To “B” or not to “B”?
CoinDesk editors are currently reviewing our style guide’s capitalization policy.
Should every blockchain project be written in lowercase, uppercase or a mix? Should we differentiate between “bitcoin” the currency and “Bitcoin” the protocol? Should the standard differ by project, depending on how decentralized, permissionless or corporate the organizational structure? Maybe it’s “ethereum” in one case and “Libra” in another. And what’s the threshold for decentralization? Do we have the authority to make that judgment call?
The internal conversation has been surprisingly spirited, so much that we’re taking the next natural step for a decentralization debate and canvassing opinions from outside CoinDesk. (Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this stuff.)
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Why does the otherwise mundane issue of crypto writing standards generate so much division?
I think it’s because it touches on inherently contentious matters around control and ownership. How we label blockchains highlights the ingrained tension between an ostensibly public infrastructure and the private interests that profit from it.
Non-government, for-profit but public
One problem is the distinction between private and public in crypto is complicated, certainly if you try to apply the pre-crypto taxonomy that traditionally determines matters of journalistic style.
But at CoinDesk, it’s our purpose to bring clarity to these issues. We aim to generate a deeper understanding of how decentralized, permissionless blockchains function. That understanding isn’t helped by many mainstream commentators who lazily describe all blockchain projects as “private” schemes, regardless of how decentralized they may or may not be.
To rely on a dichotomy that lumps organizations into either a government-run “public sector” or a corporate-managed “private sector” is an outdated mindset. In an international digital economy where communities fluidly form across borders and where non-human bots – many of them unleashed by governments – feed mass disinformation, we desperately need non-government public spaces on the internet. That’s what the best blockchain projects aspire to create.
How well each rises to that level is open to debate. But for the sake of argument, let’s take the (mostly) non-contentious position that Bitcoin and Ethereum pass muster as public blockchains. (Here I’m sticking with current CoinDesk policy, capitalizing the protocol but not the currency.) What should that mean for our style guide debate?
One could argue a lowercase “b” or “e” would be constructive for both because it would underscore these blockchains’ status as public, open base-layer platforms. Private entities need not seek permission from anyone to access the Bitcoin or Ethereum code to build applications on top of it, for profit or otherwise. The situation is, in this sense, analogous to the internet – which the Associated Press stylebook stripped of its uppercase “I” in 2016.
Alternatively, one could say these platforms should be treated much like non-blockchain open source codebases, whose software is freely published and developed by non-profit entities. These tend to get uppercased – as with the Linux operating system – offering a reminder that capitalization does not necessarily signal an entity is proprietorial or profit based.
We could go one further: If profit were the distinguishing factor, one could argue Bitcoin and Ethereum should be capitalized. Private profit is integral to how these permissionless blockchains function. Miners are driven to honestly validate transactions by the self-interested pursuit of token rewards. Profit incentivizes each one to independently contribute to the collective production of a secure and ostensibly immutable record of transactions, one that’s openly accessible to all users.
No wonder many journalists struggle to categorize these projects. It sounds like a contradiction in terms: a form of public infrastructure that’s entirely developed and maintained by private participants competing for profit.
Yet, it’s precisely the profit factor that makes these decentralized systems public. Those who protect the blockchain “commons” – as with Bitcoin – are incentivized to do so absent either the direction or permission of a potentially corruptible centralized authority. The upshot is neither they nor any other entity can restrict access or alter data.
I would posit, then, that truly decentralized, permissionless blockchains should be viewed as an entirely new form of public infrastructure. Sadly, that doesn’t resolve CoinDesk’s style guide dilemma. We still must decide whether lower- or uppercase letters apply to such projects.
Also, defining which blockchains earn the “public” label is no simple matter. Yet, because of the profit factor the distinction with private projects is vitally important. The same motivator of good public outcomes in permissionless blockchains can fuel abuse within those that fall short of that ideal. Giving a “public” label to entities that should be deemed “private,” whether directly or indirectly via a style guide decision, could enable that abuse by fostering misguided trust among users.
Where do you draw the line? Even a small degree of unchecked control over the network creates an unlevel playing field with which privileged participants can extract greater token gains at the expense of others.
It all comes down to the core design and structure of the blockchain. But, sadly, that’s not a cut and dry matter, either.
I have no trouble saying the TRON protocol – maybe it should be “Tron,” but definitely not “tron” – is too centralized to be called a public blockchain. But what about EOS, the ninth-largest blockchain by market cap?
Forget that the founders’ all-caps branding decision tends to force editors’ hands around the naming style; the bigger issue is whether EOS’ delegated proof-of-stake model, designed to increase transaction speeds, produces a sufficiently decentralized model. It has been critiqued for fostering a concentration of power among Chinese block producers. And when TRON CEO Justin CEO – yes, he describes himself as the CEO of a blockchain – seized control of EOS predecessor Steemit, forcing steem OGs to set up a rival chain, it raised serious doubts about dPOS’ capacity to protect users.
It gets more complicated. Some would argue the presence of a pre-mine or an initial coin offering should disqualify a blockchain, including Ethereum, from being described as public. Even Bitcoin is periodically criticized for being too centralized – either because of its concentration of mining power or because of the involvement of companies such as Blockstream in core development.
There is no easy answer, in other words.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking the tough questions. Trying to ascertain each blockchain project’s capacity to serve the public over private interests and then determining how to categorize them helps society decide what to keep and what to discard.
Believe it or not, the nagging questions of unsatisfied journalists matter.
Africa: Battleground for the Future of Money
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, is experiencing a severe dollar shortage (which appears to be contributing to a continued surge in regional demand for bitcoin, according to Useful Tulips). This kind of monetary crisis will play into China’s hands because Beijing is expected to use leverage it has developed over a decade of heavy African investment to encourage governments and businesses to use its forthcoming digital currency. As that would happen in place of dollars, it’s a challenge to U.S. interests in Africa and other emerging market regions (see below).
So, what’s the state of U.S. influence in the region? This chart from Johns Hopkins’ China-Africa Research Initiative says it all. While Chinese investment into Africa has grown, U.S. foreign direct investment into Africa has plunged over the past decade. Since 2016, net FDI flows have been in negative territory. An American retreat.
The Global Town Hall
U.S. officials express little public concern over China’s currency challenge. But it’s a rising topic in Washington, as two articles in Foreign Affairs, the influential journal of Council of Foreign Relations, one of most powerful think tanks in Washington, D.C., demonstrate. One is by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, architect of the massive bank bailouts in 2008, who argues the threat from China makes it imperative the U.S. contain its ballooning debts lest it undermine confidence in the dollar. The other, by Aditi Kumara and Eric Rosenbach, two directors of the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, details the many ways a digital yuan could enable cross-border payments without the intermediation of U.S. banks or oversight of U.S. regulators. Don’t be fooled by the COVID-19 hunger for greenbacks worldwide; it isn’t by choice. Self-fulfilling dollar dependence means businesses are compelled to scramble for them. Would they prefer a different system? You bet. They’re just waiting for an alternative.
Even if it never launches, Libra’s legacy is assured. As reported in Kumara's and Rosenbach’s article (above), it’s now widely recognized that Libra’s announcement expedited China’s move to a digital currency. Even if the Facebook-founded project were to never launch, it will have played a catalytic role stirring central banks into action. But its real impact will be measured by adoption.
It’s worth asking, then, whether Facebook rebranding its Libra wallet and advancing its WhatsApp and Messenger interoperability this week achieves what newly named Novi described as its “long-term commitment to helping people around the world access affordable financial services.” And if so, perhaps we should not be looking at the Western world but to places like the Philippines. In a CoinDesk opinion piece, Leah Callon-Butler writes that “it’s not hard to imagine how fast libra could become the preferred tender of Filipinos everywhere.” She notes, “While very few are banked – only 22.6 percent of adults have a formal account – the number of mobile phone subscriptions is greater than the number of actual people who live here.”
Private digital currency issuers need not compete with central banks. Tommaso Mancini-Griffoli, the IMF’s deputy division chief in the Monetary and Capital Markets Department, believes there’s a great opportunity for private-public partnerships in which firms issue digital tokens backed by the liabilities of a central bank. He calls them “synthetic CBDCs” (central bank digital currencies), which are different from traditional CBDCs where the issuance and minting is entirely managed by the central bank. I like this idea. Private wallet providers can innovate in ways that central banks can’t. And if their reserves are stored with a central bank rather than in a commercial bank account, they will be viewed as more secure and free from fractional reserve risks. This private-public partnership model sounds a lot like the kinds of relationships a Barbados-based company called Bitt has developed with central banks in the Caribbean. In its little corner of the world, Bitt has been trailblazing the development of CBDCs and stablecoins since 2015.
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