Ethereum recently hard forked their blockchain to reimburse users who were affected by a poorly structured smart contract, known as The DAO. The hard fork was cheered as a great success shortly after it was initiated, and some supporters of a Bitcoin hard fork for the purpose of increasing the block size limit even took the opportunity to claim that hard forks aren’t as scary as some make them out to be.
Of course, one of the realities of hard forks is that you don’t know how “successful” they are until trading of each blockchain’s tokens is allowed to take place on the exchanges. While the vast majority of mining power had initially moved to the new, forked version of the Ethereum blockchain, speculators began to trade tokens from the original chain (known as Ethereum Classic) on Bitsquare and Bitcointalk. Then, Poloniex decided to list Ethereum Classic tokens for trade, and speculators were given a chance to tell the world how they think each chain should be valued.
At the time of this writing, Ethereum Classic has roughly 12 percent of the hashrate and market cap of the forked Ethereum blockchain.
Of course, ignoring whether the Ethereum hard fork can be considered a success or not, a key point is that it’s not comparable to the hard fork discussions that have taken place in the Bitcoin community for the past year or so. “Ethereum isn’t fixing something technical – they’re doing a bailout of a company [or] group that screwed up,” Bitcoin Core contributor Peter Todd told CoinJournal. “Nothing in this bailout hard fork actually fixes anything technical.”
Bitcoin Community Understands Their Social Contract
At this point in time, the Bitcoin community appears to understand the core value proposition of their blockchain. In short, it’s vital for bitcoin to act as a bearer ecash. This means that alterations of the history of events on the ledger, such as what the Ethereum community decided to do with The DAO, will not be tolerated. For example, there was no serious consideration to alter the blockchain after bitcoin exchange Bitfinex was recently robbed of tens of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin.
“Bitcoin has already gone through huge thefts and hacks, and none of it has been reversed,” said Bitcoin Core contributor and Ciphrex CEO Eric Lombrozo. When asked about the thefts in Bitcoin’s past (specifically MyBitcoin), Lombrozo continued:
“Hard forks weren’t even on the table back then. It was actually a force of frustration for me in the early days because I wanted to do a bunch of cool stuff that didn’t seem possible without a hard fork. But then I learned more about how things actually work.”
“It was practically taboo,” Lombrozo added. “Nobody would take you seriously if you started going in that direction. Everyone basically accepted that doing it would require coercion in some form or another and that, unless everyone agreed, it could lead to disaster.”
According to Lombrozo, contributors to Bitcoin Core have long understood that a hard fork means you are essentially starting a new coin by default; however, they’ve always known these sorts of forks are possible. After all, the Bitcoin Wiki hosts a wish list of changes and new features that developers would like to see included in a possible hard fork.
In reality, a hard fork of the Bitcoin blockchain is possible at any time when a group of developers, users, and miners decide they want to split off into a separate network. This ability for a large section of the community to break off from the Bitcoin network is troublesome for two reasons. FIrstly, the result would be to split bitcoin, which is supposed to be a digital gold or digital bearer asset, into two separate tokens. Therefore, the digital gold’s network effects are weakened.
Secondly, network effects create a situation where a majority of users can coerce the minority into accepting their changes to the system. “It’s a really, really tough battle for the weaker chain,” said Lombrozo.
In the case of the Ethereum hard fork, it appears that the ideological differences between the two chains were great enough to allow for two substantial chains to exist, but the story of Ethereum Classic is still developing.
Better privacy features, such as pervasive coin mixing, can help avoid some nefarious hard forks activated by mob rule, but other aspects of Bitcoin’s social contract, such as bitcoin’s monetary policy and the block size limit, can be hard forked at any moment. There is still much more work to be done to ensure that Bitcoin’s ethos is protected.
Bitcoin Gains Security Through Simplicity
While some people believe the Bitcoin development process moves much too slowly, the reality is that moving too quickly can be a more serious issue (as illustrated by The DAO). Bitcoin is focused on being a bearer ecash, and the Bitcoin Core developers are taking a slower, more methodical approach to the proliferation of smart contracts on the Bitcoin blockchain.
In reality, Bitcoin development has been going at a rather rapid pace this year. After agreeing on a basic roadmap for development near the end of 2015, the following developments have taken place in 2016:
- 7x faster signature verification via libsecp256k1
- CHECKSEQUENCYVERIFY has been activated
- BIP 9 (Version Bits) was used to make a soft-forking change to Bitcoin for the first time
- Segregated Witness has been merged into Bitcoin Core (but not yet activated)
- The Lightning Network is nearing completion and should be ready for Bitcoin’s mainnet once Segregated Witness is activated
- Rootstock has started a private beta of their Ethereum-esque Bitcoin sidechain
- Bitcoin Core contributor and Blockstream Core Tech Engineer Matt Corallo revealed the Fast Internet Bitcoin Relay Engine (FIBRE), which can be used to relay blocks between Bitcoin nodes with almost no delay
- Compact block relay was added in Bitcoin Core 0.13 to greatly reduce the number of redundant data transfers between nodes
These are just some key examples of the many developments that have taken place this year. Many developers consider Segregated Witness and the Lightning Network to be the two most important developments in Bitcoin up to this point.
“Development on Bitcoin is going at a very fast pace – there’s probably the equivalent of two or three dozen developers working on Bitcoin Core full time and more if you include things like the Lightning Network,” said Todd. “Sure, part of the community isn’t getting what they want, but progress is still being made at a fast pace.”
Bitcoin Has Users
Another thing to consider when comparing hard forks in Bitcoin and Ethereum is that Bitcoin has a much larger user base. It can be much easier to make serious changes to a protocol when the user base is not that diverse.
“Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum gets very little real-world use of any kind,” said Todd. “People aren’t using ether to move money across borders, people aren’t paying for stuff on dark-markets with ether, people aren’t making donations, etc. The DAO was nearly the only actual production app on Ethereum – and it itself was pretty alpha. Getting consensus to change networks that aren’t actually getting used in production is quite a bit easier than changing ones that are because the lack of use-cases means there’s going to be less differing incentives among different players.”
In summary, Bitcoin’s community of users is less inclined to reverse an action that has taken place on the blockchain in an effort to preserve bitcoin’s place as a bearer ecash. Bitcoin’s scripting system is also less complex in an effort to avoid disasters like The DAO, which could create the need for a “bailout” in the first place. The level of success achieve by Bitcoin also means the platform has actual users who could be negatively affected by a split into two separate blockchains or some other issue created by a contentious hard fork.
Simply executing a hard fork is not a sign of success, and it should be placed in the context of all of the other factors involved in each particular case. In the case of Bitcoin, its lack of hard fork may be the true sign of success, as it means the system is so decentralized that it’s difficult to come to consensus on protocol changes.
While this means more contentious features won’t be added to Bitcoin, it also means that undisputed improvements, such as CHECKLOCKTIMEVERIFY and CHECKSEQUENCEVERIFY, can eventually find their way into the system. More experimental features can also be tested on sidechains, such as Rootstock, which separate the more speculative uses of the blockchain from the main chain.
Adaptability and flexibility may not necessarily be completely positive features in the world of public blockchains. When changes can be made to the protocol with relative ease, it’s possible that the network will move away from the base principles that gave the system value in the first place.