During the opening panel of this year’s Understanding Bitcoin conference in Malta, some prominent members of the Bitcoin community reflected on the block size limit controversy and the eventual activation of Segregated Witness (SegWit).
One of the individuals involved in the conversation was Bull Bitcoin CEO Francis Pouliot, who was working at The Bitcoin Embassy in Montreal, Canada during some of the most contentious periods of Bitcoin’s scaling debate. As part of his job at The Bitcoin Embassy, Pouliot operated a Bitcoin kiosk where he interacted with thousands of Bitcoin users face to face. According to Pouliot, this experience had a profound impact on how he viewed Bitcoin and taught him the importance of Bitcoin users operating their own nodes.
Why Do People Use Bitcoin?
During his appearance on the opening panel at Understanding Bitcoin, Pouliot discussed how his job at the Bitcoin Embassy in Montreal helped him realize why people found Bitcoin useful in the first place.
“I came to realize that the core value proposition that was kind of unifying everyone was this aspect of censorship resistance and also this aspect of the immutability of the bitcoin supply,” said Pouliot.
According to Pouliot, almost nobody he was interacting with at The Bitcoin Embassy on a daily basis was complaining about the rising costs of transacting on the Bitcoin blockchain. Many of them were also excited about the prospect of the Lightning Network as a secondary protocol layer for payments.
Pouliot added that, for the most part, the people who Pouliot was interacting with were simply buying bitcoin and holding it as a long term investment. These Bitcoin users weren’t on Facebook or Twitter arguing about whether the block size limit should be increased.
“These people will not update,” said Pouliot. “They’re not going to update their software. They have no idea how to update.”
Users Need to Run Their Own Nodes
Due to the lack of users running their own nodes, Pouliot became concerned regarding this lack of true participation in the Bitcoin network.
“One of the first things we noticed was that almost nobody was running a node,” said Pouliot. “And almost nobody is running a node today. I think something like 0.3% of the Bitcoin users run nodes — so about like 70,000 nodes or something like that. And none of these people had a say in Bitcoin.”
From Pouliot’s perspective, running a node was not a particularly big deal in the early days of Bitcoin because everyone had opted into a particular ruleset and had no desire to change the rules. But that all changed during the scaling debate.
When the code for SegWit’s activation became available, miners were slow to implement it. And because of the way the code was deployed (via Bitcoin Improvement Proposal 9), SegWit’s activation was dependent on miners signalling their preparedness for the upgrade.
This lack of activity from miners led to the creation of Bitcoin Improvement Proposal 148 (BIP 148), which pushed for the activation of SegWit by way of a user-activated soft fork (UASF). Users would effectively tell miners that they want miners to mine blocks that are compatible with the SegWit improvement.
“None of these people were able to voice any sort of opinion in terms of SegWit,” said Pouliot. “So, we tried to get people to run the nodes and to enforce their own consensus rules because if you’re not running a node, you’re not a user of bitcoin; you’re an owner of bitcoin. You may have private keys, but you’re not an actual user — you’re not validating it. And ultimately, if you’re not running a node, then there isn’t really a point in using bitcoin. And I think that’s what UASF showed.”
Pouliot used the analogy of a user running their own node as being like having a condom available: It’s better to have one and not need it rather than need one and not have one.
“UASF was the first time where I personally was not running a node to validate my own transactions before UASF, and it was the first time there was this actual need to voice opinion,” explained Pouliot. “So, I think it was a big educational opportunity for the public to realize: What is the use and power of running a full node?”