What Internet governance can learn from Bitcoin
Speakers: Pindar Wong
Transcript By: Bryan Bishop
Forked to Death: What Internet governance can learn from Bitcoin
So, the last talk today is going to be from Pindar Wong. He’s been involved with Internet in Hong Kong. He also helped organize the Scaling Bitcoin workshops. It’s my pleasure to have him speaking today.
Okay. Thank you very much for staying until the bitter end. My topic today is forked to death, what Internet governance can learn from Bitcoin. I do mean this, and I would like to explain why. This is a fork. I am holding a fork.
In Internet governance, we don’t talk about forks, we talk about fragmentation. The title here should be fragmentation to death, what Internet governance can learn from bitcoin. Fragmentation from the internet is a real and present danger. This morning we heard we have an internet one behind China and one behind the United States…. I am from Hong Kong. We had some views this morning about the miners in China. As you also know, I was honored to finally meet many of you through the process of Scaling Bitcoin.
Bryan Bishop at the end of Phase 2, why not post to the -dev mailing list about reflections about the event? Phase 1 was one of the times when many developers got together. And phase 2 was when all of the hash power got together for the first time. Looking back on that, this presentation is looking back on those two recent events, as well as the recent Satoshi Roundtable and also the Hong Kong meeting.
First I would like to thank the students from MIT who came up to Montreal to help up with this seminal events. MIT DCI was one of the core underwriters for this event. Jeremy Rubin was the chair for phase 1. So thank you so much for that.
So what can Internet governance learn from Bitcoin? The first point is that the Bitcoin community is very careful about attempts to externalize cost. This is really smart. At Scaling Bitcoin, I was the most stupid person in the room, which means I was in the right room. This group is really sensitive to the notions of externalizing costs. BGP attacks were mentioned earlier. Spam is another example. We did not do that cost externalization analysis, and I think this community does that really well, we should really learn from Bitcoin about when to externalize cost in a shared system.
The second one is that it’s about meritocracy, we don’t care who you are, it’s rather about your ideas. We see past race, gender, orientations, prejudices, it’s a technical meritocracy for proof-of-work of hard work. To see people get on planes and come to the event for Scaling Bitcoin and have really deep civilized respectful technical conversations, was wonderful to see.
The other thing that I have learned… I still use email. I don’t use chat. I have only tweeted maybe 40 times. This community has discovered something faster than light, and that’s rumor. It’s real-time media audit. The use of reddit and the use of IRC and all the different chats, it seems 24 hours per day. That’s something to recognize, because to me that’s something really different. Cory and I had an interesting exchange, he said, would the internet have occurred if it was constantly under the media spotlight that current internet provides? I think the answer is no, but it’s ust my hypothesis, we can’t check this.
I think this community is develping an immune system. I don’t think it’s about governance. Let me explain why. Let’s look at the Internet today. I started the first ISP in Hong Kong in 1993. That was 23 years ago? How many of you are under 23? So technically, before you were born, geeze I feel old. July 5th, 1993, there was a famous comic in the New Yorker, which said that on the internet nobody knows you are a dog. That resonated with me because the internet was the first time at a societal level that mainstream can talk about the internet and say whatever it wanted. This year we see mainstream talking about Bitcoin. So keep this in mind.
The reality is that, right now, despite the Internet, what we have is that people doing metadata analysis, doing data surveillance and making accusations and allegations. The metadata these days is the message. We have developed this Internet which was supposed to be free and open, and in terms of previous governance, we have failed.
Also in terms of governance, before text, we had a wonderful word which I am going to describe. It was before images. The people who were at the cusp, like Joi Ito, who run the MIT Media Lab, who feel strongly about Bitcoin so that we don’t make technical compromises that jeopardize interoperation of the Bitcoin blockchain.
Today I was supposed to be in Morocco for an ICANN meeting. The internet kind of just works. Well, there’s a lot of engineering that makes the Internet work. The closest thing I could say for consensus protocols is like BGP. All of the routers have this algorithm, and the packets end up where they should. On the internet, you need a hierarchical numbering system of IP addresses, like for IPv4. I was also the device chair of the IP name assignment for the agency. This meeting is important, I think, because it’s the 55th meeting. Scaling Bitcoin has only had 2. This has had 55 minutes since 1998. It’s supposed to decide if the US government lets go of the car keys, and lets ICANN self-administer. This was supposed to happen on September 30th, 2000. So we are 16 years later. Perhaps better late than never?
This is as close to Internet governance as you will probably get. You all remember that in Bitcoin, on the front page of The Economist, was “the trust machine”. If you look at today’s Economist, there was an article about Internet governance. This topic is about Internet governance and what it can learn from Bitcoin.
So what is Internet governance? It’s blah blah blah blah. It took several years to negotiate the text. “Internet governance is the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use the internet.”
Guys like me show up in jeans, and then they ask who am I? The difference is that engineers are willing to solve it no matter who the engineers are, but then the Internet governance discussion becomes “who are you?”. I think that’s the wrong model.
We heard this morning that you can escape government but you still need governance. I think what we have right now with Bitcoin is actually working, though. Governance is the wrong model. If you talk about governance, you are talking about control, centralization, you’re talking about aligning different interests, whereas if we changed that model, from this afternoon’s presentation, if at any time after this time forward and hear someone saying “Bitcoin governance” ask them to stop and ask about health instead. It’s about Bitcoin ecosystem health.
Anything that you do, should improve the Bitcoin ecosystem health, however you perceive that to be. Don’t talk about governance, talk about ecosystem health. What I mean by Bitcoin health is that we are building a healthy industry with all of the different players, including academia. Everyone has different interests, but what aligns us all is that we are an ecosystem of interdependent almost by design, and in so doing, we need to think carefully about the health of the whole ecosystem and your own individual.
Yes, we’re dealing with issues of technical scalability, like the block size discussion and debate, the drama that has happened over the past year and a half, but sorry that’s absolutely normal. Maybe it’s your first time going through the mill, but this is sort of the strength of Bitcoin itself.
Beyond technically scalable, which is something that I think we can solve, but is the whole thing economically sustainable? I think that’s an open question. The subsidy and the cost of operating the system, like CPU time, like unspent transactions, and calculating the total cost of the system so that the whole thing is economically sustainable in addition to technically sustainable. For an ecosystem like this, what would you consider to be pollution? What is normal? What is UTXO pollution? What would you consider to be normal? What would you consider to be a normal functioning Bitcoin ecosystem? That’s the imagine that I hope we can define.
In the Internet ecosystem, we talk about evolution. There are no permanent favorites. In regards to the recent events in 2013, such as the Snowden revolutions, and NIST compromised recommendations, and the IETF engineering task-force has classified that as an attack. Previously they recognized censorship as an attack that the Internet routes around, that’s an evolutionary process. We admit that we make mistakes, we learn from it, and we evolve. In an ecosystem health model, also look at an evolutionary health model, things that don’t evolve will die. So we think about balance and that kind of thing.
So that’s the whole concept of stimulus and response, such as stimulating your immune system, and having it adapt and evolve. This is used in Japan for kaizen for continuous improvement. I believe Bitcoin should have the best tech, the best people, evolving the system to meet higher goals.
How many of you remember this? Yeah, the mosaic browser. Okay you are all geeks. a16z before he was a VC, he actually wrote code, like Mosaic (NCSA). This was around 1993. There was an era before that, which was a magical era, which was the era of pure text, pure imagination, no graphics, no distractions.
In that era, we had a timeline, we had the academic networks up to 1993 more or less, we had our trade association from 1991 for the commercial Internet exchange, which my ISP joined as a member. This National Science Foundation network was designed to survive nuclear attacks. There was a whole bunch of 20 more years of research and development that ended around 1993. The commercial guys, I dropped out of university, I was 23 or 24 at the time, had a PhD, co-founded an ISP, and obviously ISPs were commercial they had the goal of making money. So you keep costs low, and you keep your revenue high. This was built into our blood in Hong Kong.
There was a huge culture clash between those who were purists versus those who are commercial. There were culture clashes there which we sort of see now in Bitcoin, those who are interested in making money, and then a bunch of Bitcoin Core developers who are flag bearers for Bitcoin principles. At that point in time, for those who want to double check, look at the reports at the time. There was lots of drama. Nothing particularly new, when you have a difference of culture.
Right now where we are in Bitcoin, in some sense we have this backwards. We have gone commercial, and as Arvind said is that academia is good at scaling knowledge, but it’s still warming up. Some of us are good at building Internet, which I will talk about.
I think that the Bitcoin community is super sensitive to externalizing cost. The ISP system was my community connects to your network. There are 60 or 70,000 right now. There are 70,000 different autonomous systems that comprise the Internet. When you are commercial, your goal is to make money. So you either keep your costs low or you shift those costs on someone else, you externalize your costs. If you keep your costs low, and you shove the cost to the ecosystem, the environment lays off you, you make more money, in commercial that’s just the way it is.
I think the Bitcoin ecosystem is very clever in identifying where costs are being externalized. That’s really good in this stage of development.
Let’s take a trip down the memory bus, and this is to highlight that these big debates are perhaps nothing new. Get used to them. These won’t be the last. If you look at Rick Adams, who has a long history, he also funded USENET, which was eventually acquired. In the old days of text, there was a peer-to-peer network called USENET news. It had a technical limitation. The USENET newsgroups could only have 14 character naming limitations. That was the constraint. Some people wanted to have newsgroups with more characters. There was a big revolt. They said usually these original 7 groups, they were just chat boards, these people who were interested in a certain subject would gather together and talk about those 7 big categories. They were all based on hierarchies.
And then there was a revolution, there was an “alt” hierarchy, pretty much anything went. That’s when I got introduced to the internet. Looking at these USENET newsgroups, you had to go stitch things together and it was very weird, you get really exposed to humanity at its rawest. It was absolutely wonderful. It was absolutely diverse. You could find anyone and everyone interested in one particular esoteric subject. At the time, I was into…. and that’s the internet I falled in love with thing, it was borderless and nobody knew if you were a dog. It was all text, no graphics.
Around that point of time, there was a book, someone wrote a book which was a guide to this space, by Ed Kroi called Hitchhikers Guide to the Internet (RFC 1118). Andreas’ book is sort of like the first guide to this space. And then there was the usenet wars. And then there was another one, for the domain name system. This came from the US government funded NSF network. The meeting today will hopefully decide that it’s time to end US government involvement.
The backbone network, there were about 4000 nodes in the network and that’s all they wanted. In 1992, when the government said this is government-paid infrastructure, there were commercial players on the line, a lot of people dropped out of school and joined companies instead. Commercial was about making money, and the academic thinking was entirely different and it was a culture clash.
Great coders like Marc Andreessen originally wrote Mosaic and Netscape and the rest was history. The domain name system at the time was something about translation from text strings to IP addresses… again that had only 7 top-level nodes, was that a technical limitation, or was that a historical accident? We have spent over 20 years trying to answer that question through these 55 meetings.
At the time, registering a domain name was just $50. People started to complain and they said it should be market priced. What’s the fee market? What’s the market price of a domain name? Nobody knew. So we took this “wait and see” attitude, and we have seen this price drop to $5 or less, and now we have ICANN. I was involved when I was appointed to…..
So from that perspective, if we look at how the Internet has not been too graceful or strategic as the Bitcoin community, there are three examples. BGP is one example, how networks exchange routing information with one another. And yes you can attack it and redirect someone else’s traffic, but when you are an ISP, your basic cost is that you are renting these communication lines. So if the traffic you receive off of the network is not related to you, you get rid of it as soon as possible, it’s hot potato, you send it to someone else, you don’t want to incur that cost, so chunk it out a window as fast as possible.
Another example is email spam, sort of perhaps it is a design flaw in the protocol. That’s the way the protocol behaves, perhaps exploit it. The very existence of email spam caused many people to run mail servers. How many of you run mail servers? Huh weird all the Bitcoin Core developers in the audience raised their hands…. and nobody else. Well anyway.
Spammers can send millions of emails, and the rest of us have to bear that cost, or we have centralization. This is an unintended consequence of a design process in a protocol. It didn’t forbid such behavior. So the few spammers exploited that.
Are there equivalents for example with spam on Bitcoin able to inflate the UTXO set? Sure. The transition that was supposed to happen between IPv4 and IPv6…. Right? Which we just heard from IBM today. We are facing not an Internet of things, but an Internet of threats.
Who knows what kind of software is in all these sensors? One of the reasons I am here today instead of at ICANN, is because I think that Bitcoin is building the foundation of trust. I don’t actually know what Bitcoin is. I think I know what it is. But it’s going to evolve. In the days of text, back in 1993, if someone said you are going to be doing real livestreaming of video, I would have said what on earth are you smoking because I want so.
There’s a DNS root, which gets attacked every now and then. There’s an incident, like the Luke-Jr fork, the community responded within an hour, because they all knew each other, they agreed to downgrade. There’s an Internet equivalent, which is when the DNS servers fell over. And then we realized we needed a backup system, or rather that we had to keep the initial servers working. So that community held everything together in times of crisis.
Events like Scaling Bitcoin helps build the community equity. The best quote I have from Scale 1 is “I’m an asshole, you’re an asshole, let’s be an asshole together”. That’s great. The whole point being here is that externalizing costs of a shared system, shared systems such as DNS. If the protocol needs to evolve and your software if oyu are running wallet software, sorry but you are going to have to write some code. It’s cheaper for me as a business to not absorb any costs of changing any code, if I can just change a parameter that’s great. But writing wallet software for a fee market, sure that’s a little complicated, then I need to get that working. It’s extra complexity. As a business you don’t want to do that, but then what’s the cost to the ecosystem if that player externalizes their cost to us?
I think this group, this brain trust, is quite amazing on answering that question so far. So Internet governance is the wrong model. Bitcoin governance, well just stop them right there, it’s not about governance, it’s about ecosystem health. I think to have a productive discussion about hwat your vision is of what that ecosystem looks like when it’s healthy. Furthermore, I think in recent discussions, by example of the Internet, you end up healithier afterwards. Bitcoin Core has a very clear website now, that’s evolved. Stimulus and response.
So it’s not really about governance, it’s about health. And taking from theory and putting things into practice. Some of the research is just now happening, and we all want the best tech for Bitcoin.
What is the role of universities? We had NSFnet, we had commercialization over 20 years. I was at FC 97, which was probably the first one. So having interest in Bitcoin, universities really act as a neutral platform. As you heard from Arvind, academia scales better. Universities over a long time, serve as trust actors for society. As we move from analog to digital, I think universities can serve as an early warning device for societies.
Universities should run Bitcoin nodes on the network. They should operate fully-validating nodes on the Bitcoin network. The MIT bitcoin club should be running at least one fully-validating node. Could they act as seed nodes for the rest of the network? Can you add telemetry on this, to do research on Bitcoin?
It’s also empowering students, like the MIT Bitcoin project, it’s quite helpful, like working on documentation or reading documentation and thinking about the ethics of the ecosystem. If you found a fundamental flaw in Bitcoin, as a researcher you could make money from that, right? What would you do? What is the ethical thing to do? If you publish yourself as a researcher, would you put yourself at personal risk because it could be market moving? Why? Because currencies are a very clear representation of societal trust and value.
So right now in terms of current participants in the network, this is it, one in the BSafe.Network that I would like to announce, is the first fully backwards-compatible network. There is MIT, Boston, UC Irvine, University of Maryland, and in Erupe t’s TU Darumshladt, University of Cambridge UK, New Castle University UK, …. slide went away. I want to stimulate discussion in blockchain research.
Do we need an NSFnet for Bitcoin? I say yes. We need to make this area a safe space for legitimate serious research. We want the best minds. This is an attempt to do that. There’s a slight tweak in here, which is that it should not be universities only, but also enthusiasts or outsiders who should not be excluded from collaborating with the people who would be otherwise operating on the “NSFnet” research project.
So with that, I will close and say that everything is going to be OK. ((applause))
See you tomorrow morning.