Bitcoin, the star of the cryptocurrency world, is widely seen as a freewheeling tool as open as the internet itself.
But analysts have cast doubt on the veracity of that perception, highlighting that the bulk of bitcoin is in fact heavily concentrated in the hands of a powerful few.
Some 1,000 bitcoin holders — out of a total 11 million — hold some 35.4 percent of currency, according to BitInfoCharts.
These bitcoin “whales” — a word popularly used for big money players in financial markets — “literally control the currency”, said Bob McDowall, an expert in cryptocurrencies.
They can “dictate monetary policy, which is normally the function of a central bank or a government”, he said.
Unlike central bank-issued denominations, virtual currencies are produced, or “mined,” by banks of computers solving complex algorithms and freely traded online.
The other key difference with typical currencies is that the number of bitcoin in existence can never exceed 21 million.
There are currently some 17 million bitcoins in circulation.
Bitcoin’s surge in value from a few cents to a peak in December 2017 of $19,500 turned some of its first investors into billionaires.
The BitInfoCharts study also found that the top 10 account holders held 5.96 percent of the bitcoins.
Experts cautioned that the statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt, however, as several individuals could be behind a single account and one person could hold several accounts.

‘Whales’ with power?
In a 24-hour period between Monday and Tuesday, the 100 biggest bitcoin transactions out of 200,000 accounted for 24 percent of the money volumes — an unimaginable level of concentration compared to other markets.
“In the currency market for example it’s such a huge market with so many transactions in a day that a pure actor can’t have any influence on a market,” Craig Erlam, an analyst for Oanda, a currency trading platform, told AFP.