Blockchains vs. Wrath of God Enforcement

Jeff Garzik

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.

Jeff Garzik

Written by

Husband, father, futurist, author, bitcoin core developer, Linux kernel engineer, cloud computing hacker, armchair foreign policy nerd, kinda sorta libertarian.

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