"Killed, not die of natural causes or accidents."
Pretty much everyone saw them coming, but it was no less disturbing when assassination markets actually began to appear on Augur, a decentralized protocol for betting on the outcomes of real-world events and that launched two weeks ago on ethereum.
The markets – which allow users to bet on the fates of prominent politicians, entrepreneurs and celebrities – in some cases explicitly specify assassination, as the quote above shows. (CoinDesk is intentionally not providing links to these markets or naming the individuals concerned.)
In addition to targeting individuals, some markets offer bets on whether mass shootings and terrorist attacks with certain minimum numbers of casualties will occur.
Augur was created by the Forecast Foundation and funded through an ICO in 2015. It is an uncensorable platform where users can create prediction markets based on the outcome of any verifiable event, from World Cup games to elections to cryptocurrency prices to the weather.
Augur became one of the most popular applications on ethereum shortly after launch. At the time of writing, it has nearly $1.5 million staked on over 600 markets, according to Predictions.Global, a site that displays data on Augur markets (and has censored the assassination markets).
Since Augur consists of smart contracts on ethereum, a blockchain network that is not controlled by any single party, users from around the world can place bets on its prediction markets – without governments being able to stop them.
This quality appeals to gamblers in jurisdictions where sports betting isn't allowed. It could also appeal to people who want to incentivize – or simply purchase – the assassination of a public figure.
By creating a market for an assassination and placing a large "no" bet (actually, selling shares in the outcome), an individual or group could in effect place a bounty on the targeted person. The would-be assassin could then place a bet on "yes" (buy shares) and manipulate the outcome, to put it delicately.
Long before the first assassination markets appeared, users on Augur community forums frequently discussed their eventual creation, as well as potential responses by the community and the authorities.
One response would be for Augur's "reporters" – the users designated by market creators to determine the outcome of the event being wagered on – to step in and quash the markets.
"The Augur Reporter community has a powerful tool in their ability to mark a market as 'invalid,'" said Predictions.Global co-founder Ryan Berckmans.
Holders of Augur's "reputation" or REP token could dispute the decision to call these markets invalid, Berckmans continued. In other words, they could insist that the markets be settled (users bet in and are paid out in ether, not REP tokens).
But ultimately, he added, reporters "are incentivized to report in a way with which they expect the REP-holding community will agree." In other words, it's up to token holders' consensus to decide whether taking out life insurance on other people is acceptable on Augur.
That opens the possibility that Augur could fork into two platforms, one – call it Augur Dark – that tolerates assassination markets, and one that doesn't. The white paper describes the procedure for forking when REP holders cannot agree on how to report an event.
Judging by Reddit commentary, the consensus appears to be that incentivizing murder is "100 percent immoral."
Then again, one user wrote: "I think you're overestimating the number of people who would seriously put money down to see another person killed unless said person REALLY did something nasty and wasn't going to be brought to justice otherwise."
Another potential route to shutting down the death markets appears to have closed. Augur's developers announced Monday night that they had given up ownership over the "escape hatch" function, which would allow a designated party to shut the system down.
"If the Forecast Foundation is compromised by a state agency," Micah Zoltu, a developer who has worked on the platform, remarked, "the system can't be turned off."
In other words, governments may not be able to threaten Augur's creators with prosecution in order to alter or shut the platform down (they could of course threaten them with prosecution anyway).
The individuals facing the most immediate legal risks may be the users who created these assassination markets. Someone, according to a person with close knowledge of Augur, used a wallet funded through Binance, an exchange, to set one market up.
They can almost certainly be traced and identified, the person added.
Gun image via Shutterstock
CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by Block.one; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk offers all employees above a certain salary threshold, including journalists, stock options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.