Bitcoin's 'Independence Day': Could Users Tip the Scales in the Scaling Debate?

“V for Vendetta” GIFs, “Walking Dead” references, images of tornadoes – even bitcoin’s infamous ‘BearWhale’ has returned to welcome an approaching attempt to upgrade bitcoin.

While there have been many efforts aimed at improving the digital currency’s protocol in recent years, few have attracted as fervent a following as bitcoin improvement proposal (BIP) 148.

Drafted in an effort to rally the community behind a process called a user-activated soft fork (UASF), the proposal is distinguished by being less reliant on gaining support from network miners. In fact, BIP 148 is the UASF with the shortest timeline to launch – and it’s activating on the 1st August.

While some reject the growing support for BIP 148 as a kind of populist uprising, others believe it will lead to users having better control over the direction of the protocol. As per usual, opinions are split.

Because the change aims to circumvent what some consider a decision by miners not to signal support for Segregated Witness, a scaling solution preferred by Bitcoin Core developers, some have dubbed the upgrade date ‘Bitcoin Independence Day’.

Alphonse Pace, a developer and supporter of BIP 148, told CoinDesk:

“[T]here’s no way to put it back in Pandora’s box. The code is out; it’s being run by economic nodes. Either we split on 1st August, or SegWit is activated.”

What we know and what we don’t

So what does BIP 148 actually do?

BIP 148 is an atypical UASF in that it tries to encourage users to push miners to upgrade to the version of SegWit that some have been running as part of their bitcoin software since last November. By one measure, more than 80% of bitcoin nodes are now ready for SegWit.

BIP 148’s rules go into effect on 1st August, and by that date, miners have to show the network they’re ready for SegWit by creating blocks with the version ‘bit 1’. BIP 148-compatible nodes will reject blocks found by miners that do not signal the upgrade.

But it’s hard to say what will happen after that.

If the majority of hash power signals its support, the full network is projected to follow that chain. If they don’t, though, there’s potential for a split, where there are two separate blockchains with two different transaction histories and two different tradeable bitcoin assets.

Some have already posted guides on preparing for the date, detailing how users can keep their funds safe in the event that this occurs.

Risks of a split

Given the potential for a network split, some are less than enthusiastic about the proposal.

For one, BIP 148 is more controversial than a ‘traditional’ UASF would be. Should users want to push through a protocol change, there may be safer ways to do so. This has led to a mixed reception from developers working on the open-source project, who have long sought to emphasize and promote user safety.

“I personally don’t support it,” said Bitcoin Core contributor Jonas Schnelli, adding that the change likely won’t be integrated into the Bitcoin Core codebase.

Schnelli indicated his support of a different proposal, stating:

“BIP 149 seems to be the sane UASF.”

BIP 149 is also a UASF, but it differs from BIP 148 in that miners need to do less to remain a part of a network upgraded to Segregated Witness. Rather than signal for SegWit, they only have to avoid building on top of blocks that the network considers invalid.

BIP 149 would start after the current SegWit deployment times out in November, as some developers argue it’s safer to wait until then before creating a new deployment that could be incompatible with old nodes. BIP 149 is tentatively scheduled for 4th July, 2018, though the timeline is still up for debate.

And, there are other concerns with BIP 148 as it stands today.

Developer Greg Slepak said the “whole idea is idiotic given the lack of replay protection”, referencing a problem that played out last year when an ethereum software upgrade split the network in two. This led to a situation where coins could be spent on both chains.

Others argue that, while a UASF might be necessary at some point, now might not be the right time.

OpenBazaar’s lead back-end developer, Chris Pacia, indicated he would only support a UASF if there was near-unanimous support beyond just miners.

“But my read of the community at this point is that there isn’t consensus on SegWit, and a UASF poses a real risk of creating a chain split,” he said. The best way forward, according to Pacia, is Segwit2x – a more recent proposal that has support from most major bitcoin businesses and 80% of bitcoin miners.

Dangers in delay

To some, such as Pace, there’s a risk also in waiting too long to activate SegWit.

He said:

“Many have tried to say, ‘We should do 149 instead of 148’, and really it’s the wrong question. Why wait for 149, which might never happen, when I could simply switch to litecoin, which has a community willing to stand for what it believes and has more functionality?”

Litecoin, a lesser-known cryptocurrency, has recently drawn attention for activating SegWit, a move that occurred after a closed-door meeting between network miners and developers.

Pace added that he believes that BIP 148 will find a lot of support.

“I have a feeling a lot of people will underestimate [BIP 148], much like [ethereum classic], and will be caught unprepared,” he continued. Many, including the original ethereum blockchain developers, expected ethereum classic, the old chain, to die off in the community’s transition to a new blockchain last summer. It didn’t, and now there are two competing tokens.

So far, 33 bitcoin companies have signaled support for BIP 148.

But what really matters in terms of pushing miners to support is whether the ‘economic majority‘ supports it. In other words, major exchanges and wallets are key here, but many of the big players, such as Coinbase, Blockchain and Kraken, have yet to pledge loyalty to the effort.

Driving factor

Still, there are even more complexities.

Some claim a UASF, if done right, will have more of a psychological effect.

Shaolinfry, the pseudonymous developer who rekindled the idea of a UASF, argued that the mere prospect of a UASF is what pushed litecoin mining pools into supporting activation of SegWit. Similarly, some have argued, the same prospect of a UASF is what led so many mining pools to support Segwit2x.

And, still others think that now BIP 148 is going to happen, the safest option is for users to just go with it.

Bitcoin Core contributor Nicolas Dorier, for instance, argued those who do not run BIP 148 software are more at risk in the event of a split because of potential reorganizations.

“I personally think that BIP 148 will work. I would have preferred [the] status quo, but the safest way for my services is to update to BIP 148,” wrote Dorier, who works on QBit Ninja, an API for querying the blockchain.

However, it’s unclear whether other bitcoin service providers will make the same decision. If they don’t, though, Coinkite CEO and co-founder Novak Rodolfo said BIP 148 isn’t the only option for those inclined to change the network’s rules.

He told CoinDesk:

“Support is really growing; there is a good chance [BIP 148] succeeds on 1st August. If it doesn’t, then we have another chance with BIP 149.”

Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of DCG, which has an ownership stake in Coinbase and Kraken.

Sparkler image via Shutterstock

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