Blockchains vs. Wrath of God Enforcement

Neal Stephenson’s classic science fiction work Snow Crash — one of my favorite books — describes “the Raft”, a kind of floating city consisting of a flotilla of hundreds of pirate boats, lashed together by ropes to an old US aircraft carrier, The Enterprise.

Keeping the peace in this floating city is simple:

The people up on the Enterprise operate in kind of wrath-of-God mode. […] They have big guns mounted around the edge of the flight deck — big Gatling guns like Reason except with larger bullets. They were originally put there to shoot down Exocet missiles. They strike with the force of a meteorite. If people act up out on the Raft, they will make the problem go away. But a little murder or riot isn’t enough to get their attention. If it’s a rocket duel between rival pirate organizations, that’s different.

My hypothesis is that the blockchain security model is similar.

Nation-states will not arise themselves for smaller, non-violent crimes executed via blockchain platforms, because there is a clear balance of present or future utility in blockchain, good to weigh against the bad.

Shutdown of a decentralized network is also highly difficult, making blockchain platform shutdown a method of last resort. Any nation-state that wishes to “shut down Bitcoin” largely has three choices:

  1. In-country Internet filtering. Easy to circumvent.
  2. A sustained attack on hundreds of computers running Bitcoin software, across hundreds of countries. This would constitute a highly visible Internet attack launched in parallel vs. sovereign nation-states — an act of war.
  3. All major Internet telecommunications firms worldwide simultaneously agree to sinkhole all Bitcoin nodes. This would only occur if so directed by overwhelming consensus of nation-states.

All of these shutdown methods have massive collateral damage on good actors. Blockchain platforms secure money; good folks lose money alongside the bad actors in a shutdown action. Everyone in the platform shares a powerful incentive to keep the platform running — and maintain access to their money. However this collective security only goes so far.

The blockchain industry should therefore ask itself: what sort of acts would constitute sufficient pressure to trigger Wrath of God Mode, shutting down one of these distributed, decentralized platforms?

One of my consistent predictions — and fears — was botnets using blockchain platforms for command and control (C&C).

Cornell professor Emin Gün Sirer recently tweeted on the subject:

These sorts of use cases will test the bounds of decentralized blockchain platforms and similar networks such as Tor, to see how far nation-states can be pushed before Wrath of God Mode is deployed.

Blockchains will test the age-old question of when does the bad outweight the good, when is the collective damage cost acceptable versus the “gains” perceived in shutting down a platform full of bad actors or bad acts.

The blockchain industry hopes the answer is “never” Only time will tell.