Blockstream CEO: Bitcoin Creating 'Toxic' Environment for Developers

CoinDesk speaks to Blockstream CEO Austin Hill about the industry's ongoing debate on how best to scale the bitcoin blockchain.

AccessTimeIconJan 22, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 12:06 p.m. UTC
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Following what can be best described as a vocal exit of developer Mike Hearn, the long-simmering debate over whether to scale the bitcoin blockchain to promote wider use has escalated.

Though the exact lines of division remain blurry, the resulting media scrutiny has seemingly awakened the bitcoin mining and business community to what they perceive as a lack of movement by Bitcoin Core, the ecosystem’s largely volunteer development team.

As a result, businesses are voicing their support for Bitcoin Classic, an alternative proposal to a strategic road map proposed by Bitcoin Core that would increase the size of data blocks on the blockchain to 2MB, up from 1MB today. Bitcoin Core has advocated for Segregated Witness, a proposal that would result in more capacity, without necessitating a hard fork, a process by which a mandatory network-wide software upgrade would be needed.

Proponents of Bitcoin Classic contend that the solution simply introduces a choice into the market, and that, should their proposal succeed, they believe Bitcoin Core’s developers will simply migrate to a newly branded code base without much impact.

However, Austin Hill, CEO of $21m startup Blockstream, believes that, despite these claims, the lack of support for Core developers is creating a "toxic" environment.

Hill told CoinDesk:

"It's created an environment where a whole bunch of companies have been building on bitcoin, enjoying the hard work of a community of developers who are now saying, without saying thank you, I don’t like the color of what you shipped me so I'm going to abandon you."

In interview, Hill sought to give voice to what he called a "frustration" among Core developers regarding the perception that they have not sought to address the problem. Blockstream notably funds a number of the more prominent Core developers including Gregory Maxwell, Matt Corallo and Pieter Wiulle, the ecosystem’s most active developer.

"Since December, there’s been three versions of the Segregated Witness deployed [on the bitcoin testnet, a dedicated blockchain for testing]. I do think that part of it is optics and marketing. … There are people who are signed on to [Bitcoin] Classic, who are really doing it because they want to see this issue come to a resolution," Hill continued.

Providing support for Hill’s view is that Bitcoin Core officially opened the Segregated Witness testnet to developers on 21st January.

In the official statement from the group, the developers sought to stress the research that has so far gone into the proposal, which they contend has benefits beyond simply increasing the block size.

Vetted proposal

In his remarks, Hill emphasized the he believes not enough attention has been paid to the fact that Bitcoin Core carefully researched its proposal, a process that included two conferences, one in Montreal and Hong Kong.

“In the last six months, 15 to 20 research papers have been released and a number of those things have been coded and deployed. Some of the [proposed] changes, we can discuss them because of the work by Core devs to improve signature validation,” Hill said.

As such, Hill suggested there could be a message sent to the development community, should business interests align behind Bitcoin Classic, or another similar effort.

Hill went so far as to imply that some developers may grow frustrated with what is already an effort that tests their endurance. As put forth in The New York Times, some developers have even received death threats over their views on increasing the block size .

"When you have a community of developers that have put in thousands of hours without any major breakdowns or a security flaw … and say we’re going to do a one or two-pass fork and we’re going to change how the project goes by turning it into a democratic voting system, they may say 'That’s not what I worked so hard for,'" he argued.

Political pressures

Hill acknowledge there is an inherent political element in the argument, one made more pronounced that former Bitcoin Core maintainer Gavin Andresen is now writing code for Bitcoin Classic along with developer Jeff Garzik.

Though the names are well-known by the media, Hill said that both Andresen and Garzik are no longer as active on everyday coding, meaning they speak for themselves as individuals and may not best represent sentiment in the community.

“I know a number of Blockstream people are frustrated by people who aren’t discussing things with them, talking to other media outlets and advocating for another approach that they feel undermines their hard work,” he said.

(Note: Garzik has contested these claims, and his GitHub shows three commits made over the last month.)

Hill went on to suggest that he views the conduct of the discussion as more contentious than the actual ideas, which are similar to a proposal put forth by Blockstream co-founder Adam Back that would scale the network to 2MB, 4MB and then 8MB over a period of years.

"If a lot of their hard work and what they believe are proper tradeoffs are ignored, it’s a dangerous precedent and very discouraging to [Core developers]," he said.

Dangerous precedent

Despite his issues with how the process has played out, Hill sought to stress that everyone in the community shares a common goal of promoting the network, but that the sentiment of developers is crucial given their role in the network.

For example, he noted developers helped move the community to the proposals being considered today after working to analyze alternatives.

"We saw some people advocating for 20MB blocks saying if they didn’t adopt it the network would fall apart. But there’s real data that says anything larger than 3MB could break the network," he said. "The Core developers base their solutions on data, and we saw data."

Going forward, Hill implied that the industry should keep these factors in mind, even as other groups work toward solutions that could rebrand the code base and alter the governance aspects of the development process.

"The question comes down to priorities," Hill said, adding:

"Scale at any cost, I think most people would agree is very dangerous."

Austin Hill image via YouTube


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