibilities, showing us a bright future of globalized communication.
First there was Web 1.0, then Web 2.0, and now we see the beginnings of Web3, the new era of the internet that its proponents say will be unlike anything we've seen before: free, decentralized, and without the politics and financial agendas of Big Tech.
The idea behind Web3 is to incorporate blockchain technology, such as cryptocurrencies and NFTs, into the fabric of our digital world. Virtual and augmented reality also come into play, including the introduction of the metaverse. Proponents of Web3 see blockchain's potential as a reliable and transparent way to trace data and make the internet a more accessible space for everyone.
But on the internet, just about anything with positive potential can be used with malicious intent. Much like today, the next iteration of the web could continue to allow bad actors to carry out carefully crafted scams, harassment, abuse, misinformation, and identity theft – potentially, on an ever-greater scale.
Kat Townsend, Director of Policy (Interim) at the Web Foundation, says one of the biggest issues facing the future of the World Wide Web is the emergence of a 'splinternet' – a fragmented internet comprising multiple separate pieces that block the free flow of information between nations and users.
On a fragmented web, countries can decide what users can and cannot do online. Governments typically justify web fragmentation on the grounds of national security concerns, such as the US attempt to ban Chinese-owned TikTok. In many cases, web fragmentation is often a means for governments to stem the internet's influence on political discourse.
Fragmentation creates significant blockades to global cooperation and the free flow of information. According to Townsend, it's not enough for companies to take on the responsibility of combatting privacy and fragmentation concerns. To succeed, policies must be a collaborative effort.
"The increase in fragmentation is a real threat to privacy and safety online," Townsend tells ZDNET. "When [privacy] policies are written, how are they enacted or enforced? We'd like to see more co-creation in these policies. Fundamentally, in order to have a safe web, you need policies that are developed with multiple partners and organizations."
Blockchain and virtual reality technologies have their pitfalls as well. The claim that blockchain is a magic solution to Big Tech's problems minimizes the negative sides of the technology, such as the fact that cryptocurrency mining is a major burden on the environment and home to bogus get-rich-quick schemes. As it stands, this technology is not living up to its expectations.
The Web Foundation hopes that Big Tech companies will be held to higher standards by users and that legal and community guidelines ensure that organizations are held accountable for using VR ethically. The problem, however, is the ongoing struggle between wanting less government regulation and having to put faith in companies to make decisions with users' best interests in mind.
"We're thrilled that people are curious about how to make the world a better place. But what we've seen is that blockchain-enabled technologies are used to consolidate power and used for more harm than good," Townsend says.
Townsend references the Web Foundation's Contract for the Web as a guideline in working toward a safer internet. The contract, created by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, outlines the responsibilities of governments, companies, and citizens in a collaborative effort to create a safe and accessible internet. This work includes making the internet accessible and affordable; developing technologies that support the positive aspects of the internet; combating harmful online behaviors; and respecting all internet users' right to privacy and respect.
Few governments have officially endorsed the contract: Russia and China, for instance, were never expected to sign, and after former President Donald Trump reversed Obama-era net neutrality provisions, the US strayed further away from Berners-Lee's vision.
Companies that have outwardly shown support for the Web Foundation's Contract for the Web have also drawn its criticism. In 2019, after Facebook announced its endorsement, Berners-Lee criticized Mark Zuckerberg for continuing to allow targeted political ads on the platform ahead of the UK general election.
In 2021, the Web Foundation set up the Tech Policy Design Lab to understand how well the contract is holding up in today's online world. The initiative aims to identify solutions to critical issues affecting the web, including harassment, gender equality, internet access and connectivity, content moderation, internet fragmentation, privacy, and AI ethics.
The Lab works with companies, governments, NGOs, researchers, and internet users, to create technology policies that can be adopted at a large scale and with "human-centered design" at the forefront.
The scope of influence is somewhat limited, as the organization isn't a government entity. Platforms and governments that endorse the Contract for the Web aren't obligated to follow its guidelines, and web surfers can only do so much to keep themselves safe online. But it's hoped that by sharing lessons and best practices from across the world, stakeholders can contribute to a collective effort to make the internet better, safer and more equitable for everyone.
"The web is the fundamental public commons. For those who have access, it's the place where we can connect with each other," Townsend says. "No matter where or who you are, you should be able to have a safe, trusted experience on the web."