The Passion of 'Bitcoin Jesus'
How The Blockchain's Most Beloved Investor
Became it's Most Polarizing
"Any miners who've upgraded to Bitcoin Unlimited 1.0 should downgrade now! It just generated an invalid block."
It’s afternoon in the ‘Miner in the World’ WeChat, one of the rare channels that bridges bitcoin's strained east-west communications divide. But the alarm isn’t being sounded by a miner. Rather, it’s from bitcoin developer Matt Corallo, and he’s up in arms about an issue many of his peers now believe could have accidentally split the $15bn economic network.
Corallo quickly posts more links to explain the situation, which boils down to this: a bitcoin mining pool processed an invalid block that was rejected by other nodes and miners. As it happens block after block, day after day, the pool found the correct hash and broadcasted it to the network. In short, it should have been able to retrieve the current block reward, earning roughly $11,000, but it wasn't able to. In this case, the pool, Bitcoin.com, was running code that was different than most the network. Unlike all previous blocks, the block generated wasn’t 1MB, but larger.
Quickly, someone in the channel pings Roger Ver, its owner. "I don’t know which versions of Bitcoin Unlimited are safe," Corallo continues. "Their bug report seems to say anything before 1.0 is fine, but I don’t know." "The bug?" another asks. "The bug where it makes blocks which are ignored by the network and you lose 13 BTC," Corallo shoots back. "If SPV miner found block, BTC forked," a China-based miner adds. Finally, Ver arrives.
"You could also look at it that Bitcoin Core has had a bug all these years with 1MB incorrectly defined. It seems like Core should have fixed that bug already," he says, going on the attack. Tensions quickly flare and within minutes the thread mirrors that vitriol that has spilled across bitcoin social media sites for nearly two years. "Roger, this is getting ridiculous," another Core developer says. And there’s a growing chorus of bitcoin developers and users that agree.
If there was a single person who could have brought unity to bitcoin’s longest and hardest-fought debate, Roger Ver might have been it. An early investor and ‘true believer’ of the technology, Ver began backing bitcoin-related startups at a time when the number of people interested in the idea could have fit into a tiny room. It was love at first sight, and he showed his adoration by throwing thousands of dollars a month into pro-bitcoin advertisements on more than 100 radio stations, even buying space for the first billboard promoting the cryptocurrency.
His passion for bitcoin made sense. After an unsuccessful run for California State Assembly in 2000 (and a stint of 10 months in federal prison for the illegal sale of what the US Department of Justice called 'explosives' and what Ver called 'fireworks'), Ver had developed a distrust of authorities. As the price of bitcoin rose and Ver’s net worth grew, there were excited accounts of a charismatic libertarian who preached individual economic freedom.
It could be said Ver both gave the monetary movement a face that it didn’t have in bitcoin's pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, and that he helped further develop the ideology that the cryptographic network should be a digital cash, one out of the control of the powers that be. For all this, fans gave him the nickname 'Bitcoin Jesus', a Biblical charge that seems to hold as much significance now, even as his standing in the community has changed.
Scaling – the one true king
For those who have remained on the sidelines, bitcoin’s 'block size debate' largely rests on two issues, one technological, the other social. On the surface, it’s a battle over whether bitcoin’s developers should change a rather minute rule in the open-source protocol (the 1MB cap on the number of transactions the miners are able to approve). But, to some, it's more philosophical, centering on whether this change would fit within the vision of its original inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto.
On one side is Bitcoin Core, the group of developers working on bitcoin’s most widely used software. This group has advocated for code called Segregated Witness, which would boost transaction capacity (among other optimizations) but leave the contentious block size rule unchanged. Effectively, the change would provide the network with a capacity equivalent to a 2.1MB block size, advocates say. (Instead of changing the old rule (‘MAX_BLOCK_BASE_SIZE’), a new variable (‘MAX_BLOCK_WEIGHT') would be introduced).
To proponents, Bitcoin Core’s philosophy is one that emphasizes creativity and safety. SegWit would use a mechanism called a soft fork to enact its change, meaning that those using the network would not be forced to pick between two competing versions of the software when an update is introduced. (The hard fork process would be similar to if, every time your iPhone needed an upgrade, your failure to do so would mean you were forever on another communications branch).
As highlighted by ethereum’s hard fork last year, such a scenario can be problematic. In the case of ethereum, there are now two versions of the open-source software, both running largely similar feature sets, but backed by different communities and cultures. In bitcoin’s case, this divergence is already occurring, though as the Bitcoin Unlimited bug showed, it’s a fight that’s being carried out on the main bitcoin blockchain. There's also an argument about a perceived over-centralization of the technology within the block size debate.
For bitcoin to be successful, some argue it needs to be widely distributed, meaning its infrastructure (nodes and miners) need to be anywhere and everywhere, free from mass corruption, influence, or exploitation. Larger blocks, Core argues, might dissuade some users from running full nodes which could lead to a small group of people having too much control over the network.
The gospel according to Ver
Ver’s argument essentially boils down to this: bitcoin needs to scale right now because of increased demand. And to do so, the block size should be bigger. A bigger block size, in Ver’s mind, will allow far more consumers and businesses to start using the protocol, making censorship through centralization a non-issue. "The best strategy to not have censorship, to not be controlled, is to have more people using bitcoin, so the government can’t just say it’s drug dealers using it," Ver said.
But, with Bitcoin Core unwilling to do the work (or introduce a proposal to the network), Ver has taken matters into his own hands, helping to collect more than $1m to fund alternative developers. Ver’s mining pool is running this code (one that's also being run by a few mining pools that disagree with Core’s approach to scaling the network). It has proven to be controversial, and the issue last weekend found the Bitcoin Unlimited developer team has been accused of deploying "untested and buggy" code.
Blockstream CTO Greg Maxwell argued that the code that introduced the bug didn't appear to have "peer review of any kind". Though, the error was fixed by the development team within a few hours due to monitoring. According to Blockstream CEO Adam Back, the worst-case scenario goes something like this: by using a process called 'SPV mining', other pools began building on the invalid block sent out by Bitcoin.com for a time.
Essentially, SPV mining meant that the miners were accepting blocks found by other miners without first validating whether they met the network rules. Should this have continued, Core’s team argues the results could have been far-reaching. “I think we’re lucky that they didn’t find a block. If they found a valid block on top of an invalid block, then they would have all got banned from the network, and we might have ended up with a sort of network split, where 60% of the miners are off on their own chain,” he said.
“In short, the whole BU concept is fatally flawed … and the fact that some miners are not even fully validating blocks compounds the problem,” developer Eric Lombrozo added.
Yet, Ver has prominent supporters. One is bitcoin miner and operator of the ViaBTC mining pool Haipo Yang. Yang is an operator of one of the newer mining pools, but has already generated complaints for his favored stance – that SegWit has little to do with scaling and that all the main devs should be fired. "As a programer, I believe the SegWit is pointless and very harmful to bitcoin," he said. Yang argues that SegWit would change bitcoin more than other proposals. He believes there’s very little chance of a split, as Core claims, in the event of a hard fork because everyone wants to scale (with the exception of Bitcoin Core).
When asked about Ver, he called him “a great man”, largely for the way he has stood up to the developers on the issue. Another staunch supporter is Peter Rizen, the chief scientist of Bitcoin Unlimited, who sees the issue similarly. “Bigger blocks are needed to allow bitcoin to continue growing, the same way it did for the first seven years,” Rizen said. According to Rizen, Bitcoin Unlimited is merely stripping the protocol of its block size limit that was implemented by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2010. Everyone involved acknowledges the limit is largely arbitrary, and that it was merely intended to act as a throttle for the network.
“The limit is now having an economic effect and isn’t serving the role Satoshi had in mind,” Rizen continued, throwing in another appeal:
“At Davos, I heard people were making fun of bitcoin as not being serious because it can only process three transactions per second.”
Lies and ethics
But just how much data science is involved in the debate remains unclear. As with the ongoing “fake news” scandal in the political world (where the public largely remains awestruck at the discord), only a handful of people in the world perhaps know bitcoin’s inner-workings enough to really understand the issue or evaluate proposed code. One difference is the experience level of those involved. Bitcoin’s Core team boasts researchers who have been actively deploying code for nearly a decade in a hostile, real-time environment. The other side argues it's more passionate, resourceful and that it more clearly understands the vision.
But there could be indications in how the groups are carrying out their messaging. Ver contends that bitcoin-based businesses are struggling with network inefficiencies, and that’s why more exchanges are adding support for alternative cryptocurrencies. He points to Coinbase, Xapo and Blockchain as businesses that will be negatively affected by bridling the block size (though, none of those companies seem as passionate as Ver about alternatives to Bitcoin Core’s proposal).
Xapo president Ted Rogers said the company isn’t evaluating the scaling debate. And Blockchain’s vice president of growth, Liana Douillet Guzmán, asserted that the company is fine with the advances that will be enabled by SegWit. “I’m hopeful that SegWit in concert with Lightning Networks (like Thunder) can help remedy a lot of the current backlog, but we won’t know the impact, if any, it will have until SegWit is deployed,” Guzmán said.
Still, Ver alleges other mainstream businesses are being dissuaded from using bitcoin. “I know a company with over a 100 million users that put their bitcoin integration on hold because [the network] wouldn’t handle its scale,” Ver told CoinDesk. “That’s really frustrating to me as someone that has done everything I can to get more people to use bitcoin.” Ver declined to provide the name of the company, but it’s worth examining the claim.
Even if said enterprise integrates bitcoin, it doesn’t mean all of its users will immediately start using the functionality. According to Ver, though, more enterprises would offer an on-ramp into bitcoin were it not for network congestion, long transaction times and hefty fees. Although Ver’s claims have been found to be half-truths in some instances.
For example, Ver recently took to Twitter to complain that even when he paid the suggested $0.06 transaction fee on a $23,000 transaction, it hadn’t been confirmed 12 hours later. It was later found out that actually one of the transaction’s inputs suffered from transaction malleability (the issue that SegWit, the proposal favored by Core, is said to resolve).
He also took aim about paying a $75 transaction fee. And while he did pay that fee, Ver left out some important information, according to Bitcoin Core developer Todd, namely that the transaction was hundreds of times bigger than the average transaction.
To Todd, these white lies aren’t working in Ver’s favor:
“What’s alienated him isn’t his support of big blocks, but his persistent dishonesty. His actions are not that of an ethical person.”
It’s hard to say that Ver hasn’t gone to extreme measures to espouse his views. In addition to running the Bitcoin.com mining pool and news portal, Ver operates his own channel on the popular social network Reddit. Called r/btc, the subreddit was started in direct response to censorship of certain views on r/bitcoin, the technology’s most popular forum.
Ver argues that he’s been censored from r/bitcoin on numerous occasions because he brings an opinion that doesn’t align with Core’s. “It’s pretty much impossible to reach consensus with all the censorship,” Ver said. “Core devs and those supporters are the ones doing most of the censorship, and we shouldn’t trust people that censor stuff to run a censorship resistant network.”
But Ver has been implicated in doing the same on r/BTC; (At the Satoshi Roundtable in Cancun, one of the forum’s former moderators even acknowledged that the platform has all but collapsed into an unreliable source of vitriol). For all his supposed open-mindedness, Ver seems focused on selling rhetoric that drives a discussion to a platform he makes money from advertising on. “The sad thing about all this is it’s so petty,” Todd said.
While Core developers are largely critical, Ver seems of two minds about their work, on one hand reverting back to his pleasant, conquer-the-world-via-entrepreneurship persona even as he throws barbs and accusations. In an interview, Ver acknowledges that even Bitcoin Core has the protocol’s best intentions at heart, although in the next breath he contends all the Core developers should be fired. “They have absolutely and utterly failed to scale to keep up with demand,” he said.
The tensions seem partly economic. Armed with more users, Ver reasons, the price of bitcoin would increase, thereby liberating more people from traditional fiat monies. “That’s the measure we have for how many people see benefit there,” he said. “For bitcoin to rival the dollar or the euro, the price will have to be much higher than it is today.”
Despite all this, however, Ver remains one of the more captivating proponents of bitcoin, advocating for what any of his supporters see as their stake in the network – and their vision for its use. “When I started using bitcoin more than four years ago, I was buying into a vision of a fast, cheap and global system that could be used by anyone, whether they are wealthy or financially disenfranchised,” said Jake Smith, general manager of Bitcoin.com.
While others have technical appeals, Smith’s is unique in that it’s personal. To him, this is something he’s spent years of his life on. And it’s easy to sympathize. There was a time when writing about bitcoin didn’t entail scouring through pages of reports issued by companies on incidents with their specific implementations at bitcoin's innermost layers.
Rather than being caught in a he-said, she-said game on minute technical issues, there were massive funding rounds, tales of user growth and grand plans to reinvent the financial system. But, not everything has changed, and maybe that's another source of conflict. "I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is," Ver once said in a famous 2011 video, one where he bet $10,000 would outperform gold and silver by 100x.
It seemed crazy at the time, visionary in retrospect. Only time will tell if this bet turns out the same.