Thomas Jefferson and the first pioneers of Web3 have a lot more in common than first meets the eye. Both devised governance systems that upheld “safeguards to public liberty.”
More than two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson recognised the importance of a free press as our only “safeguard of public liberty.” Responding to this insight, the Framers of the American Constitution designed a system with checks and balances spread across three co-equal branches of government, designed to prevent the corruption of power.
This was the original “liberty tech,” which not only aimed to restrain governmental overreach but also ensured that individual rights and freedoms were safeguarded.
As we navigate the complex landscape of the modern information age, we face an array of challenges to our liberties, greater in both scope and sophistication than our predecessors could have imagined. Despite this, the primary issue that confronts us remains unchanged: the concentration of control in few hands and the systematic exploitation of us all.
Web3 is a new liberty technology designed to shield us from the increasingly sophisticated and numerous threats to our liberty that have increased in the information age.
It is my fervent opinion that Web3 is a liberty tech and our best, new “safeguard of public liberty.”
New threats to liberty
An example of centralized control heightened by digital affordance is evident within China. There, the government’s implementation of the social credit system marries technology-enabled mass surveillance of individual behavior with a punitive social scoring system. Systematically sanctioning or rewarding citizens using this data paves the way for an unprecedented level of governmental control over the Chinese people.
Similarly, the rise of surveillance capitalism sees tech behemoths like Google and Facebook amassing and exploiting personal data on an industrial scale. They use complex algorithms to mold our consumer behavior, eroding our free will by predicting and influencing our decisions and purchases.
The sovereignty of democratic institutions has not been spared either. The widely publicized microtargeting scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica unveiled the grim reality of how personal information and algorithmic targeting have become potent tools in distorting the course of free elections, eroding the very fabric of democracy. This came to the fore in the US, but subsequent investigations revealed that such services were marketed globally.
This battle for liberty extends into the realm of commerce too, as behemoth e-commerce platforms like Amazon dictate the rules of the game. The Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust lawsuit investigating Amazon’s monopoly control of the e-commerce market should be viewed as a welcome development in combating unfair market competition. Leaving Amazon unchecked will enable the further stifling of fair competition and excessive extraction of economic value from consumers and businesses alike.
Moreover, the financial landscape is riddled with instability, as evidenced by the relentless cycle of market crashes, bailouts and quantitative easing measures. This has resulted in the continual devaluation of fiat currency, thereby diluting the wealth and purchasing power of us all.
In light of these challenges, it is clear that the mechanisms that Jefferson and his contemporaries put in place — while groundbreaking for their time — are no longer sufficient to protect us from today’s more sophisticated and numerous threats. We need new safeguards of public liberty.
As Erik Vorhees warned at Permissionless II, “We have become farm animals. We graze, we produce and we are harvested. Crypto [and thereby Web3] is our rebellion against permission.”
Web3 is a liberty tech
Web3 has emerged as a next-generation liberty tech, designed to safeguard the public against these new, more sophisticated threats of the information age via a number of core principles.
But Web3 is under attack — and it’s time we stand up for it. There are all-out bans of blockchain-based finance in countries such as China, while the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent crackdown on crypto is another example of attempts to squash more decentralized modes of finance.
Regulators, focusing on the perceived risks that blockchain-based finance poses to investors, overlook the public safeguards it offers, such as bitcoin’s issuance capped at 21 million, a measure of control against the unchecked inflation characteristic of fiat currencies. Furthermore, regulatory bodies emphasize Web3’s potential for illicit use, failing to recognize that the right to transact without permission and the presumption of innocence are foundational liberties. These should not be compromised due to the misdeeds of a few.
Read more from our opinion section: What to expect for Web3 in 2024
In addition, Web3’s reputation has suffered from failures and scams within centralized financial institutions, like FTX, which Web3 technologies were designed to replace. Web3’s decentralized technologies eliminate the risk associated with centralized entities, providing trust-minimized, secure and verifiable transactions enforced by cryptography.
A more insidious threat to Web3 is the implementation of Web3 washing. That is the use of systems that use Web3 technologies, but retain a Web2 business model or underlying stack.
Examples include: centralized exchanges which transact with decentralized currencies but retain counterparty and systemic risk of traditional finance; trusted real world asset tokenization providers which tokenize real world assets like gold or watches, but again retain trust in a centralized entity to custody the asset; and fashion brands which sell NFTs for physical products but require buyers to trust they will receive the item. Such solutions retain much of the risks and drawbacks of the previous paradigm and fail to deliver the full benefits of Web3.
Our best ‘safeguard of public liberty’
The liberty we enjoy today is built on the foundational liberty tech established centuries ago as our systems of democratic governance. As we confront new, more sophisticated threats to our freedoms, such as surveillance, misinformation and economic dominance by a few major entities, we require an updated liberty tech for protection in this information age.
Web3 is this new technology.
However, it is currently under threat due to misuse by some bad actors and the practice of Web3 washing by those misapplying its core principles. It is vital that we defend Web3 and push for its correct use to realize its full benefits.
Freedom inherently carries the risk of misuse by the minority. The choice is ours to make. Historically, the Framers made public liberty their top priority. I urge us to follow in their footsteps today. We must defend Web3 as it represents our best safeguard for public liberty.
Justin Banon is a thought leader and advocate for Web3 technologies, as well as being co-founder of Boson Protocol — a decentralized commerce protocol enabling the tokenization and trade of physical assets without intermediaries.
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