The first two eras of the internet
During the first era of the internet — from the 1980s through the early 2000s — internet services were built on open protocols that were controlled by the internet community. This meant that people or organizations could grow their internet presence knowing the rules of the game wouldn’t change later on. Huge web properties were started during this era including Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube. In the process, the importance of centralized platforms like AOL greatly diminished.
During the second era of the internet, from the mid 2000s to the present, for-profit tech companies — most notably Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) — built software and services that rapidly outpaced the capabilities of open protocols. The explosive growth of smartphones accelerated this trend as mobile apps became the majority of internet use. Eventually users migrated from open services to these more sophisticated, centralized services. Even when users still accessed open protocols like the web, they would typically do so mediated by GAFA software and services.
The good news is that billions of people got access to amazing technologies, many of which were free to use. The bad news is that it became much harder for startups, creators, and other groups to grow their internet presence without worrying about centralized platforms changing the rules on them, taking away their audiences and profits. This in turn stifled innovation, making the internet less interesting and dynamic. Centralization has also created broader societal tensions, which we see in the debates over subjects like fake news, state sponsored bots, “no platforming” of users, EU privacy laws, and algorithmic biases. These debates will only intensify in the coming years.
“Web 3”: the third era of the internet
One response to this centralization is to impose government regulation on large internet companies. This response assumes that the internet is similar to past communication networks like the phone, radio, and TV networks. But the hardware-based networks of the past are fundamentally different than the internet, a software-based network. Once hardware-based networks are built, they are nearly impossible to rearchitect…