Is Web 3 decentralization a pipe dream?

Web 3 server rack

Matthew Rosenfeld, known as Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of the Signal encrypted messaging service, writes a comprehensive analysis of Web 3, centralization and decentralization, NFT, cryptocurrencies, and a great deal more.

His starting point:

web3 is a somewhat ambiguous term, which makes it difficult to rigorously evaluate what the ambitions for web3 should be, but the general thesis seems to be that web1 was decentralized, web2 centralized everything into platforms, and that web3 will decentralize everything again. web3 should give us the richness of web2, but decentralized.

In his analysis he makes it pretty clear that decentralization is not what he sees happening nor likely to happen any time soon.

Basically, Web 3 is about who owns things: the content, the experiences (you do), and where all that takes place (on the centralized servers owned by other people over which you have absolutely zero control). The issue here, Marlinspike argues, is that from the very beginning Web 3 technologies immediately tended towards centralization through platforms in order for them to be realized.

Marlinspike also has some startling comment about NFTs. For instance:

Looking at many of the NFTs on popular marketplaces being sold for tens, hundreds, or millions of dollars, that URL often just points to some VPS running Apache somewhere. Anyone with access to that machine, anyone who buys that domain name in the future, or anyone who compromises that machine can change the image, title, description, etc for the NFT to whatever they’d like at any time (regardless of whether or not they “own” the token). There’s nothing in the NFT spec that tells you what the image “should” be, or even allows you to confirm whether something is the “correct” image.


Given the history of why web1 became web2, what seems strange to me about web3 is that technologies like ethereum have been built with many of the same implicit trappings as web1. To make these technologies usable, the space is consolidating around… platforms. Again. People who will run servers for you, and iterate on the new functionality that emerges. Infura, OpenSea, Coinbase, Etherscan.

It all makes today’s big issues surrounding social networks, misinformation, algorithms, data privacy, trust, and control of user experiences look like Act 1 of a tragedy that’s a preview of the next level we are heading towards.

But, like addressing climate change, we know what we can and need to do to help create a far more positive environment and equitable foundations for the next level, whatever it’s called.

[Update Jan 10] There’s a really good technical discussion thread in Reddit responding to Marlinspike’s critique. Bottom line: “I see no technical reason why the future needs to look like the status quo today.” Emphasis on ‘technical reason’ –

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(Photo at top by Taylor Vick on Unsplash)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.