SAN FRANCISCO — Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, wrestled this month with the question of whether his social media service had exercised too much power by cutting off Donald Trump’s account. Dorsey wondered aloud if the solution to that power imbalance was new technology inspired by the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
When YouTube and Facebook barred tens of thousands of Trump’s supporters and white supremacists this month, many flocked to alternative apps such as LBRY, Minds and Sessions. What those sites had in common was that they were also inspired by the design of Bitcoin.
The twin developments were part of a growing movement by technologists, investors and everyday users to replace some of the internet’s fundamental building blocks in ways that would be harder for tech giants like Facebook and Google to control.
To do so, they are increasingly focused on new technological ideas introduced by Bitcoin, which was built atop an online network designed, at the most basic level, to decentralize power.
Unlike other types of digital money, Bitcoin are created and moved around not by a central bank or financial institution but by a broad and disparate network of computers. It’s similar to the way that Wikipedia is edited by anyone who wants to help, rather than a single publishing house. That underlying technology is called the blockchain, a reference to the shared ledger on which all of Bitcoin’s records are kept.
Companies are now finding ways to use blockchains, and similar technology inspired by it, to create social media networks, store online content and host websites without any central authority in charge. Doing so makes it much harder for any government or company to ban accounts or delete content.
These experiments are newly relevant after the biggest tech companies recently exercised their clout in ways that have raised questions about their power.
Facebook and Twitter prevented Trump from posting online after the Capitol rampage Jan. 6, saying he had broken their rules against inciting violence. Amazon, Apple and Google stopped working with Parler, a social networking site that had become popular with the far right, saying the app had not done enough to limit violent content.
While liberals and opponents of toxic content praised the companies’ actions, they were criticized by conservatives, First Amendment scholars and the American Civil Liberties Union for showing that private entities could decide who gets to stay online and who doesn’t.
“Even if you agree with the specific decisions, I do not for a second trust the people who are making the decisions to make universally good decisions,” said Jeremy Kauffman, the founder of LBRY, which provides a decentralized service for streaming videos.
That has prompted a scramble for other options. Dozens of startups now offer alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Amazon’s web hosting services, all on top of decentralized networks and shared…