How much transparency should bitcoin users demand from their local representative groups’ decision-making processes, and how far should those groups go to win and maintain their members’ trust?
The Israeli Bitcoin Association (IBA) says it has a model it would like to see spread around the world, in which board meetings are completely open and published for all to see.
The IBA says it’s the best way to ensure decisions are made in the best interest of its members, and bitcoin itself. But it’s a controversial move that others aren’t rushing to embrace.
Critics say it could prevent participants from speaking openly and honestly, or reveal sensitive or confidential information about individual business concerns.
At the very least, the Israeli group would like to stir some debate among bitcoin advocacy groups over standards of openness, even if their own radical example isn’t followed.
Proliferation of bitcoin organizations
There are now numerous local not-for-profit bitcoin advocacy groups worldwide, with new ones appearing every month. At least seven have official affiliations with the original Bitcoin Foundation, while the Global Bitcoin Alliance lists 19 member groups on its site.
There are countless other groups ranging from independent officially registered organizations representing whole countries and continents, to physical ‘embassies‘ and interest groups gathering via meetup.com or social networks.
As well as coordinating outreach and educational campaigns, the major groups are expected to lobby and liaise with local regulatory authorities and step in when actions of members, individuals or others might adversely affect bitcoin’s image.
However, transparency of bitcoin groups has not always been a high priority, something that has brought occasional criticism from the community. Meetings are often held behind closed doors, with the publishing of minutes being a route that not all follow.
The IBA however, video records its meetings in their entirety, after which it posts the results on its public YouTube channel. That way there can be little confusion about what the body stands for or its motives.
See the video of the first recorded meeting below (in Hebrew):
IBA chairman Meni Rosenfeld and board member Ron Gross spoke to CoinDesk about the initiative. According to Gross, public openness has been one of the organization’s promises right from the beginning.
“The point is to showcase this as an example of transparency, how these organizations run themselves.”
The IBA has always published notes immediately after board meetings. While the meetings were initially held in private offices, after the founding of the Bitcoin Embassy in Tel Aviv, the group decided to conduct the meetings there and also allowed guests to listen in.
“Pretty much anyone who walked in the door could listen to the meetings. So the next step for us was to videotape and release the meetings.”
‘Nothing to hide’
The original plan was to conduct discussions off-camera for one hour, and then record the decisions. In the end, however, the IBA decided to just video and release the entire meeting.
The IBA also recorded two more board meetings. While the videos are over an hour long and have only been viewed about a hundred times each, Gross said the actual content of the meetings was less important than the act of recording them.
“Basically, it’s saying that we’re all here, we’re all present, we have nothing to hide.”
The group’s finances are also an open book, which was again part of the original plan but needed to be cleared with the IBA’s accountants first. It includes a complete (English language) live report of revenues and expenses, at a per-transaction level of detail, including employee salaries.
Shift in balance
Not all board members thought the video idea was a good one, and Gross said it took the IBA a while to get to the position where it recorded everything.
Objections included the fact that some discussions are just easier when specific people are not held acountable for every detail of everything they say. Objectors wanted to create an environment where confidential information could be more easily shared.
For that, though, Gross continued, there were other more confidential communications channels outside of meetings that could be employed when appropriate. As it turned out, though, almost all the group’s communications have been out in the open.
“We’re still getting used to the format – it’s not easy having everything you do and say being made public on such short notice, and sometimes there are slip-ups. We do reserve the right to censor the video after, but we haven’t had to use it yet.
“There was a shift in balance between ‘everything is confidential, except what we choose to make public’, to ‘everything is public, except what we choose to make confidential.’ The defaults really matter.”
The Bitcoin Foundation
Bitcoin Foundation Executive Director Jon Matonis said video-recording meetings “is a great idea for the IBA”.
The Bitcoin Foundation, he said, also recorded its own annual meeting in Amsterdam in May. While live recordings currently aren’t planned for regular board meetings, the board already produces transcripts.
In the spirit of transparency, Matonis continued, the Bitcoin Foundation board voted late last year to make its member-only forums open and readable by the general public.
Richard Kohl is a board member of the Netherlands Bitcoin Foundation, which is formally affiliated with the international Bitcoin Foundation and also a member of the Global Bitcoin Alliance. The group organizes ‘Bitcoin Wednesday’ meetings on the first Wednesday of every month, which are open to the public.
Kohl told CoinDesk that one of the central goals of Bitcoin Wednesday is to bring the community together to raise awareness, and encourage free debate from all sides on all developments related to cryptocurrency.
An open door policy really helps, he added. National journalists, policymakers, and representatives of the city’s economic board have already attended.
“We’ve experimented with audio and video coverage, and plan to shift to live streaming of every event just as soon as we have enough volunteers and sponsors. Members of all bitcoin foundations and associations are invited to speak and conduct their business here live and in front of the camera, so this is a trend we’d definitely like to encourage.”
Why the need for transparency?
For all the talk of decentralization and cryptographic proof replacing the need to trust humans, whether as individuals or in organisations, the fact remains that many key decisions affecting bitcoin’s future rest with small handfuls of influential and technically capable people, whose integrity is relied upon.
Endorsements and recommendations coming from certain names who have worked hard to build a reputation still carry far more weight than those of outsiders or newcomers. Furthermore, perceived misdeeds by senior organization members may attract unwanted attention for the organisation or even bitcoin itself from the mainstream media.
CoinDesk also contacted a number of other advocacy groups internationally who declined to comment on this issue.