Seeds of War: How An Old Message Board Thread Gave Birth to Bitcoin Unlimited
Confronted with the speed by which the current Bitcoin Unlimited (BU) drama has emerged, you’d be forgiven for thinking that BU only recently emerged as a stealth attack mounted by Roger Ver. In fact, though, the creation of BU was galvanized in September 2015 by a combination of forum users aggrieved by censorship, perceived marginalization, and Peter Rizun’s Scaling Bitcoin presentation entitled, “A Fee Market Without A Block Size Limit.”
Censorship and Suppression: The Formula for Bitcoin Unlimited
The classic, long-running BitcoinTalk thread called “Gold Collapsing / Bitcoin Up” encompassed a 1500-page discussion created in 2012 by legendary user “Cypherdoc.” It debated the relationship between Gold, Bitcoin and various other global macroeconomic events. Scaling problems and the emergence of Bitcoin Classic were also prevalent, and for the latter part of its existence the debate over big vs small blocks dominated posting, with multiple pages of economic, computer science, and unfortunate personal arguments being had.
In 2015, however, around the time of Bitcoin Classic, moderators relocated the thread to the Altcoin Speculation sub-forum. Not long after the move, moderators locked the thread altogether, preventing further discussion.
At the time, talk of censorship saturated the community, Theymos — owner of BitcoinTalk and Reddit forum r/Bitcoin — had begun moderating discussions related to Bitcoin XT or Classic. This was a bone of contention within the Bitcoin community; where one side saw censorship and silencing of competing opinions, others saw moderation and the correct categorization of an altcoin.
When asked to vindicate his stance, Theymos was unapologetic about the politics he employed, writing:
“I know how moderation affects people. Long-term, banning XT from /r/Bitcoin will hurt XT’s chances to hijack Bitcoin. There’s still a chance, but it’s smaller. If a big enough chunk of them [users] are vehemently against XT (or maybe just nervous about the whole thing), this reduces the chance that the businesses that depend up on this market will adopt XT, or at least not so blindly as they might’ve before.”
As a result of the thread’s censorship, many users migrated to a new Bitcoin-themed forum, bitco.in. On this new site, many of the concerns that we hear voiced by the BU team and its supporters today matured and were embellished upon.
Talk about the influence of Blockstream over the Core devs, the past controversies surrounding Greg Maxwell, and the perceived changing nature of the Core rebuttals of big blockers’ misgivings; it all proliferated on bitco.in. More than anything, though, the discussions made it overwhelmingly clear that hostilities towards Core came from perceptions that its people worked to block any proposals that did not fit their worldviews.
The Maxwell Crusade
A paper written by BU developer Peter Rizun exemplified this perception. Titled “A Fee Market Exists Without a Block Size Limit,” Rizun’s paper asserted that the 1MB block size limit was an unnecessary tool for creating a fee market. This conclusion that drew the ire of Gregory Maxwell, who disputed some of the papers arguments and methodologies. Maxwell went so far as to ask Rizun to retract the paper.
Rizun responded to this request, saying:
“By retract my paper, he meant make a public statement to (presumably) retract the paper’s main claim that a ‘fee market exists without a block size limit.’ I would not do this, however, because that claim is true – Assuming that the network is not under 51% attack and that a non-zero amount of information about the transactions included in a block are transmitted as part of the block solutions (orphans exists).”
While Rizun stood behind his findings, Daniele Pinna folded under the pressure from Maxwell.
Pinna expanded upon Rizun’s paper in “On the Nature of Miner Advantages in Uncapped Block Size Fee Markets”. Allegedly, Maxwell went after Pinna as well, imploring him to retract the findings that tended to agree with Rizun.
Pinna concluded, after examining an argument advanced by Maxwell, that “this simple theorem … disproves any and all conclusions of my work … centralization pressures will always be present.”
‘Let’s Kill Bitcoin Core’
The situation became inflamed in early September 2015, when it was revealed Maxwell quoted his private correspondence with Rizun in his dealings with Pinna, something not generally done without permission. In response, Rizun publicly posted his conversations with Maxwell, adding:
“I’m still quite annoyed that Greg forwarded our private email chain to dpinna without my permission, and then made a comment that I was causing dpinna to ‘waste time’ with his paper, claiming that I somehow agree that my paper is ‘fundamentally flawed’ (I don’t).”
These exchanges seemed to galvanize Rizun and reinforced a growing sentiment that Core was being condescending and selective in their communications with a variety of proposals, perhaps even working to discredit ones that did not fit their vision. The frustrations were palpable and around this time Rizun made a telling, if somewhat dramatic, statement on the Bitcoin IRC that he relayed to the GCBU thread.
“Let’s kill Bitcoin Core and allow the green shoots of a garden of new implementations to grow from its fertile ashes.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it was a telling statement.
But it was the theory of Rizun’s paper — that fees would exist even if the block size limit were removed — that the thread participants believed showed that Core was determined to marginalize competing ideas and shift the goalposts when necessary.
User “sickpig” wrote:
“I think that Peter R work pretty much kill [sic] the ‘fee pressure’ argument in favour of keeping 1MB max size. In fact, at least on btc dev ml, the usage of such reasoning against block max size increase is almost vanished. It was really present previously. Now the main concern against BIP 101 is centralization.”
The Logic of Decentralization
The mining centralization argument is one we continue to hear about today. Rizun’s perspective remains that the advantage big mining companies get by discovering more blocks (thereby giving them a head start by knowing the block header) is overstated and only “exists in theory … limited in part by the speed of light constraint.”
While Core believes this tendency towards large mining companies and node consolidation promotes centralization, Rizun maintains that Core’s desire to intervene is misguided. To this end, Rizun counters that even if node centralization happens, it may not be a bad thing. Rizun launches even heavier criticism at the logic that centralization will happen unless Core does something about it. This thinking ignores game theory and existing incentive structures, he says, and resembles the logic Maxwell used years to “prove” the impossibility of decentralized consensus.
The success of Satoshi’s game-changing Proof-of-Work implementation proved Maxwell wrong, which Rizun takes as an indicator that the similar logic applied to the block size debate is equally flawed.
Somewhat prophetically, users like “Zanglebert Bingledack” took aim at the thinking of Maxwell and Core in this regard, ironically responding in much the same way many in the bitcoin community now respond to the support for BU shown by wealthy investor Roger Ver and Bitmain owner Jihan Wu:
“This is the old myth that the devs are who shape Bitcoin, rather than the market. They think that without their wise guidance, investors would be lost in the woods. Dev input is taken into account by investors, but not just that of the Core devs or Core committers.
“Some big investors could bid up BTC in a fork where the 21M limit was removed, and make it worth more than Bitcoin – at least temporarily – if they have deep enough pockets, but unless that change somehow turned out to be value-enhancing, that fork would eventually fall in price and be eclipsed by classic Bitcoin again. For the same reasons, investors will not support a fork that results in centralization. Or even if some investors do, there will be plenty that won’t and the rest of us can just ignore the ill-fated fork.”
With these controversies bubbling away in the background, the scene was set for confrontation at the September 2015 Scaling Bitcoin conference in Montreal. A number of Core devs planned to attend, and Rizun was due to present an updated version of his paper. Going into the presentation, Rizun had given up trying to reason with Core because he “no longer [felt] that way. Core is broken. I would like Core to ossify at 1MB while XT and hopefully other new competing implementations fork away with a larger block size limit.”
It was to be the day he not only stood up to Core, but finally went on the offensive.
The Shot Heard ‘Round the World: Bitcoin Goes Unlimited
In the conference recordings, Rizun appears as an imposing figure, looking more like a football player than the stereotypical cryptocurrency developer. He spent his fifteen minute allotment outlining the thesis of his paper, likening the block size limit to a production quota.
Rizun argued, if the 1MB limit keeps the block size “below the natural equilibrium block size … economic theory suggests we suffer a deadweight loss of economic activity.”
However, it was his final few minutes that were explosive. He sent a metaphorical shot across the bow of Core’s ship when he compared the group of developers to a command-and-control organization imposing a production quota, fighting Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand,” and enforcing censorship of competing opinions. For a community that idealizes free markets and decentralization it did not go unnoticed.
Rizun ended his talk with a slide that read, “Bitcoin will break down dams erected by special interest groups attempting to block the stream of transactions,” a thinly-disguised shot at Blockstream, a Bitcoin development startup that employs some Core developers.
Meanwhile, online, forum participants felt Rizun had knocked his presentation out of the park, and they were excited that the talk was well received among the conference attendees. But in the wake of the presentation, it was a forum discussion a few days earlier that was to take on extra significance.
This conversation concerned the possibility of launching a competing implementation to succeed XT and Classic. Initially explored in the old BitcoinTalk thread, the proposal was a re-examination of user adjustable block size limits, which saw the adjustable block size limits as a paradigm shift; block sizes were a feature and not part of consensus rules. The end of the original thread put the idea on hold, but in the lead up to his presentation, Rizun felt emboldened to push forward, as revealed by an exchange between he and a forum user.
Zanglebert Bingledack posted:
I think a lot of the benefit of such a proposal is in the discussion it could generate. The bottleneck on this issue seems to be more raising the sanity waterline than anything else. Presenting it as a serious, coded proposal would be ideal, but that isn’t necessarily required to get people thinking.
In response, Rizun wrote, “We’ll call it BitcoinU. U for Unlimited. U because it puts you in control.”
Putting “users in control” was also a way of wresting control from what Rizun saw as centralization of the development process, one of his chief concerns:
“With this level of centralization, it may be possible in the future for a group of coders to prevent important changes from being made in a timely fashion. . .If we get a bigger block size AND move away from Core, that would be WIN-WIN.”
A Moment for Pause, But Not for Admitting Defeat
The dislike of Core and their processes was widespread among so-called “big blockers” by this time. Classic and XT had failed, and the more technically-minded countered any claims of Core’s insularity and desires for control. The code matters, not the personalities, they said.
Still, many people on both sides of the battle felt marginalized. Lightning Network creator Mike Hearn, for example, infamously “rage quit” Bitcoin in early 2016 because of the infighting. But others used their frustrations as motivation to unseat the status quo.
In this respect, we can say that the majority of Core devs do not dabble in controversy, opting instead to focus on their work. But the most vocal of the Core group are accused of actively working to discourage ideas that do not fit with their visions, a theme central to the ongoing friction with BU.
Core knows that spam congests the network, increases the transaction backlog and drives up fees, making the network less appealing to use. At the same time, however, counter to BU’s push for on-chain scaling, Core believes that not all transactions should happen on-chain. To that effect, they have worked to provide a secondary layer on top of the blockchain for the multitude of transactions.
At any rate, the loud and passionate among the Core developers have continued stirring the pot. Most recently — as an example of Core working against a use case they disapprove of — Luke Dashjr’s threatened Australian company Flux. The blockchain powered startup had announced that a stress test of their voting system would spam the blockchain for a period of time, causing transaction delays.
“Please don’t spam the Bitcoin network,” Dashjr said. “I hope you get prosecuted if you go forward with it… I’ve reported you to the Australian cyber-crime agency.”
Finding the Right Balance Between Economics and Computer Science
For his part, Rizun thinks seeing coders with a narrow vision and a ‘GitHub or GTFO’ attitude as authorities on Bitcoin is misplaced:
“There are many smart people contributing code to Bitcoin who do not really understand Bitcoin beyond the technical level … really understanding Bitcoin requires broad interdisciplinary knowledge–perhaps only a quarter (being generous) relates to code and the bit-level protocol. The other three quarters are economics, game theory, sociology, law, and–as we’re seeing from the block size debate–political science.”
With such a complex piece of software such as Bitcoin, it is understandable that the majority of users trust that the Core devs have the best interests of Bitcoin in mind and that they are knowledgeable in multiple fields. Yet, the role of Core and of Bitcoin itself is another area where a divide exists. Core aims to keep Bitcoin as technically clean and pure as possible, with much of their scaling-related innovation happening off chain, through second layer solutions such as Lightning Network.
Whereas Core wants to preserve the technical elegance of the protocol, BU aims at inclusiveness, and they think increasing block sizes to accommodate more transactions will fulfill a more humanitarian, socio-economic vision: connecting the poor and unbanked population to the thriving global economy without needing to trust third-parties.
Then there are the geopolitical ramifications of a deflationary currency that exists outside of government control. The creator of the “Gold Collapsing / Bitcoin Up” thread rallied behind this economic feature of Bitcoin. He argued that coders do not understand the true potential of Bitcoin, and that the technology should scale to onboard as many users as possible in the wake of ultra-loose monetary policy.
“It never fails to amaze me just how sheltered these guys are. which is why i also ride them about how ‘the geeks fail to understand that which Satoshi hath created.’ they don’t understand how, due to the massive money printings, bailouts, repetitive QE’s, and moral hazards perpetrated by gvts everywhere, there is a massive worldwide army of speculators that have been spawned over the decades that has literally tons of money looking for a return. this is how we get a $5T/day Forex mkt. These speculators are ruthless in their search for the next big thing as they know that their money is going to do nothing but devalue.”
Political Empowerment VS Technological Artistry: The Never-Ending Story
At this stage, it seems unlikely that Bitcoin Unlimited will cause the network split they have agitated for, yet the issues they rail will seemingly persist for some time.
The interdisciplinary nature of Bitcoin means there will always be users that feel marginalized, and will push for a different vision. This means developers like Peter Rizun will always exist, motivated to fight for the socio-political goals they believe in. And as the Rizun’s of the world work to reshape Bitcoin in their image, there will be the tech purists — like Greg Maxwell — resisting such changes, desiring to keep the protocol pristine and true to its original form.
The common ground is that we all want to see Bitcoin thrive in an increasingly disjointed world, fulfilling the potential each of us envision. That may seem an impossible task, but we can be sure that in the future the Bitcoin community will have to face far tougher adversaries than each other.
Are there any other catalysts behind Bitcoin Unlimited that aren’t often talked about? Let us know in the comments below.
Images via Pixabay, BitcoinUnlimited.info.