The internet is made from the computers in the world that are networked together, from laptops to tiny sensors. The World Wide Web is the software we run on the internet to help us navigate, find and use resources or ‘content’ – data files that might be anything from videos to text documents, stored on all the computers.

In the early days, most websites were static, fixed pages. The transition to Web 2.0 and dynamic content occurred at the beginning of the century. Now pages could change in response to user input, and concepts such as blogs and wikis enabled users to create new content.

This evolved into new media, as audio, photos, video and gaming became integrated into the web. Yet critics began to question the dominance of today’s web by a small number of ‘big tech’ companies who, while under the guise of providing free services, actually collect your private data and exploit it for vast profit.

Web3 is said to be the third great evolution by those who hope for a more secure and decentralised web. Making use of blockchain, cryptocurrency and NFTs, some hope that Web3 will provide the privacy, scalability and security that is currently missing.

Web3 is attracting billions in investment, but it is fuzzily defined. Perhaps it will involve ‘decentralised finance’ without any need for banks, but then how to regulate it and give consumers protection from fraud? Perhaps it will involve ‘decentralised autonomous organisations’ – virtual companies that operate more like computer programs instead of following rules set by specific governments. Perhaps it will use ‘self-sovereign identities’, where you prove your identity with cryptographically secure ‘verifiable credentials’.

Web3 is generating excitement, but it has its critics. As it relies so heavily on crypto, and cryptocurrency solutions are largely consolidated into a small number of big players, the new web may end up resembling the old web – centralised and dominated by big tech.

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Web3 is not the only vision of the future of the web. There is another idea, confusingly called Web 3.0, imagined by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the original web. Unlike Web3, Web 3.0 is not about blockchain – instead, the idea is to ensure every resource on the internet is identifiable, traceable and readable by computers in one giant web of meaning, or Semantic Web. He has also created the idea of decentralised social applications, where users own their personal data and can choose exactly who can access it.

Berners-Lee’s ideas are about equality and sharing of information freely, while respecting privacy of users. There are fewer buzzwords. Is it for these reasons that tech companies seem rather less enamoured by his vision? The slower uptake of this pioneer’s ideas seems a shame since they may resolve many of the concerns for Web 2.0.

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Asked by: Gavin Wood, via email

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Dr Peter Bentley is a computer scientist and author who is based at University College London. He is the author of books including 10 Short Lessons in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and Digital Biology: How nature is transforming our technology and our lives.