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Building Consensus for Bitcoin

Friday 19 June 2015 - Filed under Decentralization

Since first gaining public attention in 2010, Bitcoin has been attacked in numerous ways with code exploits, dust transactions, exchange hacks, Ponzi schemes, and outright theft. Bitcoin has also been attacked in the media and in our social communities. Each time, Bitcoin enthusiasts could maintain a view that all such attacks were mounted by outsiders with an interest in destroying the system. Now it seems we are up for something new.

This time, it’s a sort of civil war, with the block size limit as the issue that evidently divides. The issue is largely driven by people who want the best for the system and its users, whether that’s being able to handle accelerated growth, proving that Bitcoin can be upgraded or maintaining decentralization of the network.

Bitcoin is sometimes described as a system for achieving trustless distributed consensus, however, that consensus is based on a common set of fundamental rules. When it comes to changing those rules – things like the twenty-one million cap, or the ten minute block time, or the maximum allowed block size – Bitcoin’s internal mechanisms fall short. With changes at this fundamental level, the process is anything but automated. Like a doctor who must operate on himself, Bitcoin is limited and vulnerable when it comes to planning and executing changes to its foundation. It is important to get this right.

A Better Process

In recognition of the dangers around changing these fundamental rules, we can choose a better process. Thus far, there have been blog, forum, mailing list and reddit posts consisting of and about videos, discussions, and arguments. There have been ad hominems and ad absurdums ad infinitum. There have been many proposals with at least one following the conventional Bitcoin improvement proposal (BIP) process. There have been pleas for
urgent action as well as calls for circumspection. The result is dramatic and disturbing.

What is a better process for reaching the near-unanimity that the change to the block size limit requires?

Perhaps we can find a hint in “A Short Guide to Consensus Building” [PDF] published at the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program and The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. Inside, we find an outline for how to build public consensus around contentious issues.

With this post, I am at 1.1. Initiate a Discussion About Whether to Have a Consensus Building Dialogue. In other words, do we as a community feel that we need a better way to build consensus around this contentious issue?

Once selected, a neutral party called the facilitator, would prepare “a document that spells out what the issues are, who the stakeholding interests are, where they disagree and where they might find common ground”.

I could go on to quote the rest of the aformentioned document but key points from there are that we would start to focus on interests rather than positions. Parties would agree to negotiate based on what satisfies most stakeholder interests, selected stakeholders would add comments, and additional stakeholders would be brought in. Then brainstorming and what if’s would be conducted all before the final implementation.

Yes, there is the potential that this might turn into a bureaucratic nightmare, but it could also lead Bitcoin to The Best Way Forward(tm). At the very least, reading that document may help us get back to first principles and more fully understand how and why our own positions have developed. Most importantly we can focus our efforts evolving Bitcoin responsibly, including all voices of civility and with proper respect for this magnificent experiment.

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2015-06-19  »  David Sterry