Harvard professor: How does Web3 make the Internet fairer and more just?

Web3 presents an opportunity for meaningful curriculum revision—an opportunity to reimagine the Internet and build a new platform from first principles.

Harvard professor: How does Web3 make the Internet fairer and more just?

Compile: Huo Huo

In 2022, there is a lot of confusion. In the bleak tide of rectification and layoffs, Web3 bucked the trend and opened up a new path for the environment. According to relevant data, in the first quarter of 2022 alone, the investment in the Web3 field will reach nearly 10 billion US dollars, more than double the level of the same period last year. Some institutions predict that the market size of Web3 on the application side will exceed $50 billion in 2022.

Web3 also represents the next stage of the Internet, and perhaps the next stage of human society. However, during the construction process, there are still many difficulties in how to ensure that these visions are achieved. Today, the vernacular blockchain compiled an article by a Harvard professor on Web3’s thinking about reconstructing a fair Internet:

01 Introduction

One of the strongest narratives surrounding web3 is that it is moving towards a better, fairer internet. Specifically, web3 proponents envision an internet through which users can take back personal autonomy from a handful of companies where power is concentrated, and where everyone involved in an internet connection can join on a level playing field.

But web2 started out with a similar promise to empower individual creators and eliminate intermediaries, a promise that didn’t materialize. Now, standing on the precipice of the new era of the Internet, we should ask ourselves: Has web3 really decentralised and democratised opportunity? If not, how can we better design platforms and governance systems to promote fairness?

The social and political philosopher John Rawls proposed a thought experiment in his influential 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, “The Veil of Ignorance,” that provides a useful framework for these questions. Rawls argues that in laying the foundations for an ideal society, we should imagine that we don’t know where we’re going to fall—that is, we should wear a veil of ignorance. A just society is one “if you know it well, you’ll be happy to participate randomly”. Rawls added:

One of the basic characteristics of this situation is that no one knows his social status, class status or social status, nor his wealth, his intelligence, strength, etc., in the distribution of natural assets and abilities. I would even assume that the clients do not know their conception of the good or their particular psychological dispositions.

Rawls’ thought experiment is particularly important now because we are standing at the kind of inflection point that the Veil of Ignorance imagines. Web3 offers the opportunity to build a whole new Internet (in fact, a whole new economy) from the ground up. The question then becomes: what kind of internet should we create?

Some might argue that web3 is still young and that these issues will resolve themselves over time. But questions about impact and externalities were corrected too late in the late design of web2, with consequences ranging from election manipulation to widespread vaccine misinformation. Some relevant indicators suggest that early design choices in web3 are replicating or exacerbating inequalities in web2 and the real world.

If we want web3 to deliver on its promise that it can materially improve the situation of everyone in the ecosystem, not just the few at the top, then we need to design it according to principles that will enable it to do so.

02 How do we decide what is fair?

For centuries, philosophers and thinkers have debated how best to allocate resources among the actors in society. The body of thought devoted to answering these questions is called “distributive justice,” and there are different schools of thought in the discipline:

Strict egalitarians believe that the only fair system is one in which resources are distributed absolutely equally—in other words, everyone should have the same amount of material goods. This principle is rooted in the belief that everyone is morally equal and therefore should have equal access to materials and services.

Lucky egalitarians believe that what matters is equality in the starting position, and any inequality that arises after that can be justified by differences in merit.

Liberals believe that individual liberty should be the only consideration, and that any effort to reallocate resources violates that liberty.

Utilitarians believe that the most just institutions are those that maximize the total happiness and well-being of all involved. Under utilitarianism, redistribution of wealth would be desirable, as each marginal dollar would do more to improve the well-being of the poor than it does to the rich.

What these theories of justice have in common is the relationship between two equally important but often opposing values: liberty and equality. A society in which all actors are completely free can lead to severe inequalities, as individuals have different motivations to pursue wealth and act in ways that promote their own interests. Conversely, a perfectly egalitarian society inhibits freedom because individuals cannot act in any way that makes them unequal to others—even if the result of that inequality is “earned” through hard work or skill.

Using reasoning under the veil of ignorance, Rawls introduced his own theory of distributive justice, known as “justice as fairness.” It has two parts: the principle of maximum equality and freedom and the principle of difference. The principle of the greatest equal liberty grants all citizens the greatest degree of equal rights and liberties, compatible with others who also possess those liberties. Justice requires equal rights for everyone.

The difference principle says that any social or economic inequality exists in a society if two conditions are met. First, they must hold positions open to all under conditions of fairness and equality of opportunity. Social positions, such as jobs, should be open to everyone and distributed on merit. In other words, a person’s prospects for success should reflect their level of talent and willingness to use it, not their social class or background. Second, any inequality that does exist should maximize the benefits of the least well-off.

This is a profound principle. According to this principle, it is acceptable for physicians to earn more than janitors, as this pay differential motivates physicians to pursue their careers and ensures that janitors (and everyone else) receive quality care when they are ill.

Rawls’ theory is subtle, but in short it is unique in addressing the core tension between the competing demands of liberty and equality. By requiring inequality to benefit the most disadvantaged groups, Rawls provides a natural correction for the rampant inequality that would otherwise arise in a system that puts liberty above everything else.

This balance between freedom and equality makes Rawls’s theory compelling as a philosophical framework for the Internet. It leaves room for builders to be rewarded for their contributions, which is necessary to motivate smart, aspiring people to build in the ecosystem. At the same time, it places a burden on those builders, and the ecosystem as a whole, to build in a way that creates opportunities for disadvantaged players.

03 Assess the current Internet counter-justice as fair

To what extent does the current Internet adhere to Rawls’ principles? In many ways, the web2 Internet expands and enhances opportunities for a broad population, and is more in line with Rawls’ principle of difference than the beginning of the Internet world. Before the Internet, a handful of institutional monopolies, from movie studios to music labels, limited opportunities for people to participate in various industries. The internet and social media platforms allow anyone to participate in content creation and distribution, allowing more creators to succeed.

But you don’t have to look for evidence that the web2 Internet is otherwise substandard. To name just a few examples of how web2 platforms inhibit equality and violate the principle of difference: gig economy platforms earn billions of dollars, while frontline workers providing services earn meager wages and are excluded from platform decision-making. Social Media Companies and media platforms earn billions of dollars in ad revenue from algorithms that boost misinformation and even harm vulnerable communities. Platforms’ creator funds often reward creators with the highest views and engagement, resulting in a concentration of revenue on those who already have ample sources of income, while failing to broaden access for less affluent aspiring creators.

But it’s not just the web2 platform that fails Rawls’s standard of justice. Web3 in its current form is also exacerbating inequality. Web3 projects typically issue encrypted tokens as a digital representation of value. Early versions of token distribution resulted in an unsustainable dynamic where speculators were rewarded, rather than those who added consistent value to the network through actual usage.

Some Play-to-Earn games implement dual-token systems in which users earn revenue rather than governance rights, creating the risk of replicating current economic dynamics where workers earn wages rather than fairness, exacerbating wealth inequality. Business writer Evan Armstrong points out that there are strong parallels between some current NFT projects and multi-level marketing programs, where people who arrive in the ecosystem later are structurally inaccessible to early adopters due to system design Same achievement level.

04 How to ensure justice is fairness in Web3

We’ve seen how early iterations of the web2 internet and web3 failed to ensure a free, level playing field in favor of the most disadvantaged. So what would a Rawls-compliant Internet look like? Some general counter-principles come into focus:

  • Don’t build a system that only benefits the rich, because what if you’re poor?
  • Don’t build a system that disproportionately benefits early adopters, because what if you don’t embed the network that gives you early access to knowledge?
  • Don’t build a system that requires extreme technical savvy to succeed because what if you don’t have the skills or resources to learn those skills?

Using these counter-principles as a guide, builders and participants of the web3 ecosystem can do three things to ensure that it aligns with the ideals of Rawls’s principles of freedom, equality, and difference: First, promote self-determination and agency. Second, reward participation, not just capitalists. Third, include initiatives that benefit disadvantaged groups.

1) Promote self-determination and agency.

One of the main principles of web3 is the idea of ​​self-determination: unlike the web2 platform, where all power is held by a cadre of founders, executives and shareholders, the web3 community will be controlled by its members. This is consistent with economist Albert O. Hirschman’s “Exit-Voice-Loyalty” model (exit-voice-fairness model), which describes individual choices when faced with dissatisfaction with the organization and the state. Ideally, on a web3 platform, users can express concern in an attempt to change their situation; exit the new platform; or, out of loyalty, choose to wait for the situation to resolve.

But today’s reality is more complicated. The early governance structures largely established token-weighted voting, and the result was plutocratic domination, not too dissimilar from the board they wanted to correct. And when it comes to plutocratic domination, whether it’s a boardroom or a DAO or Discord channel, those in power are likely to pay attention to their own interests.

As a first step towards aligning the future of web3 with Rawls’ principles of justice, participants and builders of the web3 ecosystem need to promote democratic governance systems where all members have a voice, not just the few. Everyone deserves equal rights in the systems they participate in.

There are other governance systems that can fight plutocratic rule, such as:

Reputation governance: Give greater governance power to those with high reputation value.

Delegate: Enable community members to nominate others to vote on their behalf.

Pods/subDAOs: Smaller groups within an organization whose governance scope can be divided according to their mission.

A project that purposefully diversifies its member base, here is an example of the $WRITE Token airdropped by Mirror, which is required to register a custom subdomain on the platform and facilitate future participation in governance. To expand the user base that can influence governance, tokens are distributed according to an algorithm designed to maximize diverse social clusters. According to Mirror, the airdrop “further democratizes the selection process and expands the criteria for entry… The expansion of the Mirror community will be determined by those who have so far contributed the most to shaping it.”

In addition to the importance of having a voice, the ability of people to change the system from within through governance requires a viable exit path for participants. Web2 platforms enforce user loyalty through network effects and closed data, and exiting the platform leaves creators without access to their audience or content. Web3 provides an opportunity to build systems that promote user agency and self-determination through true digital ownership, open data, and networks built on open source software.

2) Reward participation, not just capital

A core philosophical tenet of web3 is that there are more ways to provide value to an ecosystem than through capital – and furthermore, value should be earned, not just bought. This is a sharp departure from the existing structure, in which people with capital earn more through investing than people earn through work, leading to a widening wealth gap over time.

Assigning ownership to participants is also a significant shift from the way existing platforms are built where meaningful ownership is vested in employees and investors, but not users whose content and contributions make these platforms valuable.

An important step in aligning web3 with the principles of justice as fairness is to ensure that everyone is on an equal footing and has access to positions of power or reward through their own credit and contributions. But the reality is that to date, those in the right knowledge network can increase their wealth through strategies like witch farming (creating multiple accounts) for additional token airdrops. While the early distribution of tokens often perversely incentivizes short-term hiring behavior—such as participating in yield farms, then exiting them a few days later in search of higher yields. Iterating and improving processes to support the long-term retention and sustainability of the network is something that needs to be addressed. One way is to gain ownership through ongoing participation in the network, not just capital investment. Projects that are working to expand access to ownership through active contributions include RabbitHole, Layer3, Gitcoin, BanklessDAO, and FWB.

3) Incorporate initiatives that benefit disadvantaged groups

The difference principle is based on inequality, which in itself is not a bad thing. Presupposes fair equality of opportunity, inequality remains a corollary of people’s innate abilities and desire and level of effort to earn money. But when inequalities do arise, do these arrangements benefit the disadvantaged in society?

This is a challenging principle applied in a technical context. But consider this little thought exercise: Do current social networking algorithms promote content that benefits the least wealthy the most? For platform creator funds that pay content creators based on views and engagement: Does this inequality in spending maximize benefits for the least affluent among users? The answer is likely no. While top creators have multiple ways to monetize and maintain their output regardless of creator funds, the least affluent may not even have the opportunity to participate in content creation due to financial constraints.

The principle of difference will be particularly important for the democratization of web3, as participants will enter the ecosystem at different times, with a wide range of backgrounds, incomes, technical fluency, and access rights. There are already many projects leveraging crypto to maximize the well-being of the poorest. For example, SuperHi, a for-profit creative education platform that plans to devolve ownership to its members and instructors, tested a basic income program with the goal of expanding people’s chances of finding jobs. Projects such as Proof of Humanity and ImpactMarket seek to use blockchain technology as a foundation to provide basic income to those in need. Communities like LaborDAO are using building blocks to build worker power, while others like she256, We3, and the Komorebi Collective are focused on increasing diversity in the blockchain space.

In addition to projects with a clear mission of social good, all web3 networks should be incentivized to adhere to the principle of difference and maximize the benefits to the poorest, as this approach maximizes the attraction of new participants, driving further progress network effect. A fair network is a network that participants are willing to enter at any time, at any location, with any level of token.

05 Summary: A fair and just internet is possible

Web3 presents an opportunity for meaningful curriculum revision—an opportunity to reimagine the Internet and build a new platform from first principles. But in order to do that, we need to agree on what these principles should be and why. Rawls’s principles of justice provide a useful starting point. Without fully understanding where we stand, our goal should be to design new systems that promote fairness and consider all people.

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