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Bitcoin's Broken Record: Why the Scaling Debate Isn't Going Away

(@AlyssaHertig) | Published on April 5, 2017 at 12:00 BST
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When a bitcoin startup proposed a new way to solve bitcoin's scaling debate this week, it provoked an all-too-familiar response.

Conversation escalated on Twitter, lines of argument formed quickly, rumors spread of mass-media deception, and ultimately, a proposal was put forth that perhaps only provided evidence that disagreement among the tech's supporters is the new norm.

That's the old script that replayed when bitcoin startup Purse proposed upgrading bitcoin to support so-called 'extension blocks', adding yet another proposal to the now years-long scaling debate that dates back to 2015.

As pitched, extension blocks would allow a way for bitcoin users with different needs from the network to live under their own rules – essentially enabling nodes to select their own block size while remaining on the same network.

As it only requires a soft fork – a change that wouldn't require all the network's nodes to update – the team framed it as a way to get around bitcoin's current deadlock on how best to scale the digital currency's transaction capacity.

In response, some developers pointed to online discussions around similar proposals from months (or even years) ago that revealed the potential security flaws of the plan. Others argued it could take another year to test and deploy the solution, whereas another solution, SegWit, has already been through that process.

In other words, not everyone agreed that the new plan was a safe one.

Mixed reactions

This seems to be par for the course for the industry, which saw two similar events take place last week.

During this time, the idea the network may put in motion a hard fork – a controversial method of upgrading that could risk splitting bitcoin into two networks – continued to see discussion, though proposals seemed to borrow from a slew of competing ideas.

Wang Chun, co-owner and chief administrator of mining pool F2Pool, submitted an idea to the bitcoin mailing list that was unusual since it would not trigger until 2020. With a 32MB block size increase locked in, he argued the bitcoin community could use a soft fork, to change it to a smaller size ahead of the activation date.

Chun's idea, however, like Purse's, wasn't really a new one. He said that he brought it up at a scaling meeting in Hong Kong last year, and Bitcoin Core contributor Luke Dashjr once issued a similar concept.

His letter ended with a warning that those following the debate have also likely heard before:

"We must code something right now, before it becomes too late."

In short, it was another proposal without full support, prompting more than 70 replies, an unusually high number for the mailing list, with multiple variations of 'yes' or 'no'.

A few days later, Rootstock (RSK) developer Sergio Demian Lerner posted another hard fork proposal. In a sense, it was different from Chun's in that it wrapped together two changes: SegWit (the solution favored by core developers) and a hard fork to double the block size parameter (an idea often voiced by miners).

Though it won some supporters, the reaction was again mixed. Not all developers saw it as a novel idea. Further, because it advocated for a hard fork, many simply weren't willing to entertain the idea.

"These are all hard forks, so they are dead on arrival for any sort of near-term activation, unfortunately," Bitcoin Core contributor Bryan Bishop told CoinDesk, adding:

"If you're going to split with a contentious hard fork, the decent thing to do is pick a new name, pick a new address prefix, enable replay protection and fork peacefully."

Meet and repeat

Fork proposals might not be the only industry event to be in a bit of a loop.

Another scaling meeting is coming up in May, one which Digital Currency Group (DCG) co-founder Barry Silbert has confirmed the VC firm will host. However, not everyone is heralding it as a milestone.

While at first listed on a possible list of attendees, bitcoin investor and Bitcoin.com operator Roger Ver said that he doesn't plan to attend.

"I agree that there have been plenty of meetings already, and none ended in a lasting agreement," he said.

Such a meeting would add to a history of approaches to the scaling solution that have included a number of in-person meetings.

Of note is the famed 'Hong Kong agreement' that saw some developers and miners agree on a roadmap that was then met with delays and disagreement from those that didn't attend.

Since then, appetite for in-person meetings is perhaps low – a fact exacerbated by the fact no one wants to be seen as in charge of the protocol or its decision-making.

Blockstream CEO Adam Back rejected DCG's invitation on the grounds that he believes there's an implication he represents bitcoin's volunteer developer team.

"There is a persistent incorrect assumption that Blockstream [is the same as] Core, or that, by implication, I speak for bitcoin developers. Neither of these are correct, so if that expectation is in the room it will just feed the false narrative," he wrote in an email to the investment firm, which has a stake in Blockstream.

The silver lining

This constant confusion over who represents what, or speaks for who, has added increasing difficulty to the discussion. Indeed, irrespective of the proposals, there is even the matter of who gets to decide what agreement is, even if there was consensus around a technical fix.

Among the options are users, businesses, miners and developers, though determining who even falls into which category, as evidenced by exchanges above, remains a challenge.

Blockstream co-founder Pieter Wuille showcased the perception issue in his response to Chun's proposal, in which he suggested that developers don't have the power to force bitcoin users to accept a change, such as a 2MB block size increase.

He argued that if Bitcoin Core "blacklisted" network activity in a new software version, for example, users could simply choose not to download the new software version if they didn't support the change.

Still, it could be argued that the negative sentiment has nonetheless galvanized historic levels of open discussion.

With at least three scaling ideas offered in the past week, adding to many others over the last few years, it seems there's no end in sight to the ongoing conversation – but that that might not be a bad thing in the context of technical innovation.

Disclaimer: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group.

Broken reel-to-reel image via Shutterstock

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