Internet Giants, Defied by Bitcoin, Now See Its Tech as a Remedy


SAN FRANCISCO — Not so long ago, the technology behind Bitcoin was seen in Silicon Valley as the best hope for challenging the enormous, centralized power of companies like Twitter and Facebook.

Now, in an unexpected twist, the internet giants think that technology could help them solve their many problems.

The chief executive of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, said last week that he hoped to fund the creation of software for social media that, inspired by the design of Bitcoin, would give Twitter less control over how people use the service and shift power toward users and outside programmers.

Likewise, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has said he hopes the same concepts from Bitcoin could “take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands.”

This push toward decentralization — the buzzword people in tech are using to describe these projects — has already gained enough currency and has sounded outlandish enough that it was one of the central themes of the satirical HBO show “Silicon Valley.”

Though Bitcoin’s digital tokens are widely used among the tech set, its underlying concept — a network of computers managing the currency without anyone in charge — is what’s most interesting to many people working on decentralization.

Countless entrepreneurs are working on decentralization projects, including the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. He founded Solid, which seeks to fix the problems of the centralized internet by shifting the ownership of personal data away from big companies and back toward users.

But the other efforts have largely been aimed at taking down Twitter and Facebook rather than helping them solve their problems. And the two behemoths have plenty of problems, from policing their sites for toxic content to dealing with pressure from regulators who think tech companies have grown too powerful.

Not surprisingly, the efforts at Twitter and Facebook have faced skepticism and questions about whether they are just trying to land some positive press while dodging responsibility — and regulations.

“When a company does something like this when it is under pressure, it becomes a way to distract attention by appearing to do something,” said Mitra Ardron, the head of the decentralized web project at the Internet Archive, which has hosted the Decentralized Web Summit the last four years.

Many people working on decentralization projects are concerned that Twitter and Facebook are trying to align themselves with the work’s countercultural spirit without giving up their enormous power.

“The monoliths see it as a threat to their model, so they try to weave in the concepts into their own products to maintain control,” said Eugen Rochko, the founder of Mastodon, a competitor to Twitter. With around two million users, Mastodon has been one of the most successful alternative projects.

Mr. Dorsey said Twitter was just starting to look at the idea and had committed only five people to it. Facebook has moved ahead with its Bitcoin-inspired cryptocurrency and has beefed up encryption, but the company has otherwise taken few steps to decentralize its services. Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Zuckerberg, though, have frequently discussed decentralization, suggesting they have a personal fascination that goes beyond business interests.

Mr. Dorsey also hired a small team at his second company, Square, to work full time on Bitcoin, without any commercial responsibilities. And he recently announced that he was hoping to take an extended sojourn in Africa to understand how Bitcoin was working there.

“It’s clearly catching on in part because people believe in it,” said Neha Narula, the director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the M.I.T. Media Lab. “It’s not necessarily that it is cheaper or more efficient or faster or easier. In fact, it is much harder. But it’s clear that this idea speaks to people.”

Mr. Dorsey’s tweets last week suggest that he wants the new team, Blue Sky, to build essentially a basic version of Twitter that would be available for anyone to copy. This would make it easier for outside developers to build on top of Twitter and to compete with it. A competitor might be able to offer a version without ads, or one that recommends tweets to readers based on different standards.

While that would most likely pose a commercial threat to Twitter, Mr. Dorsey said it would also force the service to be “far more innovative than in the past” and could draw more overall users to it.

The idea of decentralization harks back to the basic design and ideals of the internet, which was supposed to be a global gathering place where everyone was welcome and no one was in charge.

Mr. Dorsey said the invention of Bitcoin had made it possible to revive those early ideals. The key to Bitcoin is its blockchain database, which provides a way for a network of disconnected computers to agree on a single set of records for every Bitcoin in existence.

Mr. Dorsey is following in the steps of the many cryptocurrency advocates who have argued that the underlying technology could be used to record all the users and activity on a social network, and to agree on a single set of rules for the network, without having any single company in charge. He said, though, that it would most likely take “many years.”

Facebook has pursued several projects over the past year that would shift control to its users.

The company’s most notable effort with blockchains is the Libra cryptocurrency, which aims to create money outside the control of any one company. The Libra effort has faced crippling opposition from politicians, regulators and even some of the project’s original partners. But it appears to have inspired central banks in China and Europe, which are also considering ways to duplicate Bitcoin’s underlying technology.

Already, many start-ups have tried to use blockchains to create social networks to compete with Twitter and Facebook. But these networks, with names like Minds and Steemit, have faced many of the same problems that Bitcoin has, struggling to attract mainstream attention and leaving users to fend off hackers themselves. Many investors have largely given up on blockchain investments.

Several up-and-coming projects focused on decentralization, including Mr. Berners-Lee’s Solid, have steered clear of the blockchain entirely because they don’t believe it is useful for anything other than financial transactions.

Mr. Dorsey said one of the great appeals of a decentralized future was that Twitter would no longer be the only one in charge of deciding what is and isn’t allowed on the network.

To many people, that sounded like an effort by Mr. Dorsey to wash his hands of the hardest but arguably most important responsibility of social networks today: identifying and filtering bad actors and disinformation.

“I’m concerned that Twitter may try to foist the responsibility for dealing with these problems onto the decentralization community,” said Ross Schulman, the senior policy technologist at New America’s Open Technology Institute.

A spokeswoman for Facebook had no comment on the company’s efforts.

Mastodon, the Twitter competitor, allows anyone to tweak the software in order to create his or her own version of Mastodon. If people don’t like the rules set up in one version, they can move to another.

But Mastodon has provided a window into just how difficult these problems are to deal with, even with decentralization.

The Mastodon software was created to form a refuge from anger and hate speech on Twitter. But recently, a social network with close ties to hate crimes and the far right, Gab, used Mastodon’s software to create a new home after it was pushed off the mainstream internet. Mastodon’s leaders were opposed to it but could do little to stop it.

“Building these types of decentralized social networks comes with a slew of challenges that we haven’t figured out how to solve yet,” said Ms. Narula, who was a co-author of an article titled “Decentralized Social Networks Sound Great. Too Bad They’ll Never Work.”

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