Bitcoin's Latest Scaling Twist: Support is Building for a UASF

Will the 'economic majority' prevail? The latest twist in bitcoin's scaling debate is a backlash movement against its mining community.

AccessTimeIconApr 11, 2017 at 5:20 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:13 p.m. UTC

It seems to be one thing after another for bitcoin.

Amid the long-standing debate, one well-known bitcoin developer recently posted a note to the project's mailing list alleging a major mining entity is prolonging the debate over scaling because it would accidentally wipe out a technical advantage that gives it an upperhand over other miners.

It's unclear his claims are true. Even supporters admit there isn't hard evidence, and many others are skeptical.

Despite this, many in the community think there's enough circumstantial evidence to back it up, and a grassroots movement is growing in the hopes of pushing through the change that miners are now being accused of blocking.

Normally, miners are the ones that are tasked with pushing through such a fix. But because of this roadblock, some in the bitcoin community are calling for a different (more experimental, yet older) method of making a change to bitcoin based on support of the so-called "economic majority", instead of miner support.

The change is known as a "user-activated soft fork", or a UASF.

Coinkite CEO and co-founder Rodolfo Novak, an advocate for the nascent movement, said it aims to correct perceived inequities that have so far dominated the years-long scaling discussion.

He told CoinDesk:

"Miners trying to centralize bitcoin is an unacceptable thing. It goes against what bitcoin is supposed to be. This UASF is really like saying, 'No, we control bitcoin, not you.'"

And, support appears to be growing. There's a website and a Twitter. There are UASF hats.

Though the code isn't safe to run yet, some volunteers running nodes are now flagging support with their nodes. Volunteers who run nodes can signal their support by adding a line to their node configuration file.

Flagging support

Since the allegations were made last Wednesday, node support for the change has grown to 4.8%, or by about six times.

But, since the code isn't ready yet, and users are just showing support, does it really mean anything?

"On a technical level, signaling it that way does absolutely nothing, it does however help the case on a social level and prevents users from running an outdated version of the code when enforcing starts," developer Damian Mee argued.

Beyond just gauging users' support, some unidentified developers are allegedly testing and reviewing the reference implementation put forward by the pseudonymous shaolinfry in the proposal BIP 148.

But, so far they're secretive about it, and are waiting to see if people flag support for the change or not. (Though, one contributor delivered a reddit AMA on Monday.)

That said, there's a long been back and forth on the topic of this metric because node counts are easy to spoof.

For example, one entity can spin up a bunch of nodes in a data center in a sybil attack, as it's formally known.

Economic majority

So, simple node count might not be the best indicator. Due to how a UASF works, it could be necessary to have explicit support from the "economic majority," or exchanges, wallets, and other bitcoin economic players.

And, support from key economic players is so far at about 6% since the BIP was put out on March 12th (by one metric), admittedly sparse. Though, others are allegedly on the way, many are starting to announce their company's support via reddit.

However, Novak pointed out that a sizable percentage of bitcoin nodes are running Bitcoin Core, and the versions with SegWit, which he thinks is a good indicator that the fuzzily-defined "economic majority" supports SegWit, and thus a UASF version of it.

This is perhaps notable given that the code is backwards-compatible, so the 80% of nodes that are currently ready for SegWit, would also be ready for the change.

Given this, Novak said he's "very optimistic" the plan to scale the network could ultimately work.

Again, there’s while there's a reference code implementation, it hasn't been fully tested and reviewed yet. The original activation date for SegWit was put at October 1st, 2017, but shaolinfry, recently moved it up to 1st August, meaning, if the community supports the proposal, that miners need to signal support for SegWit by that date, or they will fork off the network would need to upgrade.

Cautions to the wind

If it sounds dangerous or as if the idea is being rushed along, many believe it is. It's highly possible that the current aura of confidence in the proposal is the result of high tensions.

Others are proceeding more cautiously, as shown in one bitcoin developer chatroom.

"I'd say we want [it], if we think there is community support," said lead Bitcoin Core maintainer Wladimir van der Laan, when asked if developers should consider coding up Maxwell's suggested BIP.

Bitcoin Core contributor Pieter Wuille mentioned that it's "complicated" to determine when that threshold is met.

"Whether that BIP is the best solution to that is indeed open, indeed makes sense for the dust to settle on that, though it may still make sense to have actual code," Van der Laan added later.

In the mailing list thread where he outlined his allegations against the miner in question, Blockstream CTO Greg Maxwell proposed using the method, but agreed that going through with it would depend on the level of support from the community.

Yet another development is that some developers are calling for a UASF on litecoin, a smaller blockchain by market cap, as both a way to get it on SegWit, and as a way to "test" how a UASF would pan out should it prove to be as divisive as other proposals.

But like past attempts to scale bitcoin, it remains to be seen if cooler heads, or strong passions, will prevail.

USAF hat image via Twitter


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