The Corrosion of Ethics in Cryptocurrencies

I work on Bitcoin (currently: Lightning Network), continuing a 20 year career of Free/Open Source Software development. I love the developers and the project, but sometimes I despair of the environment.

I wrote rant which my more level-headed colleagues advised me not to post, but this issue is one I feel strongly about, which won’t go away: we are beset by scammers, attracted by the “free” money. If we compare ourselves to them, it will inevitably lower our ethical and moral standards until we do something abhorrent to our former selves.

Ever been tempted to start an altcoin? Launch an ICO? Or simply lend your technical credibility to one? You can put mitigations and disclaimers in place, you can make arguments as to why your case is different from all the others, but that promise of easy money will get to you. Even if you were pure as snow, those around you assuredly won’t be, and none of us is immune from our environment. Even in the bitcoin community, which often looks staid compared to the debacles of altcoins and ICOs, it’s a slippery slope. When you’ve got outright scammers who steal user funds, lesser debacles can seem minor, especially behavior which doesn’t break any actual laws.

Let’s take a concrete example. I’ve still not sold my bitcoin gold, perhaps I should add a mention of bitcoin gold to the lightning spec before I do? That certainly helped pump litecoin, and it’s only a few minutes’ work! If you consider that transparent pumping, what if I actually modify c-lightning so it can run on bitcoin gold? How much work would I have to do to justify to myself that I’m not just pumping to make money? How much disclosure would I have to give? In this case it’s not enough money to be worth the time, but it made me realize: if my statements or actions are motivated mainly by personal gain, no amount of disclosure makes me feel comfortable.

But in this environment, actual ethical behavior looks suspicious. It’s not really believable that I would pass up significant gains for some altruistic reason, is it?

In my defense, I’ve chosen to remain hacking my entire career rather than create a startup or go all biz, though that’s where the Big Money is. I’m pretty well-paid for this, because of my record: that same reputation has gained me the respect of my peers, and which I trade on to get their time, consideration and attention, whether I’m looking for a job or asking dumb questions.

It’s awesome, and I can’t conceive of enough money to compensate for that, but I don’t think any statements I make can prevent me being lumped with the broader “cryptos” ecosystem. If this worries you too, let’s make sure we keep each other honest, OK?