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Will Scaling Bitcoin Bring Us to Consensus on the Block Size Debate?

Op-ed - Will Scaling Bitcoin Bring Us to Consensus on the Block Size Debate?

“There’s a deep rift amongst bitcoin core devs regarding what the purpose of Bitcoin should be,” said Eric Lombrozo, Bitcoin developer and CEO of Ciphrex. “Unfortunately, the fundamental underlying disagreements aren’t being properly addressed … and most of the discussion has instead focused on the differing conclusions rather than on the real causes of disagreement.”

On August 15, Bitcoin Magazine reported that the first of two Scaling Bitcoin workshops would be held in Montreal on September 12 and 13. This first phase of proposals and presentations is intent on setting the stage for further discussions in phase two, which is planned for December 6-7 in Hong Kong, all with the goal of generating the sort of discussion that Lombrozo is referring to.

“This conference represents a communitywide effort to understand and characterize the plethora of factors that must be considered before coming to any conclusion about how to best scale Bitcoin,” Eric Martindale told Bitcoin Magazineon behalf of Scaling Bitcoin. “Our goal with this first event is to increase awareness of the research that has gone into the scaling problem over the past few years, and encourage a more open dialogue across the entire community.”

The debate over the future of Bitcoin and scalability has ramped up over the past few weeks as proponents of one solution or another have taken to social media, discussion boards and blogs to argue various cases.

On September 1, in an open letter to the Bitcoin community, 32 developers collectively asked people “to not prejudge and instead work collaboratively to reach the best outcome through the existing process and the supporting workshops.”

“There are a lot of things we’ve learned about Bitcoin that were unknown a few years ago that change many of the underlying assumptions about how the network functions,” said Lombrozo, who has since become a signatory to the open letter. “There’s been a lot of progress in ideas … but, unfortunately, there’s also a lot of confusion surrounding how Bitcoin can evolve. I hope we can really take a step back and look at what we can do given what we know now … rather than focusing too much on the way we thought the system should have worked but doesn’t.”

Lombrozo argues that the larger underlying issue is “the lack of a process that allows us to make progress in situations where we lack near-unanimous agreement for hard forks. Until now, the policy has been to not make these kinds of changes unless everyone agrees.” He adds that while he is looking forward to attending the workshops and seeing what the engineers have to offer, he is also “working on some proposals to address the consensus-building process between developers more generally.”

Chinese mining pool BW, which provides approximately 8 percent of global mining power, will also be keeping a close eye on what comes out of the two workshops.

“We would like this to be an opportunity for everyone to get together and sit down to discuss this important issue,” representatives from the company told Bitcoin Magazine. “We are in agreement with the spirit of the open letter and look forward to meeting our colleagues from around the world.”

BW will be sending Mianhuan Li, the manager of their mining farm in Inner Mongolia, to the Montreal workshop. Qingchun Shentu, their resident expert on cryptography and Bitcoin, and doctoral candidate in Signal and Information Processing, will attend the second workshop in Hong Kong.

On the other hand, core developer Mike Hearn, who implemented the BitcoinXT fork along with Gavin Andreson, is skeptical about the Scaling Bitcoin workshops.

“If you look at how the Bitcoin Core devs and Blockstream have acted so far, this fits their modus operandi perfectly — stall for as long as possible whilst claiming that we just need more time for the ‘experts’ to think and debate. But don’t define any way to actually come to conclusions, thus ensuring the debate never ends.”

The workshops, which Hearn will sit out while Andresen attends, have explicitly stated that there will be academic and scientific presentations, but no debate. Furthermore, no decisions or pronouncements on scalability will be made during the workshops.

Core developer and one of the signatories on the open letter, Peter Todd, expressed some skepticism, in correspondence with Bitcoin Magazine, that the workshops will be able meet all the demands of the companies attending.

“If the data supports raising the blocksize to some level safely, and we can agree on what ‘safely’ means, that won’t be a hard thing to get consensus on. It’s just unlikely the amount we can safely raise it to will make people happy.”

He pointed out that what Andersen and Hearn appear to want — “zero or near zero fees forever with most transactions being on chain” — appears to be fundamentally impossible by simply changing a constant.

The Scaling Bitcoin workshops are hosted by CryptoMechanics and underwritten by BlockstreamChaincode LabsMIT Digital Currency Initiative and Chain, with further sponsorship support from other Bitcoin and blockchain companies.