Ethereum’s most polarizing debate is back – and, arguably, as complex as ever.
Largely undiscussed since April, the question of whether the world’s second-largest blockchain would consider a system-wide software upgrade as a way to return $239 million lost due to a mishap at a major startup resurfaced with a new round of infighting among stakeholders this week.
Sparked in the days prior to a meeting in Berlin meant to address decision-making challenges on the decentralized network, the issue revolves around a code proposal called ethereum improvement proposal (EIP) 999 and the specific way in which it has been reviewed.
At issue is not just how ethereum developers will handle this contentious code change, but those that may arise in the future as the platform grows and expands.
Still, this week’s events began on a smaller scale, with the planned meeting of the Council of Ethereum Magicians, a developer group launched in early 2018 as a forum for discussion on how ethereum should handle technical updates and code disputes.
Following the discussion Saturday, Afri Schoedon, communications manager at Parity Technologies, the startup whose code snafu caused the widely publicized fund freeze, suggested a change to EIP 999 – a proposal that seeks to reactivate the 584 wallets in which much of the lost funds remain.
A relatively minor suggestion, Schoedon asked to advance EIP 999 within the parameters of ethereum’s process for code review. Due to what he perceived as a lack of technical objections to the proposal, he inferred it should be set to “accepted” status.
But the move had wider repercussions, with sometimes vitriolic debate surfacing on Twitter, Github and Reddit. The reaction was swift, with those against the code even proposing a rival pull request to move the proposal to the “rejected” state.
“I wish people would stop using the EIPs repository for political grandstanding,” core developer Nick Johnson tweeted.
The move has sparked a heated reaction from those who don’t want to see the funds restored out of fear these requests will become too commonplace.
As the rationale goes, if ethereum users and developers are able to act like market managers, how are they different from today’s central monetary authorities?
“The Parity bailout EIP was just stealth ‘accepted’ by the Ethereum Foundation despite community rejection. Apparently the community found out and now the pull request has been closed,” one observer tweeted:
“Ethereum is completely centralized.”
Backtracking the code
But if the implications of the move have been lasting, the inciting incident was arguably brief.
Schoedon has since asked for the pull request to be closed, stating that his actions stemmed from a misunderstanding of how others believe the EIP process should be conducted (the subtleties of which are still being debated).
Complicating matters was that Schoedon, who initiated the pull request to move the proposal to “accepted,” is also the author of EIP 999.
More broadly, however, the issue appears to have exacerbated the very problems that many ethereum developers have acknowledged for some time – despite attempts to coordinate in person, digital communications hold the potential to vastly polarize users.
On top of this, there are concerns that, on the internet, competing projects could deliberately add fire to the controversy, swarming social media with fake accounts to create the illusion of outrage.
In an effort to ease the impact this could have on core developers tasked with accepting code changes, the controversy has forced developers to consider how to clarity the EIP process, the formal way by which code changes are organized in the ethereum repository.
One user summarized:
“EIP 999 is a great example of stalled governance and it just won’t go away, and it is consuming every discussion to the point of exhaustion.”
But in response to the uncertainty produced as a result of Schoedon’s pull request, efforts to further clarify the EIP acceptance process have been attempted.
Micah Zoltu, a developer from prediction market Augur, submitted a pull request to clarify that the process should “focus on technicals not community sentiment,” in order to liberate core developers from becoming trapped in political debates.
The pull request sparked concerns on social media, though, with one Reddit user warning that “changes are being made to the EIP process which remove the need for gauging community opinion and bypass a core [developer] vote.”
Speaking on a forum, Zoltu explained that he wished to avoid the situation of “ritual magic or tribal knowledge” being relied on to produce agreement among developers.
“What I’m trying to avoid is the situation where the process looks something like: do X, do Y, ritual magic or tribal knowledge, do Z,” Zoltu said.
Such discussion echoed the Magicians meetup in Berlin, where talk centered on how, to reduce political gridlock, core developers should evaluate proposals purely based on technical merit – a sentiment that informed Schoedon’s decision to submit a pull request to move EIP-999 to “accepted.”
According to attendees, if the EIP review and acceptance process is heralded as purely technical, it can relieve core developers from the role of social adjudicators.
Still, when it comes to proposals like EIP 999, the boundaries between such things are more opaque. As one attendee of the Magicians meetup noted:
“It is a very clear technical proposal with also profound social implications.”
Initiated as a way to allow a wider group of stakeholders to coordinate on technical changes, the Magicians group has a wider scope than the fund recovery question.
However, because it provides an outlet for more complex discussions, the question of fund recovery has long been associated with the group – which was created in part to address the governance concerns that the recovery debate had revealed.
In the days prior to the meeting, Ryan Zurrer, principle and venture partner at Polychain Capital, published a blog post urging the Magicians specifically to a produce a roadmap for recovery, stating that ethereum’s ability to remain adaptive was at stake.
The post led to bickering on social media, with researcher Dean Eigenmann going so far as to warn that the Magicians group was being “hijacked” to serve the needs of those who lost funds.
“You thought we were all done with EIP 999,” Eigenmann tweeted, “It will lead nowhere.”
With much at stake, and many affected parties present at the meeting, the question of recovery haunted the event – so much so that Peter Mauric, head of public affairs at Parity Technologies, called it the “8,000-pound elephant in the room.”
A roadmap for recovery was discussed, but not without recognition of the fact that the Magicians group is an informal body only.
“There is no finality in the room here,” Boris Mann, co-organizer of the event, reminded everyone. “We know that humans meeting face-to-face is a good way to get a job done, but finality in any decisions will be made in a much more open and accessible forum than this discussion.”
As such, Mann posited that rather, the Magicians should be used as a forum to discuss the development of EIPs that are then handed over to the core developer team for review.
In order to assist this process, the Magicians members vowed to coordinate in smaller working groups, or “rings.” These rings, and the EIPs they produce, will be supported by a signalling website led by Griff Green, that measures a wide group of ethereum stakeholders in an attempt to add legitimacy to changes to the protocol.
Rather than just measuring ether holdings – as is the case with the current signaling tool, Carbon Vote – the new signaling system would try to measure responses from miners, developers and even non-technical stakeholders as well.
“This is a really, really important topic and, I think, the foundational layer for us to make decisions on ethereum,” Green said.
In order to simplify the review process for core developers – the body of developers that are tasked with maintaining the ethereum core base – fund recovery proposals would require a process like ethereum improvement proposal EIP 867, that offers a generic framework for recovery proposals.
While fiercely debated at its inception, such a framework would allow anyone who has lost funds on ethereum, not just from the Parity multisig, to apply for fund recovery.
Mann told CoinDesk:
“I think that people feel unstuck in the sense of, ‘Hey, EIP 867 needs to get turned into an actual process.'”
Risks of inaction
That’s not to say that progress at the in-person event couldn’t help mitigate future issues with controversial code proposals.
Speaking on a forum subsequently, Mann summarized the situation, saying that, once EIP 867 is improved, it could be submitted as an EIP alongside a “request for signaling.”
“Signaling gets done, signaling results inform core dev decision, core devs decide whether to schedule into next planned [hard fork],” Mann continued.
Speaking at the Magicians meeting, other pro-recovery participants suggested that such proposals could conform to a process suggested by Vitalik Buterin in a recent interview, in which the network’s founder hinted that developers could initiate a one-time “clean up” recovery fork.
“That said, I do not think it is my place to make that decision or even heavily influence it,” Buterin said in June.
According to attendees at the meeting, no matter which direction is taken, the decision would need to come with a strict social contract that defines ethereum’s attitude to fund recovery far into the future – such that the debate doesn’t impinge on ethereum indefinitely.
Still, the question of governance is still far from being solved and remain an issue that is frustrating users on both sides of the debate.
“I get emails and phone calls on a very regular basis,” Mauric from Parity told CoinDesk, “The reality is these are good projects that have committed to building distributed tech. These are builders funds, and its difficult to come back to the people behind these projects and say ‘Right, we understand, but we need to figure out governance first.'”
As a result of the stasis, some ethereum developers even urged the Ethereum Foundation to take a stronger leadership position when it comes to the debate.
“Choosing to not implement EIP-999 is making a decision. So is choosing to completely ignore it. I’m generally against [the Ethereum Foundation]/Core Devs using the ‘bury head in sand’ approach to governance. I don’t think it is healthy at all. It favors stagnation over moving forward, and eventually leads to calcification.”