Ethereum Is Throwing Out the Crypto Governance Playbook

“Can’t we just solve scaling? Can’t we just solve privacy? Can’t we just say ‘done’ and get to feature-complete?”

That was the question Bob Summerwill asked the audience at the ethereum conference EthCC in Paris on Thursday, the comments coming as part of a broader talk that called for an end to “tribalism” in the community supporting the world’s second-largest blockchain.

Community manager at ethereum and an ambassador for blockchain alliance Sweetbridge, Summerwill opened the conference on a note that would reverberate throughout the next three days; that while the development of the ethereum “world computer” is a technical pursuit, it cannot escape social entanglements.

More recently, debates concerning the return of lost funds have demonstrated cracks in the platform’s existing governance, which relies on a process borrowed from bitcoin and internet development, the request for proposal (RFP) process.

But while contentious changes tend to be avoided in bitcoin, ethereum developers have long warned that being too cautionary with code could lead to stagnation. “Otherwise we’ll be a sitting duck like bitcoin and be overtaken,” an audience member warned.

Still, lacking a forum to resolve debates, development platform GitHub has become somewhat of a battleground, with the ethereum codebase ruffled with political pull requests urging developers to “make ethereum immutable” or to increase the transparency of the Ethereum Foundation, the non-profit that oversees development.

As the conference showcased, ethereum developers are now faced with the problem of how to keep development fresh and adaptive in new ways without sacrificing technical scrutiny. Indeed, that fact was acknowledged in many of the week’s panels and sessions.

“We recently had a huge amount of conflict,” Greg Colvin, developer of ethereum’s virtual machine, said at the first meeting of a new governance group that convened on Friday.

There, Colvin laid out his pitch for the Fellowship of Ethereum Magicians, a council that will aim to succeed in developing a unique governance model for ethereum.

According to Colvin, technical debates have been obscured by politics. However, with his new group, he hopes to cut through this issue by advocating for software changes driven by developers.

“It’s the developers who ultimately decide what goes into a hard fork,” Colvin said:

“For political issues, pass it on.”

Governance, abstract and applied

But as some struggled with more practical questions, one of ethereum’s more well-known coders, Vlad Zamfir, sought to provide a theory that could be put to use.

In his speech, Zamfir described governance a “coordination problem,” one in which arriving at a decision requires a shared knowledge that a set of decision-making processes is the norm.

“In bitcoin, we have a strong norm against contentious hard forks, and that norm really, really heavily structures the coordination that people do around [the software],” Zamfir continued.

However, when it comes to software changes, he said that blockchain design provides natural checks and balances. In the case of bitcoin, he explained, those running nodes, or computers with full copies of the blockchain, can resist change.

Speaking at the fellowship meeting, Nick Johnson echoed this finding, stating that the decision that ultimately changes a blockchain’s code is generally the final step in a long process of technical scrutiny.

Having followed the various steps of the EIP process, in which software is proposed, accepted, coded into clients and finally released, the upgrade is then subject to political analysis.

“Clients are released, people informed about what’s contained and they have the choice to run the hard fork client and agree or not run and continue with the legacy chain,” Johnson said in the meeting.

By pushing political decisions until later in the process, Johnson explained, developers have ample time to technically analyze a decision, something that has been denied in the persistent attacks on GitHub recently.

If the community rejects the change, it can always refuse to adopt it, something that Johnson described as “extreme and hopefully uncommon, but also a safety value.” […]

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