While the Lightning Network is at the initial stage of development, some already fear that it will suffer the fate of the mining industry, when mining on home computers has been supplanted by large corporations. Services of fast crypto payments in the future can be monetized and concentrated in the hands of large companies. According to the former BitGo developer Jameson Lopp, all networks, no matter how massive they are in the beginning, eventually become the prerogative of professionals who, due to their professional competencies, can offer more reliable services at more affordable prices. "If an enterprise is willing to invest a lot of money in payment channels and manage the node for profit, then perhaps it will be the same as with mining," Lopp said.
Any member can, in fact, open a payment channel in the Lightning network and this does not require the help of third-party companies, but corporations can occupy one of the problematic niches of Lightning. For example, when one of the participants in a bidirectional channel tries to transfer funds, and a "partner" in the transaction is not available, it can not only disrupt the current transaction but also provoke so-called "penalty transactions," which are related to the principle of Lightning. An indispensable condition for the life of the channel is the active participation of both parties in the updating of smart contracts. If, for some reason, one of the partners ceases to "contribute" and update the channel, they automatically violate the terms of the smart contract and are punished by forfeiting the funds in the channel including those that originally belonged to them (the system perceives such a behavior of the participant as an attempt at theft, although even an honest participant may forget to update channel information). Accordingly, corporations can take on the role of intermediaries, ensuring the safety of the channel and the tracking of payments.
"The Lightning Network will effectively centralize bitcoin with 'channels' and 'hubs' on the sidechains. These hubs will essentially function as banks,"—this tweet of the user under the name @marcotweetss can be called the focus of the fears of the newborn Lightning community, which believes that corporations can create many of the largest payment channels that naturally merge into hubs. "Lightning nodes are full-reserve banks, and the network is essentially a correspondent banking scheme," says Forbes and Coindesk journalist Frances Coppola.
Some even believe that the real incarnation of pure corporate evil will be the main developers of Lightning startups, such as Blockstream, ACINQ, and Lightning Labs. Now they offer their services for free and are developing at the expense of venture investments; however, at some point, they can start monetizing their applications, as happened with Facebook or Twitter that originated in the Silicon Valley.
Thaddeus Dryja, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-author of the white paper of the Lightning Network (formerly CTO at Lightning Labs), believes that the network will be able to avoid corporate centralization primarily because of its functioning as it does not require expensive or specialized equipment. According to Dryja, users will be free to secede from corporate players who are trying to get too much influence. "Let’s say everyone is using Amazon, for example, and Amazon says we’ll also route payments between users. If that node starts doing things people don’t like, it’s very cheap to close it. They never have your money," says Dryja.
Elaine Ou, developer of Lightning applications in the Blockstream team, notes the ease of entering the Lightning industry, thanks to which there are many alternatives, and the user is not required to trust to a company that provides substandard services. "There are two other Lightning implementations in use already [apart from Blockstream: eclair from ACINQ and LND from Lightning Labs—DeCenter], so I'm not too worried about centralization. The specs are open and updated through an open process," Ou said.
As the developers admit, the Lightning Network cannot be called completely equalizing as for the implementation of transactions in the channels there must be funds, and the advantage is enjoyed by players who own technical and financial resources. Parties with more capital can offer more liquid nodes. "Having more large nodes is more efficient. I think it will be exchanges becoming the dominant players, at least in the first few years, and that's not great," Dryja said.
Many famous individuals in the field, however, are focused on maintaining balance. CEO of Lightning Labs Elizabeth Stark says her team is committed to making the technology open for sharing, but apart from other companies, "The Lightning Network specification is open, and anyone can build a compatible implementation," Stark said in a conversation with Coindesk, adding: "We don’t currently operate any Lightning nodes, and that’s not part of our plan. We build infrastructure for other people to operate nodes and for the network as a whole." Jack Mallers, the creator of the free Lightning wallet Zap based on LND software from Lightning Labs, is going to release applications for the mobile version of the desktop that will make using Lightning even easier and eliminate the need to rely on corporate channels. "Competition is really high on the network, and the barrier to entry is low. Similar to the way people have Bitcoin wallets on their phone today, eventually what you’ll be able to do is you’ll have a Lightning node on an iPhone or desktop, and it will be contacting other full nodes on the network," explains Mallers. Amazon may someday offer the most efficient nodes, but any technically savvy person with a smartphone or computer can connect to its stream.
The Lightning network also does not threaten the debilitating fee problem of Bitcoin as the opening of the Lightning channel costs a few cents, so the channel for more than 100,000 transactions costs less than $20.
The centralization of levers also includes reputational risks, as blockchain startups that develop Lightning are trusted precisely because of their desire to make the Bitcoin network as decentralized as possible. Many developers, including Mallers and Ou, are developing the Lightning protocol on a voluntary basis. The Bitcoin community also stands guard over corporate intervention, as shown by the Bitcoin Gold hard fork, designed to limit the impact of industrial miners, and the upcoming Monero and Ethereum forks.
BitGo СТО Ben Davenport, who invested in Lightning Labs, believes that the startup will find safer monetization tools for the community: "They are not going to monetize the protocol directly. But there are always opportunities for smart teams, who are early in an important space, to develop business models." Dryja notes that it is too early to talk about how this young technology will influence decentralization in general. Mallers sees one of the main advantages that can save Lightning from the excess of selfish interest, in that channel operators never act as custodians of user facilities. In addition, the user can independently route the flow of funds, avoiding corporate channels: "You're never reliant on any third party. You can even do configuration and choose which path you want to take. You can route around certain participants in the network if needed," says Mallers.
"It's easier to accept Lightning payments than it is to accept on-chain bitcoin payments," says Blockstream developer Rusty Russell, who also believes that in the future, with the creation of more user-friendly software, the Lightning сommunity pendulum will swing toward more decentralization, which he describes as "a brilliant trend for the health of the ecosystem."