Bitcoin’s protocol is slow to change by design, but incentivizing the BIP feedback process with bounties could improve development.
This is an opinion editorial by Ariel Deschapell, co-founder of multi-cloud hosting platform Hydra Host, senior fellow at Lincoln Network and a team member at BIPBounty.org.
The idea that Bitcoin lacks innovation compared to other cryptocurrencies is pervasive, but is it true?
The Bitcoin protocol undergoes significant changes much more slowly than other cryptocurrencies, the latest, of course, being the implementation and activation of Taproot. But this is a feature, not a bug.
As the foundation of a massive open-source ecosystem, changes should be well thought out and should consistently demonstrate widespread consensus that the benefits of the change outweigh costs. While true and generally accepted, this line of thinking can also be a cop out. It’s important to recognize the necessity of consensus, but we must think deeply about what consensus means, how it is achieved and how we could potentially improve upon how it happens.
Overall, the idea that slow development is a better pattern is simply an awful heuristic and a false dichotomy. The options available to the Bitcoin community’s protocol development are infinitely more varied and nuanced than simply “slow” or “fast.” Careful, comprehensive, deliberate, inclusive; all of these adjectives do a much better job of describing what the Bitcoin community should actually aim to facilitate. This explicit wording is important, for whatever values we subscribe to will be used to judge initiatives and efforts, and the only aspiring ideal worse than slow is likely fast.
The simple passage of time does nothing on its own to ensure a Bitcoin Improvement Proposal (BIP) receives more eyeballs, reviews, serious consideration or engagement. It also does nothing to ensure that the developer community is focusing its finite efforts and attention on the right areas.
The Proper Framing
If we seek to defend innovation in the Bitcoin community, the easiest way to do so would be to point at the truly expansive body of continuous research and development in the bitcoin-dev mailing group and other forums of technical information exchange. It is undeniable that Bitcoin boasts a huge mindshare of world-class programmers, cryptographers, mathematicians, economists and more. These individuals continue to wrestle with pivotal problems, such as implementing greater degrees of privacy, and scaling the greater Bitcoin network to global throughput without losing the very characteristics that make it Bitcoin.
This community is delightfully and intentionally unstructured and informal. There exists no standardized process by which any idea or proposal graduates to becoming included in Bitcoin. The only way for a proposal to reach eventual inclusion is to receive the extensive attention, support and subsequent work from the community required to do so. From the research and analysis required to convince the community that the benefits significantly outweigh the costs, to the breakdowns and communication necessary to motivate the wider ecosystem to upgrade software and prepare use cases, to the actual work of finalizing and implementing the code itself.
Maintaining and supercharging this process is essential, and while it will always be slower than a standardized and formalized system in a relative sense, there is always room for improvement to make it happen more effectively on its own terms.
The knee-jerk impulse to fight against any assertion that the Bitcoin development process is not ideal, or that it can benefit from improvement, is usually based on the implicit assumption that any effort to improve it necessarily means adding more centralization and control. However, this is far from true. Just as the Lightning Network debunked the claim that increasing transacting scalability necessitated increasing the block size.
Similarly, BIP bounties are an attempt at improving the incentives driving Bitcoin development and consensus building. Administered by the Lincoln Network, a nonprofit organization focused on fostering technologies that support human liberty, BIPBounty.org collects donations to fund standardized bounties earmarked for specific BIPs. Although it only lists one bounty at the moment, this structure is designed to accomplish the following:
- Through tax deductions, it incentivizes community members and organizations to show interest in and financial support for proposals by putting their money where their mouths are.
- It gives the open-source Bitcoin development community strong comparative signals regarding which areas the community is most interested in, and which have higher potential financial ROI for them to attune their focus.
- The bounty options for BIPs are designed to move the ball forward on concrete deliverables, representing the inputs necessary for the community to come to consensus (or not) on any particular proposal. This includes written reviews, analysis and various classes of bug or vulnerability discoveries.
- It does all of the above in an opt-in and non-centralizing way that maintains the spirit of the Bitcoin project. Many developers may not pay any particular interest to bounties, and that’s fine too.
Beginning With BIP119
BIPBounty.org sprang out as a concept from the BIP119 controversy. In December 2021, the BIP’s author, Jeremy Rubin, placed a bug bounty on his own BIP via Twitter.
Very quickly, other supporters of the BIP threw in their hats and offered their own complimentary bounties. The total bounty amount quickly snowballed. That this happened completely spontaneously and organically was a tremendous sign of pent-up community willingness and demand to dedicate financial resources to move the ball forward on discourse and consensus.
Naturally, BIPBounty.org has begun with the BIP119 bounties, but as a project it has no aims in regards to any specific BIP. Its goal is to encompass all BIPs and allow the Bitcoin community itself to decide which proposals are of greater interest and worthy of their tax deductible contributions.
BIPBounty.org is new and is attempting to tackle an ambitious problem. The hypothesis by which we will evaluate our efforts is that there is community interest for such an endeavor beyond a one-time interest in the context of a single BIP. By enabling that, we can sustainably accelerate research and development deliverables and discourse across BIPs.
All of this requires community buy-in and engagement. And most crucial at this early stage is feedback. To that end, we at Lincoln Network hope that the best and brightest of the Bitcoin community will continue to engage with us and help us in our efforts to drive effective, collaborative and sustainable Bitcoin development.
This is a guest post by Ariel Deschapell. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.
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Author: Ariel Deschapell
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