Why #Bitcoin Consensus Matters

As usual, frequent contributor and cryptocurrency philosopher/mage Nozomi Hayase has gone deep into the heart of the recent Bitcoin existential crisis, and come up with some powerful insights. Whether you’re gripped by fear, paralyzed by confusion, or dazzled by the gleam of anticipated riches, you will find much to think on here.

Bitcoin Safe by BTC Keychain on Flickr

Bitcoin Safe by BTC Keychain on Flickr

The recent public divorce of developer Mike Hearn from the Bitcoin community pushed the currency into a media frenzy. This former Google engineer proclaimed the failure of this young currency in his farewell post and the community responded resiliently. Bram Cohen, creator of a successful peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, wrote about Hearn’s “whiny ragequit” and president of okTurtles Foundation, Greg Slepak gave a point-by point rebuttal, exposing the falseness of Hearn’s claims. An emotionally driven dispute with censorship and personal attacks on Reddit and Twitter have created a toxic environment. As Jim Harper, senior fellow at the Cato Institute put it, Hearn’s exit stirred up “the politics of non-political money”.

Some say it is the beginning of a war on Bitcoin. Dissent quickly formed. Developers who are not content with the direction of Bitcoin core developers proposed a quick hard fork calledBitcoin Classic. The crux of contention with this supposedly non-political money has crystallized as a block size debate. Simply put, one camp wants to raise the limit of the block size and keep transaction fees low, while the other is concerned that raising the limit will increase the burden of running full nodes (which enforce the rule of consensus) and could eliminate financially independent nodes that are necessary in keeping the network decentralized.

Supporters of the block size increase include large exchanges and payment processing companies like Coinbase and Bitstamp. Some behind Classic see the Core’s slow process for a block size increase as failed leadership and exerting undue control over the protocol. Members of the Bitcoin Core development team are often accused of being undemocratic and dismissive of others’ perspectives. Yet, is this really true?

Bitcoin’s Security Model

The criticism toward Core appears to have more to do with developers’ widely divergent visions of what Bitcoin should be and the difference in engineering approaches based on them. On the surface, differences are characterized as Classic wanting commercially focused features, with an immediate large volume of transaction capacity, while Core is prioritizing censorship resistance and removing single points of failure. What underlies this is a very different security mindset.

Author and security expert Andreas Antonopoulos describes how Bitcoin provides a new trust model, which he called “trust by computation” and how it takes time for society to understand this new model. At the Hong Kong Scaling Bitcoin Conference, Blockstream’s Andrew Poelstra explained this particular Bitcoin trust model and security that is different than traditional cryptographic assumptions. He described how Bitcoin lives in an adversarial environment and that the possibility of individuals acting selfishly and taking advantage of others needs to be factored into designing governance. Peter Todd, who contributed to Bitcoin core software, also emphasized how this adversarial thinking is needed to create incentives around decentralization.

With this adversarial mindset, Core argued for careful and slow growth. By quickly increasing block size, they see the potential of altering the underlying security model. They argue how this can bring a serious trade off, making the system more vulnerable to censorship and points of control inherent in platforms like Visa and MasterCard. Thus, for them, it is a question of how big is too big and what is the healthy pace of development?

Without fully recognizing this unprecedented security model as Bitcoin’s core invention, one could easily interpret Core’s solutions as them not caring enough about increase in transaction volume.

Rule of Economic Majority

This debate, cut off from the imagination of this technology, has quickly turned into a political combat. Dissidents against the Core put forward the hard fork as a solution that shareholders can ‘vote’ on. Founder of Pirate Party Rick Falkvinge recently chimed in on Reddit with advice to both Classic and Core and their supporters, observing that what is taking place now is much bigger than a “selection of features”. He portrayed it as “an election of governance and stewardship into the future”. This sentiment is also expressed by others with the banner ‘Listen to the Market’.

I call this premise of ‘election’ into question. Bitcoin as it exists now is not democratic. I share the view held by some developers who note that the current condition of the ecosystem is unhealthy. As co-founder of Blockstream and inventor of the hashcash proof-of-work Adam Back pointed out, dangerous centralization has been creeping into the ecosystem in the mining and with the decrease of full nodes, making it harder for ordinary people to participate in the Bitcoin consensus.

Some disagree with the contention that mining is already too centralized. Yet, the question of how much of this whole system is centralized is all relative, depending on who you talk to. To put this into context, if you ask an African-American in Detroit, (one of the poorer parts of the US) about the state of democracy, he might say that effectively there is none, while if you ask an affluent white man in San Francisco, he might not see any problems with the existing governance of his country.

Along with increasing centralization, custodian wallets in exchanges like Coinbase, where they hold customer’s private keys could have disproportionate weight with this voting. In this state of Bitcoin ‘democracy’, the idea of ‘let the economic majority decide’ leaves me with the question of who is not being represented; who currently does not have a right to voice their needs. If this is about election of governance, does this ‘governance’ concern the interests of future users, a population who still don’t have access to the infrastructure that privileged first world citizens have?

Ultimately, who gets to decide who participates and who is excluded in governance? I argue that unless equality in the ability of regular people to participate in decision making is possible, ‘free markets’ and ‘elections’ generally tend to get rigged, and easily become a charade representing the loudest voices of those with wealth and power to influence the masses.

For me, a question arises as to how we can ensure access to the consensus process for those who are not able to participate under the current structure. But before we can answer that question, we need to ask whether we even think this inclusion is important.

Question of Freedom

The clash of these two visions of Bitcoin ultimately brings up a question of freedom and how to define it. Those who are behind Classic seem to define it in commercial terms by calling for an expansion of features like credit card replacement, micro-payment capability and remittance. They get frustrated when the Core presents more complex solution such as Segregated Witness that changes how the network stores transaction signatures. They often criticize the main developers, saying how they don’t seem to know who their customers are and do not ‘deliver products’ the users want.

This question of ‘who the customer is’ is important, but at the same time it can severely limit the imagination of this innovation and what it can offer. Yes, we are customers, but we are so much more than that. If one is only looking for something that has a price tag or a potential to increase profit margins, one might easily miss what this technology can offer.

Bitcoin is a community-driven free software project. It liberates us from a system of control by giving users full control of their money. As Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero oncesaid, “freedom is participation in power.” Personally, Bitcoin has given me an opportunity to truly learn about this power through helping me first understand what money really is.

Early in my own exploration of Bitcoin, I read Nick Szabo’s essay “Shelling Out” – the Origin of Money“. It opened my eyes to recognize how the origin of money was not a market, but a larger space where social contracts are made. When I interact with people, I am relating to someone as a human. I want to first guarantee a platform where I can relate to others as equal peers. If we don’t have this equality, or are interfered with by a middle man, we cannot freely transact with one another.

To me, the Core’s vision of Bitcoin enables uncompromising civic power; namely making free speech and free association into an app that then can be distributed to anyone in the world. With this permissionless and borderless First Amendment, I can exercise my free association rights with the ability to send value to any organization or individual without fear of political retaliation. I can circumvent financial blockades like the one that happened to WikiLeaks. With a feature like confidential transactions that is currently being explored, I can also exercise my right to privacy.

Free speech is priceless. People historically have fought for it -even sacrificed their lives for it. There is something larger than economic interests and market signals that drive people to act; just ask Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Ethos of Decentralization

I can see in the work of Core that they have been defending this participation in power. Their efforts in taking a careful approach to raising transaction capacity is about claiming the need for vital safeguards (anti-centralization measures) for all people.

From the outside, this act may seem ‘undemocratic’, like they are putting restrictions on others commercial interests, but ask those who never had true representation; those who are held down by the current system, that never had a chance to become their own bank; those whose currency is constantly debased by oppressive monetary policy. If we listen differently, we might be able to hear a different answer.

At the same time, let me make this clear. Core is not denying the people’s desire to scale and make Bitcoin a transactional currency that can be widely adopted. They had scaling conferences and came up with an incremental 2-4-8 block size increase proposal.

Experienced software developer, Christopher Gilliard explained the difference between product requirements and engineering implementations. He clarified how a block size increase is not the only path to deliver what users want and that massive increase of transaction capacity of the network with low fees can be achieved through different technical implementations.

Free markets and high volume/market cap currency can be built once the foundation becomes solid and incorruptible. But, if we fixate too much on block size increase and lose decentralization, it would likely be very difficult to bring it back.

Building on Altruism

The beauty of open source is that in principle, anyone can create a new currency. If a group of people want different things, they not only can, but are encouraged to freely create a coin to fit their needs. Yet, hard forks are different than simply creating an altcoin. Some warn such a measure is dangerous in a decentralized network and is to be reserved for emergencies.

For me, the question is, what is this urgency, especially when Core is putting forth a roadmap for capacity increase at 2MB? Also, what happens after the ‘election’? We have a shortage of skilled coders. Alienating developers likely weakens Bitcoin in the end.

Since the dawn of human history, we have seen the destructiveness of selfish genes overcoming the better part of our nature. We now live in the time of universal deceit, where wolves in sheep’s clothing hide behind ‘representation’ and with doublespeak repeatedly make empty promises and betray us.

For so long, economic incentives have been divorced from everyday people and serve only the interests of the few. Bitcoin emerged in the midst of financial crisis. It was put forward as a solution to the security hole of trusted third parties that exists in the current financial system. Yet, Bitcoin is much more than just money. Economic collapses and currency wars are just symptoms of a deeper social illness. What we are now facing is a crisis of democracy. Around the world, Western liberal democracy and its outdated security model of checks and balance of power is showing that the system badly needs a reboot.

Real democracy cannot be voted on. It requires people’s direct participation in power. The anonymous creator Satoshi Nakamoto gave Bitcoin to the world –for what? Perhaps to give us all a tool to build a new world free from this oligarchic control.

I would like to see future Bitcoin development built upon his original deed of altruism. The late Hal Finney, who was considered to be one of the earliest bitcoin pioneers once urgedearly adopters to put their “unearned wealth to good use.” We now have an opportunity to create a system that aligns incentives with a higher call from within to serve the greater network.

Working in Consensus

This serious challenge and breakdown of consensus that the Bitcoin community faces made me realize something. There is no ruler in open source. It is not a King, president, politician or group of technicians who can govern. Through an act of giving, Satoshi opened society into a truly P2P world, where there are no levers of control.

The core of Bitcoin is the anonymous faces of nobody, yet at the same time it is everybody, all who are evolving and growing with hearts beating every 10 minutes. I am writing this from the US, where so much of the greed and darkness of the world emanates from and much global terror is spawned. In the original American experiment in democracy, the constitutional republic was presented as a departure from the rule of monarchy and tyranny. In that ‘land of free and home of the brave’, it was said that the law is King. The rule of law is increasingly subverted by oligarchies. Civil liberties are globally threatened by faceless transnational corporations and insidious trends of centralization.

Now with Bitcoin, a new code of law is emerging. Here the rule of consensus is a Queen. It is like a queen bee dancing inside the hive mind. Consensus is different than majority rule. It is not perfect and it can be messy. But democracy is chaotic, and out of this chaos, a new order can be made. Just as nature always organically finds its own balance of power, around this new queen, I see a swarm of bees; teams of volunteer developers, investors, users, exchanges, working together in service to what is at the center “…” which is constantly moving and redefined by all of us.

Bitcoin consensus matters. Let us agree that we have a lot of adversaries surrounding the Bitcoin ecosystem who are desperate to derail us. We are here talking about global superpowers that know cryptocurrency could take away their current God-like omnipotence; those who mercilessly indebt the world with cycles of austerity and commit fraud against sovereign nations as seen in Greece and many other countries and peoples.

I am talking about opposing forces against true democracy, like those who drove Aaron Swartz to suicide, put Assange in de-facto detention, Snowden asylum in Russia, imprisoned truth-tellers like Chelsea Manning and Jeremy Hammond and committed murder of millions in ruthless resource wars. I am talking about legacy institutions, incumbent banking industries who so long prevented competition; who rent-seek, debt-slave and act as gatekeepers of power.

In spite of its volatility and many crises, Bitcoin has been amazingly moving forward without disruption for 7 years. Changes are now being prepared for launch via testnet by the Core. Rapid innovation is happening with the Lightening Network, Segregated Witness and the creation of decentralized exchanges like Bitsquare. Yes, the block size does need to increase, but it can be done thoughtfully; without sacrificing decentralization.

The solution to the riddle is coded within us. Our network built on consensus can generate a greater hashing power that could protect us from all adversaries, foreign and domestic. We can make Bitcoin both a store of value, an undercurrent of transactions as well as the foundation stone of democracy.

Categories: AltCoin, Banks, Bitcoin, Blockchain, Crypto, Cryptocurrency, Cyber, Economics, Encryption, Essays, Hackers, Mining, News, Philosophy

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