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SAN FRANCISCO – Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, publicly wrestled this month over whether his social media service exercised too much power by cutting Donald J. Trump’s account. Mr Dorsey wondered aloud if the solution to this performance imbalance was a new technology inspired by the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
When YouTube and Facebook banned tens of thousands of Mr. Trump’s supporters and white supremacists this month, many flocked to alternative apps like LBRY, Minds, and Sessions. What these websites had in common was that they were also inspired by the design of Bitcoin.
The two developments were part of a growing movement by technologists, investors, and everyday users to replace some of the basic building blocks of the Internet in ways that would be harder for tech giants like Facebook and Google to control.
To this end, they are increasingly focusing on new technological ideas introduced by Bitcoin that have been built on an online network designed at the simplest level to decentralize power.
Unlike other types of digital money, Bitcoin is not created and moved by a central bank or financial institution, but rather by a wide and diverse computer network. It’s similar to the way Wikipedia is edited by anyone who wants to help, not a single publisher. This underlying technology is known as blockchain, and it refers to the shared ledger that stores all of Bitcoin’s records.
Businesses are now finding ways to use blockchains and similar technologies inspired by them to create social networks, store online content, and host websites without a central authority. This makes it much harder for any government or business to lock accounts or delete content.
These experiments are newly relevant after the major tech companies recently wielded their clout in ways that raise questions about their power.
Facebook and Twitter blocked Mr Trump from posting online after the January 6th Capitol rampage, saying he broke their rules on inciting violence. Amazon, Apple and Google have stopped working with Parler, a social networking site that had become popular with the far right. The app did not do enough to restrict violent content.
While liberals and anti-toxic agents praised corporate actions, conservatives, First Amendment scholars, and the American Civil Liberties Union criticized them for allowing private corporations to choose who can and can’t stay online.
“Even if you’re okay with the specific decisions, I don’t trust the people who make the decisions to make generally good decisions a second time,” said Jeremy Kauffman, founder of LBRY, a decentralized service for streaming Videos offers.
This has led to the search for other options. Dozens of startups are now offering alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Amazon’s web hosting services in addition to decentralized networks and shared ledgers. Many have gained millions of new users in the past few weeks, according to data company SimilarWeb.
“This is the biggest wave I’ve ever seen,” said Emmi Bevensee, data scientist and author of “The Decentralized Web of Hate,” a publication on the transition of right-wing groups to decentralized technology. “This has been discussed in niche communities, but now we’re having a conversation with the wider world about how these new technologies can affect the world on a fairly large scale.”
Bitcoin was first introduced in 2009. Its creator, a shadow figure named Satoshi Nakamoto, said its central idea is to give anyone the opportunity to open a digital bank account and hold the money in a way that no government can prevent or regulate.
Business & Economy
Jan. 25, 2021, 6:32 p.m. ET
Bitcoin has had little resonance for several years, apart from a small group of online admirers and people looking to pay for illegal drugs online. But as the price rose over time, more people in Silicon Valley began to notice the unusual technical characteristics that underlie the cryptocurrency. Some promised the technology could be used to reimagine everything from product tracking to online gaming.
The hype has subsided over the years as the underlying technology proved slow, error-prone, and not easily accessible. But more investment and time has started to lead to software that people can actually use.
Last year, Arweave, a blockchain-based project to permanently store and view websites, created an archive of websites and documents from the protests in Hong Kong that angered the Chinese government.
Minds, a blockchain-based replacement for Facebook founded in 2015, also became an online home for some of the right-wing figures and neo-Nazis who, along with marginalized groups in other countries, were booted from popular social networks by their governments Taken visor. Minds and other similar startups are funded by well-known venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures.
One of the biggest proponents of the trend was 44-year-old Dorsey, who spoke on Twitter about the promise of decentralized social networks and promoted Bitcoin through the other company, Square, a financial technology provider.
Its public support for Bitcoin and Bitcoin-related designs dates back to around 2017. In late 2019, Mr Dorsey announced Blue Sky, a project to develop technology that should give Twitter less control over who can and cannot use the service.
After closing Mr. Trump’s account this month, Dorsey said he would hire a team for Blue Sky to resolve his unease with the power of Twitter by pursuing the vision set out by Bitcoin. On Thursday, Blue Sky published the results of a task force that has examined possible drafts.
Twitter declined to make Mr Dorsey available for interview, but said it intends to “share more soon”.
Blockchains aren’t the only solution for those looking for alternatives to big tech’s performance. Lots of people have recently switched to the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram, which do not require blockchain. Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal, said decentralization has made it difficult to develop good software.
However, experimentation with decentralized systems has increased over the past month. Brave, a new browser, announced last week that it would incorporate a blockchain-based system called IPFS into its software to make web content more reliable in the event that major service providers fail or try to ban websites.
“The IPFS network provides access to content even if it has been censored by corporations and nation states,” said Brian Bondy, co-founder of Brave.
At LBRY, the blockchain-based alternative to YouTube, the number of people who log in daily has increased by 250 percent since December. For the most part, the newcomers appear to have been a motley crew of Trump fans, white supremacists, and gun rights advocates who broke YouTube’s rules.
When YouTube removed the latest videos of the white supremacist video blogger Way of the World last week, he tweeted, “Why are we wasting our time on this globalist scum? Come to LBRY for all of my videos in HD quality with no censorship! “
Megan Squires, a professor at Elon University who studies new computer networks, said blockchain-based networks are facing hurdles as the technology behind them makes it difficult to exercise control over content.
“As a technology, it’s very cool, but you can’t just sit there and be a Pollyanna and think that all the information is going to be free,” she said. “There will be racists and people will shoot each other. It will be the whole package. “
Mr. Kauffman said LBRY had prepared for these situations. While anyone will be able to create an account and register content on the LBRY blockchain that the company cannot delete – much like anyone can create an email address and send emails – most will get Users can access videos from a website above. This allows LBRY to enforce moderation policies, much like Google can filter out spam and illegal content in emails, he said.
Even so, said Mr. Kauffman, no one would lose basic access to online conversation.
“I would be proud of almost any type of marginalized voice they use, no matter how much I disagree,” he said.