What Even Is Web5?
Perhaps we can’t be sure, just yet.
Upon reading Jack Dorsey’s tweet and the presentation pack from TBD, a business unit within the Block (formerly known as Square) it sounded very much like the approach that the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has been working on for some time, and similar in explanation to the Avast (formerly, Evernym) team’s philosophy: the twin pillars of verifiable credentials and DIDs (decentralised identifiers) being a requirement for a user-controlled, largely privacy-protecting, self-sovereign solution for digital identity.
The actual definition given in the TBD presentation pack is as follows: “Web5 is a Decentralized Web Platform that enables developers to leverage Decentralized Identifiers, Verifiable Credentials, and Decentralized Web Nodes to write Decentralized Web Apps, returning ownership and control over identity and data to individuals”. TBD is also keen to stress the importance of being open source. The site states: “We believe an open source model will win in a decentralized, permission less world.”
Only a matter of weeks ago I had Kaliya Young, co-founder of the Internet Identity Workshop and a pioneer in decentralized digital identity, on my podcast to talk about self-sovereign identity. There, she was at pains to explain the importance of the open source approach saying “There are projects that do crazy things on blockchains. What we’re talking about with self-sovereign decentralized identity and the communities that we work with, is to focus on developing open standards. That is basically a recipe book that anyone in the whole world can follow… And the recipe for verifiable credentials in its best form means that an issuer packages up a credential for an individual. They give it to the individual, it sits in the individual’s wallet. And then the individual decides where and when they share the information. And the only thing that really, if anything, goes on a blockchain or gets posted publicly on the internet is the anchoring decentralized identifier for the issuer. When this credential is presented in a verifiable presentation form, that verifier can go find that cryptographic key material that’s hosted with the DID”.
Taking the twin pillars of verifiable credentials and DIDs then, as well as an open source approach, what is different about Web5?
One of the possibilities is that Web5 provides guaranteed portability for personal identity. One of the great concerns about digital identity is that a re-centralization of identity ownership would take place in the name of user convenience, whereby the platform players we habitually use for so many of life’s digital utilities become the default wallets holding our digital identities, walled off from other platforms, other providers or our personal access to be deployed anywhere else. Apple, for example, has already launched digital identity via mobile driving licences (mDLs) in Arizona. It means that Arizona residents can now hold their drivers licence in their Apple Wallet ready for presentation wherever it may be needed to authorize themselves. Apple is the ultimate walled garden.
But not having one’s data locked into one single vendor is a big deal. As Kaliya had mentioned, there is concern over the potential for platforms to pursue their own wallets within their own walled gardens, rendering a form of “lock-in” for users. And she is adamant that in the digital world, we need to see this as our wallet, where we need to control it (or them) regardless of what platforms we use. Monopolistic players should not be able to lock in users and control the ecosystem where “you can end up with a system where verifiers have to pay every time.”
TBD seem to agree. Using the example of a persona called Bob, who is a music lover, they explain that “…there’s a way out of vendor-locked silos. Bob can keep this data in his decentralized web node. This way Bob can grant any music app access to his settings and preferences, enabling him to take his personalized music experience wherever he chooses. Therefore, Web5 will give users ownership of their data.” Something that TBD seem to think will not be delivered by a VC-backed Web3 model, as they see it.
But the biggest differentiator seems to be that Web5 will be built on Bitcoin, what Dorsey, and many others, consider to be the pre-eminent decentralized network, and the only real option as a foundation for a truly decentralized web. In my book, The Future of You, which looks at the various ways the self is becoming a digital self, I wrote that your Bitcoin address could very well replace your name as the most trustworthy representation of your identity, and that this would ultimately change the relationship we have to the state.
And for that reason, whatever Web5 is fully revealed to be, or Web6 or Web7 for that matter, we are on course for a new identity system unlike anything we’ve seen before.