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New technologies bring the promise of exciting new services, but they also encourage those looking to make a quick buck at the expense of others.

Email is a prime example of this. When the Internet began its rise to popularity in the 1990s, it was obvious the technology could be utilized to provide an easier way for people to communicate.

However, email's no-cost model enticed many people who saw it as a cheap advertising medium, quickly creating a plague of annoying spam messages that advertised often-undesirable products.

More recently, bitcoin's public ledger, the block chain, has been recognised for its potential to serve as a low-cost means of recording cryptocurrency transactions and also other types of digital information.

Some, though, fear that unscrupulous actors will leverage this feature to turn the block chain into a cheap place to publish new types of spam, and that it could become 'bloated' as a result – in effect, overloaded with data that has nothing to do with its primary purpose.

Dogecoin co-founder Jackson Palmer sees the issue as a potential problem:

“I believe that it's a big waste of resources to bloat a public ledger with information that's irrelevant to that specific ledgers purpose. If the ledger's purpose is to facilitate high-speed, transparent transactions online, then that should remain the sole purpose of that particular ledger.”

Junk in the block chain

The block chain’s ability to use cryptographic hashes as a permanent and public way to record and store information is impressive.

This, in turn, has attracted the efforts of projects such as Monegraph and Proof of Existence, which provide software to help people hash things such as art or software to prove authorship of the works.

Now there is concern that, while the above concepts are being created to utilize the block chain in a positive way, others might try to use it as a wasteful advertising method.

Marcell Ortutay, a developer who has built an open-source bitcoin microtransactions platform called Coinwall, thinks that some efforts to exploit the block chain may go too far:

“I remember on Valentine's Day this year, someone made a cute site at thenoteblock.com. The idea is to embed messages into the block chain, encoded in the transaction output addresses.”

Sample hashed messages. Source: thenoteblock
Sample hashed messages. Source: thenoteblock

While that website's ability to hash messages to significant others is an interesting experimental use case, the application of such probably doesn’t justify merit on the bitcoin block chain.

Technical solutions

Ortutay dismisses sites like thenoteblock as a problem that will just go away on its own: “No special action is needed to prevent these messages; they will stop once demand dries up,” he said.

In fact, some kind of protection is built in to the bitcoin system too. One effort made known on Reddit regarding the sending of 0.00000001 BTC to addresses advertising a bitcoin gambling service did not receive confirmations from the network because miners received no fees. 

The amount of total transaction fees miners make per day the last six months. Source: Blockchain
The amount of total transaction fees miners make per day the last six months. Source: Blockchain.

What may be considered more problematic are tokens that use the bitcoin block chain to gain some measure of legitimacy, and some people already consider these tokens as a form of spam.

“Most controversial [are] things like Counterparty and Mastercoin”, said Coinwall’s Ortutay. “They try to use the block chain as a datastore for various protocols, where things like bids/asks are embedded in bitcoin transactions.”

Scott Li, a co-founder of block chain API company Hello, block!, agrees:

“Mastercoin and Counterparty, especially, uses hacky ways to insert data into the block chain and [this] is seen as spammy.”

Changes are afoot, however, and the ability to store data in the block chain was actually reduced by the bitcoin core developers earlier this year with the release of the Bitcoin Core version 0.9.0.

Li says experimentation into these types of data storage concepts could be tested via side chains – linked 'shards', or copies, of the block chain that provide the same functionality, but avoid inundating bitcoin's only public ledger.

“I'm optimistic about side chains, which could be a clean experimentation ground for ‘bitcoin 2.0’ protocols and remove the spam,” said Li.

Applying disincentives 

Bitcoin, in particular, has a system in place that discourages people from spamming the block chain. Attacks can be carried out via a variety of methods, including one known as a 'dust attack', in which the many transactions sent are so small that miners have no incentive to hash.

Bitcoin's transaction fees were actually lowered earlier this year, due to the rise in price, but even that has not invited spammers to think the block chain is a place for unsolicited advertising yet.

After a spike in price, transaction fees were lowered. Source: Blockchain.info
After a spike in price, transaction fees were lowered. Source: Blockchain.info

There have been rumblings that, eventually, a floating fee structure may be put into place that will create a kind of market around the confirming of transactions, thus further preventing spamming.

Additionally, some, like Palmer, don't believe that bitcoin's proof of work (which creates the need for bitcoin mining) is the best way forward, and all sorts of different scenarios could be introduced to replace it.

Palmer told CoinDesk:

"I'm quite openly against [proof of work] mining as the future of digital currencies."

This could usher in more experimentation with consensus, using totally different incentive structures, and could even include the creation of specific disincentives for data that bloats a ledger.

The comparison to email – again 

Marc Andreessen proposed in his widely-read New York Times piece Why Bitcoin Matters that bitcoin could help solve problems associated with email spam.

Ironically enough, though, bitcoin could have problems of its own in terms of being able to limit spam-like issues in the block chain.

Content types for email spam. Source: Trustwave
Content types for email spam. Source: Trustwave

 

Interestingly, it has been the work of Google, in collaboration with non-profits like the Spamhaus Project, that has provided technology that can reduce the amount of email spam users actually see, making unsolicited emails largely an issue that only technology professionals must contend with.

As far as bitcoin goes, whether it is through a side chains or a brainwave from some startup developer, a method to eliminate the threat of cryptographic-based block chain spam will be developed.

Companies like BitHalo, for example, are already trying to avoid block chain bloat by using a peer-to-peer system to connect one party to another for the distribution of smart contracts.

This is an interesting idea, but, for bitcoin, the bigger problem to contend with right now is achieving mass consumer adoption. Of course, increasing user numbers could provide extra incentives for block chain spammers.

The question, in the end, may come down to the future of mining fees, given that they are what will end up supporting the future network when block generation is no longer a revenue stream for miners. This will likely be the ultimate factor in determining bloat, which transactions will be confirmed – and which ones will not.

Information flow image via Shutterstock

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, CoinDesk.

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is an independent media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. Have breaking news or a story tip to send to our journalists? Contact us at [email protected].

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