In a recent open letter reflecting on his invention of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee first thanked his boss.
“I was very lucky, back in 1990, to be allowed some time to sit and code,” he writes, before entering into a straightforward account of how HTTP, HTML and URLs came to be. These three protocols, about 9,555 lines written in the Objective-C programming language, are the backbone of the web as we know it – the communication tool that has, as Berners-Lee puts it, “changed everything.”
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Berners-Lee, a trained physicist, was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland at the time. He was paid a salary for his work, even the time spent noodling. But the web, which has made countless people vast fortunes, didn’t make Berners-Lee a billionaire. A few months ago, he auctioned off an image of the World Wide Web source code as an NFT for $5.4 million – one of the few times Lee has profited directly from the code.
Like other general purpose technologies, from GPS to the internet itself, developed during a particular age of massive government defense and science spending in the back half of the 20th century, the web was essentially gifted to the world as free and open source software (FOSS). Anyone can access and build on it. It’s an age that some web developers pine for, and many still put Berners-Lee up as a model for open source development.
This past weekend, Laurie Voss, a co-founder of npm, a GitHub-acquired company that builds open source tools, did just that. He was making an argument against the funding model that seems to be predominant in Web 3, a buzzword to describe the litany of blockchain-based and non-crypto projects aiming to put user identity and dignity at the center of the internet.
“The whole point of ‘web3′ is supposed to be that it’s democratic and decentralized and everybody benefits from the value they provide to the network. That’s a great idea! It is entirely antithetical to a system where early adopters get outsized returns. We already have that,” Voss tweeted.
In particular, Voss, like many before him, noted the potential conflicts of interest that token-based projects present. Pre-mines, or tokens minted and held in reserve for early investors and project developers, are both incentives to build useful tools that attract users and huge non-cash grants awaiting exit liquidity (read: retail token buyers).
It’s all part of a larger backlash against Web 3, techlash 3.0, and crypto generally. It’s not hard to see how the presence of venture capitalists like Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) and others, which stand to gain a lot by bullying for crypto adoption, stand counter to the egalitarian roots of crypto.
Read more: What Jack Dorsey’s Beef With ‘Web 3′ Is Really About | David Z. Morris
This all the more evident when Web 3 is compared to bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency developed pseudonymously by Satoshi Nakamoto, who, as far as we know, has never profited from their invention. That was the standard way cypherpunks and many FOSS developers operated – in it for the ideas, for the battle for privacy and digital rights. It’s a romantic ideal, but doable.
“I like the idea of giving away ideas and people who can code giving away code. It enables a collaborative approach where many others can work on it and build on it. This has been a strength of Bitcoin. All the work by all the devs is given away freely and anyone can use the software as they wish,” Bruce Fenton, an early bitcoin adopter and registered broker, said in a text message.
Four years ago this week, Fenton unveiled Ravencoin, a Bitcoin fork with a few modifications for throughput, that is now a billion-dollar digital asset. Fenton said he has never profited from Ravencoin and is now unaffiliated with the free and open source project. Although Fenton managed to pull a Satoshi, he doesn’t necessarily admonish others looking to profit from code.
“FOSS can work with all kinds of models – patronage, partnership with for-profit enterprises or even things like sales. But whenever you are paying real money for a token it is crucial to ask what you are getting for that in return,” he said.
This is a view I tend to agree with. If coders can manage to stay anonymous and walk away from their proceeds, that only strengthens a project. But FOSS is an ideal that’s hard to reach. Coders code and deserve to get paid for their work. Tools like NFTs or even ICOs can be done fairly without compromising on the founding values of crypto. It’s hard, but doable.
I’ll state bluntly that there is absolutely no point to crypto without decentralization. Having a “founder” that sticks around is an attack vector. Having massive bag holders is unseemly. If a blockchain can be “censored,” it should be. But projects can – and sometimes do – decentralize overtime. Starting from the position that everyone needs to be an ascetic like Satoshi or Berners-Lee puts everyone at a disadvantage.
Not everyone is in Berners-Lee’s position when he coded the web, an employee of a publicly-funded institution building “public goods.” It’s a new age, we have new tools and new funding models. And thanks be. Even Berners-Lee notes the web “is not yet the best it can be.”