Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

Washed Up

The term 'web3' is an attempted whitewash, and it isn't working
Photo by Jarrod Reed

The rhetorical "web3" land-grab by various VCs, their shills, and folks genuinely confused about legal jurisdiction may appear to be a done deal.

VCs planted the flag with sufficient force and cash (of dubious origin) to cause even sceptical outlets to report on it as though "web3" is a real thing.

Thank god someone finally solved the problem of not being able to pay money to pretend you own a jpg

Meanwhile, technologies marketed under the "web3" umbrella are generally not fit for purpose:

Out of curiosity I dug into how NFT's actually reference the media you're "buying" and my eyebrows are now orbiting the moon

Short version:

The NFT token you bought either points to a URL on the internet, or an IPFS hash. In most circumstances it references an IPFS gateway on the internet run by the startup you bought the NFT from.

Oh, and that URL is not the media. That URL is a JSON metadata file

Here's an example. This artwork is by Beeple and sold via Nifty:

niftygateway.com/itemdetail/primary/0x12f28e2106ce8fd8464885b80ea865e98b465149/1

The NFT token is for this JSON file hosted directly on Nifty's servers:

api.niftygateway.com/beeple/100010001/

Image from Tweet

THAT file refers to the actual media you just "bought". Which in this case is hosted via a @cloudinary CDN, served by Nifty's servers again.

So if Nifty goes bust, your token is now worthless. It refers to nothing. This can't be changed.

"But you said some use IPFS!"

Let's look at the $65m Beeple, sold by Christies. Fancy.

onlineonly.christies.com/s/beeple-first-5000-days/beeple-b-1981-1/112924

That NFT token refers directly to an IPFS hash (ipfs.io). We can take that IPFS hash and fetch the JSON metadata using a public gateway:

ipfs.io/ipfs/QmPAg1mjxcEQPPtqsLoEcauVedaeMH81WXDPvPx3VC5zUz

Image from Tweet

So, well done for referring to IPFS - it references the specific file rather than a URL that might break!

...however the metadata links to "ipfsgateway.makersplace.com/ipfs/QmXkxpwAHCtDXbbZHUwqtFucG1RMS6T87vi1CdvadfL7qA"

This is an IPFS gateway run by makersplace.com, the NFT-minting startup.

Who will go bust one day

It's all going about as well as one might expect.

What has perhaps earned proponents of JSON-files-that-point-to-JPGs less scorn, however, are attempts to affiliate their technologies with the web when, in fact, the two are technically unrelated by design. The politics of blockchain proponents have led them to explicitly reject the foundational protocols and technical underpinnings of the web. "web3" tech can't be an evolution of the web because it was designed to stand apart.

What is the web proper?

Cribbing from Dieter Bohn's definition, the web is the set of HTML documents (and subresources they reference) currently reachable via links.

To be on the web is to be linked to and linked from — very literally, connected by edges in a great graph. And the core of that connection? DNS, the "Domain Name System" that allows servers running at opaque and forgettable IP addresses to be found at friendlier names, like infrequently.org.

DNS underpins URLs. URLs and links make the web possible. Without these indirections, the web would never have escaped the lab.

These systems matter because the web is for humans, and humans have feeble wetware that doesn't operate naturally on long strings of semi-random numbers and characters. This matters to claims of decentralisation because, underneath DNS, the systems that delivered this very page you're reading to your screen are, in fact, distributed and decentralised.

Naming is centralising.

"web3" partisans often cast a return to nameless, unmemorable addresses as a revolution when their systems rely on either the same centralising mechanisms or seek to re-create them under new (less transparent, equally rent-seeking) management. As a technical matter, browsers are capable of implementing content-addressed networking, thanks to Web Packages, without doing violence to the web's gaurantees of safety in the process. Still, it turns out demand for services of this sort hasn't been great, in part, because of legitimate privacy concerns.

"web3" proponents variously dismiss and (sometimes) claim to solve privacy concerns, but the technical reality is less hospitable: content-addressed data must be either fully public or rely on obscurity.

Accessing "web3"-hosted files is less private because the architecture of decentralisation choosen by "web3" systems eschews mechanisms that build trust in the transport layer. A fully public, immutable ledger of content, offered by servers you don't control and can't attribute or verify, over links you can't trust, is hardly a recipe for privacy. One could imagine blockchain-based solutions to some of these problems, but this isn't the focus of "web3" boosters today.

Without DNS-backed systems like TLS there's little guarantee that content consumption will prevent tracking by parties even more unknowable than in the "web 2.0" mess that "web3" advocates decry.

Hanlon's Razor demands we treat these errors and omissions as sincere, if misguided.

What's less excusable is an appropriation of the term "web" concerning (but not limited to):

Despite forceful assertions that these systems represent the next evolution of "the web", they technically have no connection to it.

This takes doing! The web is vastly capable, and browsers today are in the business of providing access to nearly every significant subsystem of modern commodity computers. If "web3" were truly an evolution of the web, surely there would be some technical linkage... and yet.

Having rejected the foundational protocols of the web, these systems sail a parallel plane, connecting only over "bridges" and "gateways" which, in turn, give those who run the gateways incredible centralised power.

Browsers aren't going to engineer this stuff into the web's liberally licensed core because the cryptocurrency community hasn't done the necessary licensing work. Intricate toil is required to make concrete proposals that might close these gaps and demonstrate competent governance, and some of it is possible. But the community waving the red shirt of "web3" isn't showing up and isn't doing that work.

What this amounts to, then, is web-washing.

The term "web3" is a transparent attempt to associate technologies diametrically opposed to the web with its success; an effort to launder the reputation of systems that have most effectively served as vehicles for money laundering, fraud, and the acceleration of ransomware using the good name of a system that I help maintain.

Perhaps this play to appropriate the value of the web is what it smells like: a desperate move by bag-holders to lure in a new tranche of suckers, allowing them to clear speculative positions. Or perhaps it's honest confusion. Technically speaking, whatever it is, it isn't the web or any iteration of it.

The worst versions of this stuff use profligate, world-burning designs that represent a threat to the species. There's work happening in some communities to address those challenges, and that's good (if overdue). Even so, if every technology jockeying for a spot under the "web3" banner evolves beyond proof-of-work blockchains, these systems will still not be part of the web because they were designed not to be.

That could change. Durable links could be forged, but I see little work in that direction today. For instance, systems like IPFS could be made to host Web Packages which would (at least for public content) create a web-centric reason to integrate the protocol into browsers. Until that sort of work is done, folks using the "web3" coinage unironically are either grifters or dupes. Have pity, but don't let this nonsense slide.

"web3" ain't the web, and the VCs talking their own book don't get the last word, no matter how much dirty money they throw at it.