More or less decentralized? For Jimmy Song, there’s no in between.
An author and partner at venture firm Blockchain Capital, Song made that point repeatedly in a debatewith IBM engineer and Hyperledger Fabric co-lead Chris Ferris at SXSW Thursday, where he told the crowd at the Hilton Austin in no uncertain terms: “You either have control over your stuff or you don’t. It’s a zero or a one.”
The debate pitted permissioned blockchains – the private networks being pitched to big business – against permissionless blockchains – the technology undergirding bitcoin and other open-source networks. Billed as a “deathmatch” on the festival agenda, Song was determined to give the audience what they came for.
“Why do you need permission if it’s supposed to be decentralized?” he asked. “There has to be an entity that’s giving you permission, and that’s by definition centralized.”
While Song took the binary view of decentralization, Ferris argued that blockchains can exist on a spectrum. Sure, permissioned blockchains are less decentralized, Ferris said, but their added trust mechanisms mitigate perceived risk.
“Permissionless blockchains do not necessarily solve the problem of trust,” he added.
Song wasn’t having it. To illustrate the degree to which he was willing to extend his point, Song used the example of the ethereum fork following the infamous hack of The DAO, when the project’s developers and users agreed to introduce a code update aimed at rolling back the stolen funds.
“I think Ethereum is a permissioned blockchain,” Song said, adding:
“When Vitalik says, ‘These particular transactions aren’t particularly good for the ecosystem so we’re going to roll them back,’ that, to me, is a permissioned blockchain.”
On stage and in conversation with CoinDesk beforehand, Song argued that every application of blockchain to anything but bitcoin is a waste. “Blockchain is really useful for bitcoin,” he said during the debate. “Everything else has a central point of failure.”
Prior to the debate, Ferris told CoinDesk that he hoped he could make the point that there’s just different use cases for different kinds of blockchains, and those use cases should determine what level of decentralization should be called for.
“Certainly part of the conversation will be that bitcoin doesn’t solve the same problems we are trying to solve in an enterprise context,” Ferris told CoinDesk.
IBM, he explained, is primarily building products that allow large enterprise partners to share information rather than exchange money. For example, today Big Blue announced a deal to record information about businesses’ legal status across France. Trying to find some common ground, Ferris argued there’s space for the approaches of both sides.
“I think there are a ton of use cases where permissioned blockchains make a ton of sense,” Ferris said. “I also think there’s a ton of use cases where a permissioned blockchain doesn’t make any sense.”
But Song didn’t come to accept concessions. He said all the blockchains besides bitcoin’s might as well just run on a faster, cheaper centralized database.
“A permissioned blockchain is an oxymoron because it’s a centralized database that’s masquerading as something decentralized,” Song said.
The exchange case
The QuadrigaCX exchange debacle captured the difference between the two positions better than any other part of the debate.
The Canadian exchange’s owner died and lost $190 million worth of cryptocurrency when it turned out he was the only person with access to the system’s private keys. Both Song and Ferris saw a disaster and yet came to very different conclusions about it.
Ferris brought up Quadriga late in the debate by first saying, “The whole point of permissioned blockchain, enterprise blockchain, is reducing risk,” he said.
It’s a system where every major user of the protocol knows everyone else. “We can put a governance model over that and legal framework around that says: ‘If you do something to disrupt the system, we’ll sue the pants off you and you’ll regret that,’” Ferris said.
Song saw that as precisely the problem. If it’s possible for a governing body to step in and punish the operators of a platform, then to Song that defeats the fundamental point of decentralization.
Ferris saw Quadriga as an illustration of the fundamental user experience problem of permissionless systems because it illuminates dramatically how bitcoin doesn’t have a fallback if private keys are lost.
But Song saw that as its virtue:
“You are either self-sovereign or you or are not.”
Bitcoin does have its powerful authorities, though, a point that was argued by the debate’s mediating presence, Angela Walch, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law.
“I am struggling with how bitcoin doesn’t have similar centralization of power with the core developers,” she said.
Walch used the example of the inflation bug disclosed in September 2018, in which developers originally minimized its true implications prior to pushing the fix.
“They list a total of 11 people who knew about this. Those people made a decision about how they were going to fix this,” Walch said. “They told a few select miners at the beginning. That miner was given privileged knowledge.”
She used the point to argue that bitcoin’s core developers have outsize power in the network. Users had to trust, for example, that none of those leaders who knew wouldn’t short bitcoin in advance of the ultimate disclosure. “I’m arguing those people were exercising centralized power,” she said.
Song countered by saying that Bitcoin Core is not the only bitcoin software and it’s open source, run under an MIT license that warns everyone to use it at their own risk. If something is wrong with the bitcoin software, users should be able to find that and report it.
“If the goal is to get mass adoption, for hyper-bitcoinization,” Walch said, “Ninety percent of the people are not going to understand how the code works, so just saying it’s open source is not an out.”
Ferris took this point further and pointed out that there is a very small number of people who are maintainers of bitcoin code, alleging that if something happened to all of them it would yield chaos.
Ultimately, the debate circled back at that point to another round on sovereignty. Should users be made collectively responsible for making sure core maintainers aren’t malicious or should they use the state as a fallback?
“You are speaking about regulation and governance frameworks as if it’s a bad thing,” Ferris began.
Song cut him off, saying, “A lot of the time it is.”
2019 Saw the End of Blockchain Tourism
This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Marie Wieck is general manager at IBM Blockchain, where she focuses on driving ecosystem growth around the Hyperledger Project and delivering enterprise blockchain solutions.
In 2019, blockchain’s initial hype has evolved into enterprise platforms driving real digital transformation. Today, real-world use cases for permissioned networks, administered by trusted parties, are yielding benefits in industries including finance, food, global trade and healthcare.
While entrepreneurs and businesses continue to propose novel blockchain concepts worth pursuing, blockchain is now ten years old, surely long enough to identify clear patterns about where it drives the most tangible business benefits. Indeed, we might even say that 2019 marked the end of blockchain tourism, a period when for many, blockchain pilots were less about critically examining and applying a new technology than they were about simply saying you had made the trip. We saw a shift from dabbling in blockchain for the sake of learning more about the technology for technology’s sake, to applying it to solve long-standing problems.
So far, IBM has helped clients launch more than 100 networks that are now in production. The best use cases, in our view, take advantage of the technology’s novel properties, including the ability to track provenance, an increasingly important issue to consumers. 75 percent of consumers said they would consider changing to a brand that offered more product information in 2018, according to a Food Marketing Institute survey, up from just 39 percent in 2016. After making provenance information available in store using IBM Food Trust, the French retailer Carrefour found that customers spent as long as 90 seconds reading it.
While hype surrounding crypto certainly helped drive consumer interest, funding, and innovation in the past, it has also perhaps overshadowed some of the hard business uses to which blockchain is uniquely suited. These advantages include immutability. Blockchain can readily digitize the paper processes once relied upon to share information up and down supply chains. In the longer term, the technology can even make it possible to exchange value between participants where an efficient market maker does not yet exist, for example with carbon credits or cross-border remittances, areas of commerce that have been devoid of clear rules and level playing fields for participants. In short, blockchain is best at tackling problems where there is a lack of traceability or a lack of digital economy.
WE HAVE SEEN MANY SUCCESSFUL BLOCKCHAIN PILOTS, BUT UNLESS NETWORK PARTICIPANTS FEEL COMFORTABLE USING IT TO COLLABORATE AND SHARE DATA AT SCALE, THE ADVANTAGES OF DISTRIBUTED LEDGERS WON’T MATERIALIZE.
When these advantages have been exploited, blockchain-based businesses are already beginning to drive sales. Carrefour says it blockchain tracing system, which is accessible via consumer-facing QR codes, has boosted sales of some products. Through shared data, companies like Carrefour can engender greater trust and collaboration between customers, employees and partners.
Distributed ledgers present a dual challenge for companies, one that is arguably 20 percent technological and 80 percent governance. We have seen many successful blockchain pilots, but unless network participants feel comfortable using it to collaborate and share data at scale, the advantages of distributed ledgers won’t materialize.
2019 also offered a clear roadmap for how these governance models should be structured to ensure adoption and growth. These principles must allow for global identity standards that aren’t limited to a single network or country. They must require permissioned, trusted access in a way that centers privacy. There should also be blockchain registries like Hacera Unbounded – almost like network ‘Yellow Pages’ – to identify the public entry points to enterprise networks, and participants must ensure open access to key data platforms via API.
When applied, these principles have made it possible to scale blockchain networks rapidly. TradeLens, a solution co-developed by IBM and Maersk to digitize the global shipping industry, became commercially available only in December 2018. But thanks to its open standards and governance structure, the platform has rapidly recruited dozens of ports, freight forwarders, customs offices and more. By July 2020 commitments from key global container operators will cover more than half of world’s container cargo.
While the age of blockchain tourism may be mercifully over, the digital transformation it enables is still only just getting underway. Now that we have a base of successful implementations, we can begin to shift our focus to standards surrounding integration and interoperability.
As we look ahead to 2020, key community efforts will help expand the business impact of blockchain. These include establishing trusted identity standards that apply across networks (and will also speed on-boarding and adoption, like those established by the Decentralized Identity Foundation and World Wide Web Consortium. Meanwhile, efforts like the Token Taxonomy Initiative are creating technical standards for the digitization of assets on blockchain data platforms. These complement the public and regulatory interest in new digital business models around asset-backed stablecoins and digital fiat currencies.
Once we have a shared version of the truth based on shared data and common standards, entirely new business models become possible for companies and individuals. And while this vision may take much longer to come to pass than one supply chain or finance platform, its end goal — a truly circular, frictionless economy – will be greater than the sum of its parts.
Never Mind Consumers, This Was a Year of Steady Infrastructural Progress
This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Jake Brukhman is the founder and managing director of CoinFund.
After a partial recovery in the first half of 2019, the crypto markets were thrown to international government scrutiny and regulatory uncertainty mid-year, a phase marked by Facebook’s public launch of Libra in June. Far from the market recovery investors had hoped for following the 2018 crypto bear market, the blockchain space progressed in technological maturity while seemingly underperforming “crypto-focused” expectations. Nevertheless, digital assets have added 63% to their aggregate market capitalization so far in 2019 (as of writing in November). Even if 2019 wasn’t characterized by frothy speculative trading and dramatic highs as in previous years, it was a year of infrastructural progress.
Despite having operable smart contract blockchains like Ethereum in production, projects have struggled with product-market fit for decentralized applications in recent years. The industry might simply be too early. If we look back to how “mobile applications” progressed, they didn’t really solidify into a multi-billion dollar business until their infrastructure — smartphones like iPhone and mobile operating systems like Android — became extremely accessible, usable, and affordable. In the same way, blockchain infrastructure in the form of scalable blockchains, user-friendly wallet experiences, node and data services, and financial industry support for digital assets, might be a prerequisite to building decentralized applications at a rate which produces mainstream market fit. This kind of infrastructural progress was the subject of 2019.
Down in the lower layers of the decentralization stack, several second-generation smart contract platforms — notably Polkadot, Cosmos, Tezos, and NEAR — provided innovations in throughput, interoperability, network governance, and usability, and are challenging Ethereum’s market share and winding 2.0 roadmap. Additionally, Dapper Labs announced Flow, a base layer dedicated to mainstream-facing usability of games and their non-fungible tokens and digital assets, while simultaneously announcing a major partnership, NBA Top Shot.
If critics like Nouriel Roubini could claim uncertain scalability prospects for blockchain before, 2019 proved them wrong. The next order of blockchain scalability magnitude is here. First, new base layers have become faster by virtue of employing advanced consensus algorithms, sharding, and parallelism. Coda, a cryptocurrency that uses zero-knowledge proofs to shrink the storage footprint of its blockchain, went into testnet and kicked off a new variety of base layer that can run on a mobile phone. Finally, a number of “layer 2” technologies — such as Connext’s state channels or Matter Labs’ ZK rollup technologies — have made progress in enabling fast payments and cheaper, scalable, and privacy-preserving smart contracts. At the same time, technologies like GEO Protocol have put an emphasis on cross-chain interoperability for instant exchange across distinct blockchains, networks, and even traditional fiat payment rails.
Much of the traction that does not come from exchanges or trading has been generated decidedly in infrastructure layers in 2019. Node infrastructure provider Blockdaemon, having recognized the market’s propensity to proliferate new decentralized networks, is generating revenue across an impressive 22 such networks today and continues to grow month over month. The Graph is serving over 400 public smart contract subgraphs, with request volume clocking millions of daily data queries. Meanwhile, 3Box’s self-sovereign identity and data solution is rapidly integrating across the Ethereum ecosystem, within wallets like MetaMask and many of the new user onboarding solutions, like Portis and Authereum, and even governance experiment MolochDAO.
Blockchain’s road to mainstream adoption depends on institutional backing of businesses that support blockchain infrastructure and enable traditional investors both to capitalize and participate in digital asset networks. As such, the compliance levels of exchanges have been increasing to support institutional clients. Fidelity, ErisX, Ledger, and ICE have all launched digital asset custody products eyeing institutions who have custodial requirements and are considering digital asset exposure. Finally, more than 20 blockchain-focused analytics firms are on the market, and some have been gradually honing their offerings for enterprise-grade customers.
From legal DAO wrappers to fiat on-ramps to zero knowledge proof systems, the breadth of 2019’s infrastructural innovations doesn’t fit into a single article. But this improved infrastructure will power the next generation of blockchain products for investors, institutions, enterprises, and mainstream customers in 2020. As the lower levels of the blockchain technology stack mature, we’ll look back on 2019 as the start of the blockchain adoption journey.
Chinese Bank to Issue $2.8 Billion in Blockchain-Based Bonds
It’s full speed ahead as far as China and blockchain technology is concerned, as the intersection between the innovative technology and the country’s financial space continues to grow.
Earlier this month, local news source Sina Finance reported that the Bank of China has issued up to 20 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) in blockchain-based bonds for both micro and small enterprises across the country. The funds will be used to issue loans to these companies, thus helping them to expand their operation and scale.
Applying Blockchain as the Government Wants It
The development is in direct obedience to a directive by Chinese President Xi Jinping. In October, the president sent a massive bombshell across the crypto space, when he came out to support blockchain technology and spurred entities- whether public or private- to adopt the technology as well.
As President Xi put it at the time, blockchain will be able to help the Chinese economy to grow, thus keeping the country on pace to achieve both technological and economic advancement. While a lot of agencies have answered the call and are adopting blockchain en masse, this is truly one of the adoption techniques that will see the vision of the president come to life.
By being able to access loans, small and micro enterprises will be able to keep their operations optimal, accessing various markets for the resources they need. It’s blockchain-fueled economic growth at its fundamental level.
China’s Crypto Nears Its Launch
Of course, all of this is still leading up to the launch of digital currency by the Chinese government. Beijing has been rumored to be launching a cryptocurrency anytime soon, and reports are beginning to surface concerning what the asset could be like and how it could operate.
Earlier this week, local news medium Caijing reported that the Peoples Bank of China- the country’s Central Bank- will be leading other major banks and economic participants in the country to conduct real-world tests of the asset
According to the report, the agencies will be testing the digital currency in the city of Shenzhen before the year winds to a close, and there is a possibility of expanding this to the province of Suzhou as well.
On December 5, news source Global Times reported that Yang Wang, a senior research fellow with the Fintech Institute of Renmin University of China, had explained that the new national digital currency would be able to process up to 220,000 transactions in a second. While speaking on the potential of the asset to onboard billions of people in the first phase of its adoption, Wang reportedly made the estimate, adding that its mass adoption will be unstoppable once people begin to see the speed and superiority of the asset over other fiat currencies and digital assets.
Although the estimate hasn’t been confirmed by anyone with access to the Chinese government, it will definitely make the Chinese asset more of a reliable option or making payments or transfers. Currently, Bitcoin and Facebook’s Libra stablecoin can process 4.6 and 1,000 transactions in a second. PayPal and VISA, two popular payment portals, can process 40,000 and 1,700 transactions, respectively. No one matches this transaction strength.