The recent launch of Bitcoin XT, a fork of the Bitcoin protocol considered as crucial to the network’s future sustainability by its backers, has spawned a plethora of acrimonious debate and allegations of censorship.
According to its website, where its full release became available yesterday, Bitcoin XT “is an implementation of a Bitcoin full node, based upon the source code of Bitcoin Core. It is built by taking the latest stable Core release, applying a series of patches, and then doing deterministic builds so anyone can check the downloads correspond to the source code.” XT supports unconfirmed transactions, “lightweight wallets”, and most importantly, caters for bigger block sizes. Currently, 212 out of 6073 nodes (3.4%) are running Bitcoin XT.
However, the changes have little impact on the current state of affairs. They would not come into effect until adopted by 75% of the mining network (no earlier than January 2016), and a fork would not become relevant until the first block exceeding 1 MB is mined.
It was backed, designed and implemented by several of Bitcoin’s leading developers and experts, including Gavin Andresen and Mike Hearn. According to this camp, the iteration was crucial to cater towards Bitcoin’s expected future growth.
The Democracy of Decentralization
Herein lies the problem in the lofty ideal of perfectly decentralized systems: there can be scenarios where taking any form of decisive action may be the best route, but would contravene the ideal of broad consensus unless a vast majority of network participants gives their thumbs up. The status quo takes precedence if a sufficient minority think change is a bad idea or even if they’re not ready to make a decision.
Bitcoin XT has been dubbed by opponents as a “forced solution”. Others have also criticized the views and previous work of Hearn and Andresen on the Bitcoin project. Others further allege that the change is designed to serve another project Hearn in working on. In general, many in the community are unhappy with what they perceive as Bitcoin’s centralization with a handful of developers, a point that is worthy of further exploration.
Even if the argument toward taking action can be convincingly presented and proven, idealists will argue that the whole raison d’être of the system is for decentralized due process. Therefore, for some, it is more worthwhile for the system to collapse than to violate the sacred principle upon which it was built.
But because everything is democratic, those who want to take action can do so. Hence, the fork.
Of course, this all assumes that there is an objectively correct camp in the debate. If there isn’t, the notion of maintaining the system’s delicately decentralized balance while working towards a solution becomes far more challenging.
For some time, there has been intense debate over whether Bitcoin’s block size should be increased from the 1 MB limit, and if so, when. In a blog post, Hearn passionately argues that such increases were part of Satoshi Nakamoto’s original vision for Bitcoin. Not only does it make sense, but such has been the plan all along.
He implicitly laments that the situation had to come to a forking, both in the software and perhaps even in the blockchain itself. But he points to what he argues is an insurmountable mountain of evidence calling for the change. Those against it, he says, have not proposed any alternative solutions, or at best, have been excessively vague on the details. Meanwhile, inaction would eventually lead to Bitcoin becoming unusable.
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Allegations of Censorship
Every so often, controversy surrounding alleged manipulations in voting activity, censorship and other behavior not conducive toward open discussion on reddit has erupted. The Bitcoin subreddit has not escaped these controversies. During the past few weeks, however, there has been growing momentum toward joining or forming alternative venues for Bitcoin discussion, such as Voat.
This reached a new level during the past 24 hours. Threads titled, “Censorship”, “These Mods need to be changed. Up-Vote if you agree.”, and “90% of /r/bitcoin want the Mods changed.” dominate the Bitcoin subreddit homepage. The top 20 threads are all currently devoted to matters related to the fork and censorship.
Moderators are accused of unfairly putting a muzzle on the debate, in very stark violation of the spirit of decentralization. Numerous users reported that their posts were removed; some were apparently among the top-voted.
The apparent reason: Bitcoin XT was deemed too much of a deviation of Bitcoin Core, and therefore effectively no longer Bitcoin, but an altcoin. Discussion of altcoins is prohibited, and hence the deletions. One of the mods indeed confirmed that he has been in contact with theymos, also the head administrator of bitcointalk, and that his position “is that bitcoin-xt is an alt-coin, indistinguishable from dogecoin or litecoin.”
Others have pointed out that such an argument is simply absurd; the mod pointed out that “Dogecoin and litecoin operate on independent networks. No one submits a transaction to dogecoin and it shows up in the backlog for the bitcoin network…Bitcoin-xt is an alternate client on the bitcoin network.”
One dialogue, between Hearn and one of the mods, proceeded as follows (it has since been deleted):
So, if I understand correctly, in theory we could end up with a situation where the vast majority of all miners, users, exchanges, payment processors etc are running Bitcoin XT, but you would still not allow any discussion of it in a forum called “Bitcoin”?
Don’t you think that situation would be kind of bizarre?
You apparently don’t think so, so I don’t understand why you would ask. After all, you caused this.
The mod, “StartMaged”, asserts that “As long as a non-trivial number of people use the current chain, XT is off-topic.”