Is Layer 2 centralized? Exploring to what extent Layer 2 solutions uphold the principles of decentralization

Published on 07 August 2023 by in Research

is Layer 2 centralized


Over the last few years, layer 2 solutions have proven to be a valuable development within the blockchain and cryptocurrency ecosystem. They address some of the limitations that are inherent to blockchains and that form an obstacle on the road to the wider adoption of blockchain and cryptocurrency. By moving transactions off-chain, layer 2 protocols provide more speed and lower transaction costs. While the benefits of layer 2 are evident, critics argue that some layer 2 implementations may compromise the core principles of blockchain technology, namely decentralization and trustlessness. The risk of centralization in layer 2 solutions brings with it an increased change of fraud and corruption, and a single point of failure. However, not all layer 2 solutions suffer from these criticisms, and they might not be that important for every type of user either. 

In this article, we will take a look at both sides of the debate and try to evaluate to what extent layer 2 upholds the principles of decentralization – or not. We explore the key concerns raised by critics, highlighting issues such as reliance on trusted intermediaries, consolidation of power, and the compromise of transparency. By understanding these criticisms, we can better evaluate the trade-offs between scalability and decentralization in the context of layer 2 solutions.

What is layer 2?

To better understand the criticism on layer 2, we will first give a brief overview of what layer 2 is, how it is different from the main blockchains, and what its biggest advantages are.

What is layer 2?

Layer 2 refers to a set of techniques and protocols built on top of an existing blockchain network. These techniques are designed to improve the performance and scalability of the blockchain. 

Think of a blockchain as the main layer, where all transactions are recorded and verified. This main layer can become slow and congested when there are many transactions happening at the same time. Layer 2 solutions come into play to address this issue. They work by moving some of the transaction processing off the main blockchain by creating additional layers or channels where transactions happen faster. Layer 2 solutions typically anchor or periodically update their state on the main blockchain. This involves recording a summary or a cryptographic proof of the transactions happening within the layer 2 solution on the main chain. The transactions that happen on the layer 2 are ultimately settled on the main blockchain.

Why do blockchains face scalability issues?

Layer 2 solutions come with several benefits that mainly address the scalability and efficiency issues of blockchain networks. Blockchains often encounter scalability issues due to certain factors in their design. One reason is the consensus mechanism, which is a way for the blockchain network to agree on the order of transactions. Consensus mechanisms like Proof of Work or Proof of Stake ensure security but can be computationally intensive or have limits on transaction processing speed. This can slow down the confirmation of transactions and reduce overall blockchain throughput. This means that people sometimes have to wait up to a few minutes or even more before their transaction is confirmed, which is impractical in day-to-day use of cryptocurrencies. Furthermore, longer waiting times usually come with higher transaction fees too. The transactions with the highest fees will get processed the first, but in daily use, high transactions costs cannot compete with the low fees from digital payment companies like Visa. 

Another factor challenging the efficiency of blockchains is the size of blocks and the time it takes to create new blocks. Blockchains group transactions into blocks. When blocks are small or take a long time to generate, it limits the number of transactions that can be included. This can also lead to congestion and delays in confirming transactions.

Developers create layer 2 solutions to resolve the issues of high transaction costs and waiting times. 

Benefits of layer 2

Scalability improvements, faster, and cheaper

One of the primary benefits of layer 2 is improved scalability. By moving transactions off the main blockchain and processing them in separate layers or channels, layer 2 solutions significantly increase transaction throughput and reduce congestion. This scalability enhancement enables blockchain networks to handle a larger volume of transactions. Lowering waiting times and transaction fees makes cryptocurrencies and other blockchain applications more suitable for daily use, thus increasing the chances of a more widespread adoption of blockchain technology.

Privacy and confidentiality

Some layer 2 solutions introduce improved privacy and confidentiality features. By conducting transactions off the main blockchain, these solutions can offer greater privacy protection for users. Transactions and sensitive information are kept off-chain, reducing the exposure of personal data to the public blockchain. This privacy enhancement is crucial for various applications where confidentiality is paramount, such as financial transactions or sensitive business operations.

Innovation and flexibility

Layer 2 solutions provide a platform for developers to innovate and build decentralized applications (dApps) more efficiently. The improved scalability and reduced costs of layer 2 protocols allow developers to experiment with complex and resource-intensive applications. This flexibility encourages the growth of the blockchain ecosystem, as developers have more freedom to explore new use cases and push the boundaries of what is possible with blockchain technology.

Compatibility and interoperability

Finally, another main benefit of layer 2 solutions is that they can often seamlessly integrate with the main blockchains and other layer 2 applications. One can easily transfer assets and tokens between the main chain and layer 2 networks. This interoperability expands the possibilities for building interconnected blockchain systems that support many use cases.

Criticism on layer 2: The risk of centralization

Critics of layer 2 solutions, such as payment networks on layer 2, often emphasize the risk of centralization that comes with these applications. This risk undermines the fundamental ideal of many blockchain networks including Bitcoin: decentralization. We will now explore these criticisms and how they might influence the adoption of crypto and blockchain.

Reliance on third parties

One of the main criticisms revolves around the reliance on trusted intermediaries in certain layer 2 solutions. These intermediaries, such as validators, custodial service providers, or centralized entities managing sidechains or state channels, may introduce single points of failure or vulnerabilities. If a third, central party in a network does not act honestly, for example by stealing from customers or by committing fraud, then this might compromise the integrity of the entire network. not to mention the losses it may cause for customers. One of the key aspects of decentralization is to eliminate the need for intermediaries, thus also eliminating the risks that come with trusting such a third party. Therefore, layer 2 solutions that rely on intermediaries do not align with this core principle of decentralization.

Consolidation of power

Critics also express concerns over the potential consolidation of power within layer 2 networks. If a few dominant entities or organizations control the majority of the layer 2 infrastructure, they may influence network governance, decision-making processes, or transaction validations. This concentration of power contradicts the vision of a decentralized and democratic network where no single entity holds excessive control. Critics argue that such centralization could lead to gatekeeping, favoritism, or censorship, eroding the trust and openness that are so important to blockchain technology.

Lack of transparency in certain layer 2 solutions

Whereas everyone in a blockchain network can view the public ledger, this is not the case in every layer 2 solution. As transactions occur off-chain or within channels, users may have limited visibility into the details of these transactions. As a result, verifying the correctness of off-chain transactions in an independent manner can be hard or even impossible. This is not in line with the principles of decentralization, which aims to provide a network transparent to everyone and resistant to under-the-radar changes.

Are there solutions to reduce the risk of centralization?

Because layer 2 solutions play such an important role in the wider adoption of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, it is unlikely that they will disappear from the stage in the near future. To address the concerns of centralization, some developers are researching and creating solutions that reduce the centralization risk. For example, decentralized computation might be a promising outcome, as well as new consensus mechanisms, promoting open-source development, and ensuring transparency standards.

Implications for the use of layer 2

The tendency of centralization that many layer 2 solutions have and the risks associated with that do not quite align with the principles of decentralization. Still, for widespread adoption of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies, layer 2 is crucial in providing more scalability and affordable transactions for both businesses and consumers. Many people who use current digital payment systems, such as Visa, do not worry about that being a centralized system. Therefore, we can assume the majority of potential users among the normal public will not find the risk of centralization of layer 2 solutions to be that problematic. The centralization risk will mainly be a point of dispute for people who specifically value blockchain’s principles of decentralization. These people could then use the blockchain directly and avoid layer 2 applications. Additionally, it is important to remember that layer 2 still has links to the main blockchain, so a certain extent of decentralization provides the basis.


Layer 2 solutions run the risk of being or becoming centralized networks, with third parties, reduced transparency, and an increased risk of censorship and fraud. These characteristics go against the core principles of decentralization, that eliminates the need for a third party. However, layer 2 is still connected to the main blockchain, periodically settling clusters of transactions on here. Overall, layer 2 solutions do no fully uphold the principles of decentralization, especially if the layer 2 network in question relies very heavily on a central organization.

For many (prospective) day to day users, the concerns about centralization of layer 2 solutions will probably not be an obstacle. As the technology progresses and more and more participants join blockchain and crypto, it is likely that layer 2 solutions will continue to play an important role in finding the right balance between scalability and decentralization.