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Bitcoin 2014: Building the Digital Payments-network (reflections on a million-dollar conference)

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         Bitcoin 2014: Building the Digital Payments-network (reflections on a million-dollar conference)

A Dutch version of this article originally appeared on Coincourant.

“The reason I am so committed to Bitcoin and crypto, is that crypto can solve the problem that centralized organizations present to society.”

Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne’s fiery opening speech at Bitcoin 2014 is geared straight at the libertarian spirit of Bitcoin-hardliners. In his philosophical keynote address, the man who was heralded onto the main stage of the conference as a leader in exposing Wall Street corruption makes no mistake about his commitment to support the crypto-revolution: “Society sets us up with regulators to protect us from certain industries, from certain forces. But sometimes these regulators have the tendency to get captured. They get owned by the industries they are supposed to help defend us from.” And: “It’s not just the regulators that get captured by the bad guys. It’s regulators, and congressmen, and police, and journalists, and judges, and academics… The capture goes very deep.” Byrne delivers an exciting kick-off for Bitcoin 2014.

For one weekend, Amsterdam poses as the epicenter of a new financial paradigm, as conveyed by the confident slogan near the entrance of the main conference hall: “Building the Digital Economy”. It’s still early when the morning sun shines intensely through the tall glass walls of the spacious Passenger Terminal in the Dutch capital, soaking the wide hall in natural light. But free rounds of coffee are quickly fueling optimism among speakers and attendees alike: the buzzing chatter in the Passenger Terminal gradually increases as the conference gets underway.

If Byrne’s key note represented the official opening of Bitcoin 2014, Gavin Andresen’s State of Bitcoin address that afternoon represents the unofficial version. Dressed in a conspicuously mundane janitor-like outfit, even sporting the word “Geek” on his chest, the Bitcoin Foundation’s Chief Scientist approaches his yearly breakdown of technical challenges and future goals from a polar opposite direction from what Byrne had done before him. For Andresen, Bitcoin is not a revolution. Bitcoin is a technology. Boring is good. The three characteristic words are showing on a plain power-point presentation, while the chief scientists speaks of BIP processes, binaries, and P2P-networks.

Hidden underneath his techno-babble, however, Andresen does discuss some controversial issues, wrangling matters that only technical insiders at the conference might pick up on. “Once we get to one megabyte, we’ve got to make blocks bigger,” Andresen insists. “We just have to. If we don’t, transaction fees will rise and rise and rise, to the point where only rich people can afford to transact on the Bitcoin-network.”

Andresen is right: in its current form, Bitcoin does not scale to anything near what is needed for a widely used payments-system. Stuck with a single megabyte block size limit, the network can process a mere seven transactions per second at most. Barring possible alternative solutions such as tree chains or sidechains, that is not nearly enough for mainstream use. Not even close.

What Andresen fails to mention, however, is that increasing the block size limit would logically increase the size of the blockchain itself as well. Nearing 20 gigabytes already, this would probably cause the public ledger to burst towards many multitudes of that before soon, up to the point where it might be very hard to store the blockchain locally. Additionally, larger blocks would require full nodes to use up more bandwidth in order to transmit all of the data, which is burdensome and possibly expensive for most users. In essence, therefore, Andresen’s proposal could lead to a sacrifice of decentralization in favor of short-term and large-scale usability.

And apparently, Andresen’s point of view is no exception. His preference for main stream adoption over ideological purity seems rather illustrative of the conference as a whole. The stars of Bitcoin 2014 are not the rebellious Dark Wallet front-man Amir Taaki, Good Guy Revolutionary Andreas Antonopoulos, or anarchocapitalists’ favorite pacifist Stefan Molyneux. No one is talking about anonymous marketplaces, breaking the banking cartel, or obliterating the petrodollar. Instead, the dominant speakers of the weekend include Circle’s Jeremy Allaire, BitPay’s Tony Gallippi, and BTC China’s Bobby Lee. Presentations at the conference are oriented towards web-wallets, payment-processors, exchanges, and regulation. Despite its slogan, Bitcoin 2014 is not really tailored for libertarian idealists eager to build a digital economy. It is tailored for businesscard-exchanging investors willing to fund a more efficient payments-network.

This pragmatic – rather than ideological – focus is not very surprising, as Elizabeth Ploshay inadvertently points out during her main stage closing speech on Saturday afternoon. Nearing the end of the conference, the only female Bitcoin Foundation board-member cheerfully lists this event’s main sponsors BitPay, Coinbase, Perkins Coie and BitFury one by one, making sure that each of them receives its own round of applause. This conference was made possible by one payment-processor, one web-wallet, one law-firm, and one ASIC-manufacturer. Two companies that rely on Bitcoin as a payments-network, one that is specialized in regulation, and one whose business it is to – quite literally – centralize mining. Each subsidizing the conference for tens of thousands of dollars.

Following the closing round of applause, Bitcoin 2014’s final act does not take place in the large Passenger Terminal. Instead, Bitcoin Foundation members – and members only – are delegated to a much smaller room, several corridors removed form the main hall of the conference. In this room, lit through one row of small windows and dampened by the collective body-heat from a busy crowd, Jon Matonis takes the stage. Here, the Bitcoin Foundation executive director elaborates on finances, lobby-efforts, and goals for the Foundation. And while answering a question from Ryan “Two-Bit Idiot” Selkis, Matonis is awfully honest: “We don’t attempt to represent the community at large. That might be a secondary role that we’ve acquired, but we set out to represent the industry and individual members.”

Matonis specifies the numbers. As much as seventy percent of all the funding raised by the Bitcoin Foundation is derived from corporate sponsors. Top-tiers BitPay, Circle, Up Down, CoinLab and OK Coin contribute $25,000 each, while KnC Miner has even smacked down a whopping $100,000 in membership fees, providing the ASIC-manufacturer a platinum membership of the Foundation. “Platinum members receive observer rights for board meetings,” Matonis elaborates. “They’re allowed to sit in board meetings and discuss things.” Instead of questions, or critique, or perhaps even anger, the painfully ironic comments are met with a joke.

While the open source model supporting Bitcoin provides for tremendous equality among users, influence within the Foundation is apparently up for sale to the highest bidder. While Reddit, Bitcointalk, and even mailing-lists are wide open for discussion regarding the future of Bitcoin, the Foundation charges visitors hundreds of dollars to get inside of its conferences, and organizes closed-door sessions for selected crowds. While one of Bitcoin’s greatest strengths is the provision for innovation without permission and the fact that anyone can join the network, the Foundation is a closed bastion excluding those not willing or unable to pay a membership fee, and even holds secretive board meetings. While the Bitcoin-blockchain provides for a revolutionary form of transparency, the Foundation embeds none of this into its bookkeeping. While Bitcoin is a grass-roots movement, the Foundation is organized according to a top-down structure. While Bitcoin’s strength is its decentralized nature, the Foundation often tends to present itself as the official body of Bitcoin, likes to deal with regulators as such, and even formulates its own mission statement as “standardizing Bitcoin” by funding its infrastructure and the Core development team.

Although prominent Bitcoin-businesses obviously have every right to organize themselves in any way they want, it is exceedingly clear that the Bitcoin Foundation does not represent Bitcoin itself, the Bitcoin-community, or its core ideals. Instead, it is a centralized vehicle, which – judging by the Bitcoin 2014 conference – advocates the interests of its Big Money sponsors. And if these sponsors stand to gain from a Bitcoin that is less centralized, and more scalable, on a short term, there is very little reason to think that the Bitcoin Foundation will not commit itself to that goal.

“It’s not just the regulators that get captured by the bad guys. It’s regulators, and congressmen, and police, and journalists, and judges, and academics…” While selected members of the Foundation are enjoying their drinks in an exclusive corner of the building, Byrne’s speech quietly echoes through the abandoned Passenger Terminal. But by now, it sounds like a word of warning: centralized non-profit organizations would fit well into his list of corruptible institutions.

There might be little reason to suspect serious misconduct at this time. But the Bitcoin Foundation is at the very least installing an organizational structure that will be ripe for capture at some point in the future, when nothing but a vague memory remains from the speech of a naively idealistic dreamer at an early-day Bitcoin conference in Amsterdam: “The reason I am so committed to Bitcoin and crypto, is that crypto can solve the problem that centralized organizations present to society…”

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