Bitcoin Developers Warn Ethereum Fork Sets Unsettling Precedent

Bitcoin Core developers are concerned that the side effects of a hard fork on the ethereum blockchain could have negative impacts on all blockchains.

AccessTimeIconJul 22, 2016 at 5:20 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 6, 2023 at 3:13 p.m. UTC
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The ethereum ecosystem is returning to normalcy following a high-profile hack last month that resulted in nearly $60m worth of investor funds ending up under the control of an unknown group or individual.

The 'theft', as some would label it, was eventually reversed through what's known as a hard fork, a change in the code, 'approved' by an informal community vote, that effectively moved the disputed funds to a new account where investors could withdraw their original investments.

But while the immediate impact was limited to the ethereum platform, the implications of its decisions have echoed across the blockchain community, influencing everyone from already ardent ethereum developers to bank consultants seeking to build private blockchain solutions.

Joining this larger discussion have been bitcoin's software developers, many of whom have publicly claimed that ethereum's decisions not only permanently alter the value propositions of its platform, but have generated negative publicity that could harm all blockchain applications.

Unlike traditional database technology, one of the distinguishing features of a blockchain is that its ledger of transactions is distributed among all users, which gives participants involved the confidence of knowing they’re using the same record of credits and debits.

But these developers and infrastructure architects are growing increasingly concerned that now that ethereum has set a precedent for consensus formation based on the leadership of individuals, other blockchains might be compelled by regulators to make additional changes.

Bitcoin Core contributor Peter Todd told CoinDesk:

"This is potentially a very negative thing for bitcoin because it sets a precedent that an option to go deal with one of these failures is to go reset the chain, reverse things, and so on. It really calls into question the immutabilty of all these systems."

The self-fulfilling prophecy

Todd isn’t alone with his concerns.

Fellow bitcoin developer Eric Lombrozo is also troubled that the ease with which the ethereum blockchain was forked might be seen as evidence by investors and regulators that other forks might be possible given the right motivation.

In the case of ethereum, Lombrozo, an early contributor to the ethereum project as well, argues that the democratic process by which consensus was achieved was more of a plurality because so few people voted.

Indeed, a minority of ethereum users continue to mine the original chain, under the prior consensus rules, an advent some say points to the difficulty inherent in digital consensus, and that some have used to question whether distributed ledgers are even ledgers at all, given that they are susceptible to revision by social forces.

Lombrozo contends that Vitalik Buterin and other influential voices in the ethereum community would have been able to elicit any decision they wanted from voters.

The decision to hard fork in this way, Lombrozo said, was ultimately wasn't surprising.

"It's possible for a small group to economically coerce others to either not vote or vote against their long-term political interests," he said.

He later indicated that it wasn't the hard fork, but the method in which it was executed that was the issue, likening it to a bailout of funds that goes against the fundamental principles the underly the bitcoin network.

He said:

"Even if we could do this stuff without a hard fork it would be unthinkable in bitcoin."

Setting a precedent

Such a top-down structure of influence is one that Coin Sciences founder Gideon Greenspan is concerned could ultimately lead to struggles within digital currency as an investment vehicle.

Greenspan is currently working to construct an open platform for building, managing and deploying blockchains, and he is concerned that if ethereum contracts become a "popular investment vehicle" in the future, the precedent could lead to "endless contention further down the line".

He added:

"My personal view is that it's the wrong decision for the long term. It has created the expectation that a bail-out can and will happen again in future, perhaps the next time a popular smart contract doesn't work as expected."

Such statements echo those made by Buterin, who stated that the community must now be cognizant of the expectations the hard fork sets with users.

Bitcoin's fork history

The question of whether bitcoin has ever executed a hard forked intentionally remains a matter of deep debate in the community.

An unintentional hard fork occurred in March 2013, that was later revised through efforts by the community. Further, there is debate about whether any hard forks were executed by bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto in the early days of bitcoin, prior to bitcoins having any market value.

Todd distinguishes between early bitcoin hard forks and the etheruem hard fork on Wednesday because of the amount of money involved in the projects when the splits occurred.

Whereas ethereum had a market cap of about $1bn at the time, with more than 10% of that locked up in The DAO, bitcoin’s hard forks occurred under very different conditions, he said.

"Back then, the market cap of bitcoin was zero," said Todd, adding:

"When you don’t have any money on the line you can do anything and it doesn’t matter."

An opportunity to learn

The concern of the Bitcoin Core developers is perhaps not surprising, given the implicit competition between blockchains for adopters, even if multiple blockchains end up coexisting.

One influential observer of digital currency, Cornell University professor Emin Gün Sirer, told CoinDesk the mood is "generally quite positive" in the ethereum community following the hard fork. Speaking from an ethereum developers conference he's currently co-hosting, he said that the ability of a community using a blockchain to come to consensus was a sign of strength.

An outspoken critic of The DAO, which he blames for releasing unvetted code for public use, Gün Sirer sees the hardfork as a learning opportunity.

"There are a lot of lessons to learn from this, and not just for ethereum," he said. "In fact, not at all just for smart contracts and the ethereum system, but for bitcoin, there are lots of lessons."

In particular, he cites the longstanding ethereum bounty offered to coders who help debug the network as a lesson bitcoin developers can learn from.

"Every coin without a bounty is vulnerable, and I don’t know that bitcoin has one," he said. "So they are very, very confident, quite cavalier, in their abilities and don’t seem to have established a bounty."

Damned if you do...

Another bitcoin supporter took a different stance while still expressing concerns over the potential impact of the hard fork on bitcoin.

Principal architect of bitcoin sidechain startup Blockstream, Christopher Allen joined both Todd and Lombrozo in saying that the decision to hard fork was made in what the ethereum community seems to agree was in its best interests and that "every answer had risks associated with it".

But he added that if the hard fork hadn’t been implemented it would have likely resulted in regulatory involvement that would impact all digital currencies.

Even after expressing some support for the decision he doubled-down on similar concerns that the hard fork could have long-standing repercussions elsewhere in the industry.

Allen concluded:

"It affects us either way. Lets say that they didn’t do anything and everybody lost all their money and the attacker managed to sneak out the money he illicitly earned, it would raise a lot of questions by regulation and other people, and that could potentially reflect poorly on bitcoin."

Correction: There remains contention surrounding whether a 'hard fork' has ever been intentionally executed on the bitcoin blockchain. CoinDesk has revised language to better illustrate this debate.

Domino image via Shutterstock


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