TL;DR: Bitcoin mining pioneer and early investor Olivier Janssens marked the slightly more than three year anniversary of an ominous point in ecosystem history. “In 2016, I created a 2MB increase for Bitcoin,” Janssens explained, “and with Gavin [Andresen] on board, we quickly gained [consensus] with 80-90% of miners, businesses and users [….] Days later, Blockstream flew to Hong Kong and stopped it.” It’s fair to assume most of today’s cryptocurrency enthusiasts are largely unaware of what’s known as the Scaling Debate. It changed the entire landscape of the world’s first cryptocurrency, and its repercussions inevitably bled into every aspect of tribalism within the presently configured space.
Bitcoin Scaling Debate Revisionism
It almost seems like a lifetime ago. Mere months prior, a former reality television host and eccentric New York billionaire announced his candidacy for President of the United States. A month after that fateful February, Donald Trump was nearly mathematically assured the Republican nomination. Love Yourself and Sorry by Justin Bieber dominated the Billboard Top 40 Pop Songs.
Early February of 2016 was also a time of great hope for Bitcoiners who wished the project to scale on-chain. Bitcoin had what it needed at the time, minus an arbitrary block size limit. By scale, enthusiasts basically meant the ability to meet what most assumed would be an historic amount of demand at some point. If millions and millions more people discovered cryptocurrency, Bitcoin’s heft in terms of its network effect would place it among the top first experiences for then relatively later-new adopters.
Imagine folks’ fear of missing out (FOMO), finding this potentially world-changing idea, only to have a completely unnecessary and manufactured lousy go of things. Years of online debate seemed to resolve into raising the Bitcoin block size to accommodate more onboarding in keeping transaction times reasonably quick and fees low. Those debates also appeared to have wasted precious opportunities for businesses and merchants to take Bitcoin seriously, and more than a few developers broke off and formed their own projects in disgust. The crypto market was growing almost as a direct result of perceived basic development impotence, and Bitcoin dominance began to fade. The alternative coins were muddied with questionable incentives and worrisome governance issues, and, as with the scaling issues, Bitcoiners feared noobs grabbing onto so-called shitcoins would be forever burned.
Enter Olivier Janssens. He was well-known in the community, and carried street cred. The Bitcoin Foundation lifetime member had been summarily sacked from the Board about a year earlier after exposing its lack of transparency and the group’s near insolvency. The Foundation was something like a public relations stop-gap, a collection of insiders bent on presenting Bitcoin with a better face to the world. It turned out to be a lesson in gaming and centralization, according to Janssens, and along the way he picked up support of developer Gavin Andresen, one the first ever to work on the protocol.
Janssens made a fruitful bet early with mining Bitcoin, and parlayed that into more ecosystem investment along with becoming a public example of emphasizing the currency aspect of a cryptocurrency. It was to be used, spent, saved, replenished, functioning as a one-stop shop: a unit of account, store of value, and medium of exchange. On those three, there was something like rare agreement among all sides back in 2016. It was just a matter of how best to arrive at scale.
His consensus census last updated 5 February 2016, admittedly Janssens’ own document, shows near 80% agreement among users, miners, developers, and businesses for a then-critical 2MB increase. Roughly two weeks later, employees of software company Blockstream made their way to Hong Kong, attempting to kill whatever momentum Janssens and Andresen had gathered. The now legendary presentation was given in part by developer and scientist Adam Back, then President of Blockstream, who would subsequently claim to only be giving his opinion and not that of the company.
It was around this time Janssens and others began to see a real shift in Core culture and tactics. Second-layer solutions such as Segregated Witness (SegWit) and other Core proposals were now only on the table — no more talk about scaling on-chain was allowed. Popular subreddit /r/Bitcoin and message board bitcointalk.org engaged in clear censorship, and those who disagreed with Bitcoin Core developers under Blockstream influence were shunned, according to those active in the 2016 debate and later.
Janssens describes the events of February 2016 as when “[Back and Blockstream] got so close to Core losing their monopoly, that they started censorship & propaganda and had miners sign an agreement to run only Core-compatible software (read: Core gets complete control),” citing the subsequent Core published line, “We will only run Bitcoin Core-compatible consensus systems, eventually containing both SegWit and the hard-fork, in production, for the foreseeable future.”
Back characterizes Janssens as helping to conduct “secret meetings,” which Back further responded “are the antithesis of acceptable change process for Bitcoin, which must involve open discussion and bitcoin hodler and technical consensus. FWIW the Hong Kong meeting was itself a reaction to secret meetings that @olivierjanss is now admitting.” He accused Janssens and sympathizers with pushing miners for support, and that a “number of people were concerned about one sided lobbying & complained.” Back described his Hong Kong presentation as “technical trade-off information,” and again referred to those not in line with Core’s road map as engaging in “secretive inappropriate lobbying.”
This Whole Civil War Would Have Never Happened
Janssens retorted, “I never had secret meetings with miners or businesses about the 2MB block size increase,” and stressed Back “panicked when [he] saw the 2MB was gonna happen, and with another software to boot (Classic, not Core). You organised a secret meeting in Hong Kong with miners, and shoved it down their throats with lies. Care to share the slides you used? You probably ‘lost’ those.”
Back dismissed the slide comment, and referred Janssens to their being somewhere online. For Janssens, they remain a vital part of the revisionism, as he sees it, Back and Core are continuing to further: the notion of consensus eventually being arrived at openly and how those wanting larger blocks simply lost the argument. More importantly to Janssens, however, “If you would not have organized this secret HK meeting to stop Classic and have miners sign an agreement to only run Bitcoin Core compatible software, Bitcoin would be 2MB+ today, alts would barely be alive and this whole civil war would have never happened,” he insisted.
Indeed, the arguments of that time period eventually did lead to a contentious hard fork, and a chain split, creating Bitcoin Cash (BCH) on 1 August 2017. The crypto market continued to fracture, and the price boom directly after didn’t help matters. Few cared at all about the finer points of who was manipulating, secretive, controlling. Everyone was making money. But when the dust finally settled, Bitcoin Core (BTC) was shown to be comparatively slow, clogged, and expensive as noobs ran to satisfy their 2017 FOMO-led curiosity. It’s not unfair to say their collective experience was horrible, and many wondered what the fuss was all about. After all, credit cards and government paper money were working just fine.
DISCLOSURE: The author holds cryptocurrency as part of his financial portfolio, including BCH.
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