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Crypto Feels Like the Wild West — But Really, Big Tech Holds the Puppet Strings


For evidence of big tech’s evolution from AV club geeks to big guys on campus, look no further than the influence of companies like Amazon and Google. They’ve crept into every corner of contemporary life; they possess outsized amounts of power and exercise imperial control over the digital landscape — and it looks like taking over the future of finance is their next fait accompli.

I’ve worked closely with a number of crypto startups — I’ve even founded one myself — and witnessed the tense relationship they have with big tech, specifically the leaders in cloud computing. Cryptocurrency requires easy access to bountiful amounts of computing power. Only a few companies can supply it at commercial scale, giving those companies disproportionate control over crypto markets as a whole.

Consider what would happen if Amazon suddenly elected to shut out every cryptocurrency currently in its cloud. Multiple exchanges would crash, and thousands of individual funds would be frozen. Markets would inevitably stumble and likely fall — all because of the whims of one company operating autonomously. It’s a threat that’s inconceivable in other areas of finance, but it casts a long shadow over the independence and distributed nature cryptocurrency.

Those fears may sound unfounded, but there’s already cause for alarm. Amazon Web Services does not support the Bitcoin elliptic curve, secp256k1, which is crucial for generating Bitcoin private keys. It doesn’t matter if the hardware and firmware support the curve — AWS explicitly does not. Worse, Amazon’s motives for doing so are totally opaque. All we really know is that Amazon is actively and intentionally creating roadblocks for crypto.

I fully expect this tension to intensify, owing largely to the deep philosophical differences between big tech and crypto markets. Big tech, throughout its history, has been committed to top-down control and centralized management, but the mindset of crypto is just the opposite. Its acolytes view accessibility, equality, and decentralization as the guiding principles. One industry is totally dependent on the other, yet their missions are in direct opposition. It’s an arrangement that makes friction unavoidable.

The question that begs to be asked is what would compel a company like Google to obstruct an upstart industry like cryptocurrency? One explanation we must acknowledge is that crypto has not always been its own best advocate. A wave of shady coins and dubious claims led companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to ban all ads for ICOs. That move was warranted and probably even necessary, given the way unsavory promoters were using them. However, it only partially explains the animus.

The more likely cause is that big tech companies are fundamentally and necessarily aligned with other powerful entities. Those include world governments, multinational corporations, and titans of the 21st century. Cryptocurrency doesn’t just challenge those power structures; it openly aims to disrupt them — first by making cryptocurrency a reality, next by making its ideals a certainty.

We have already seen how threatening crypto looks to those at the top. As those anxieties increase, who do you think Microsoft and others will side with: crypto startups or their fellow elites?

There’s no evidence to suggest the gatekeepers of the cloud have excluded or expelled any cryptocurrency. But they certainly have the means and motive to do so, creating an existential risk for crypto investors and developers alike.

Cryptocurrency is approaching a literal crossroads, where it will have to choose its relationship with big tech moving forward. The first option is to negotiate a truce similar to net neutrality. Crypto continues to rely on big tech. In exchange, cloud providers agree to treat all crypto companies equally and pledge to never throttle service or speeds. This option is appealing because, quite frankly, the resources of something like AWS are difficult to replace. The hard part is getting buy-in from big tech and regulators alike.

The other option is to double down on crypto’s spirit of decentralization and work to bypass or minimize the influence of big tech. Rather than rely on just one provider, companies can prioritize redundancy and distribution to reduce the risk of critical infrastructure components going offline. My own company stores keys and maintains critical infrastructure on different providers and utilizes another for backup. There are also challengers to the cloud monopoly that offer comparable computing power within a less restrictive framework. One day, it may be possible for intrepid crypto entrepreneurs to avoid Google or Amazon entirely.

Right now, crypto markets feel like a wild frontier. But in reality, it’s the illusion of freedom inside the world’s biggest cage. The increasing centralization is unsustainable in its current form, but that doesn’t mean blockchain entrepreneurs need to feel contrite. Rather, we must continue to be diligent and thoughtful when building the foundations of our nascent industry.

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