History of Bitcoin & the Web3

This is a sneak-peak into the book Token Economy, Shermin Voshmgir, 2019

The Bitcoin white paper didn’t come out of thin air, and P2P networks are not a new phenomenon. P2P Networks are rooted in the early history of the computer and Internet, building on decades of research of computer networks, cryptography, and game theory.

Origins of Bitcoin & the Web3

The Bitcoin white paper didn’t come out of thin air and P2P networks are not a new phenomenon. They are rooted in the early history of the computer and the Internet, building on decades of research of computer networks, cryptography, and game theory.

The first computer networks were invented in the 1960s. ARPANET was a private network of American university computers introduced in 1969, which was initially funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States Department of Defense. It went global in 1973, when the computers of research institutions in England and Norway were connected to the network. In 1974, it turned commercial with the integration of the first Internet service provider — Telnet. That same year, a paper was published describing a working protocol for sharing resources using packet switching among the nodes. A central control component of this protocol was the Transmission Control Program (TCP). In 1982, TCP’s monolithic architecture was divided into a modular architecture that consisted of a transport layer (TCP) and the Internet layer, also known as “Internet Protocol” (IP). Another breakthrough was achieved in 1983 with the introduction of DNS, which made the addressing of nodes within the network more readable.

In these first-generation computer networks, the main focus was on connecting a public network of computers with each other, and resolving the question of addressing computers and transmitting data. The network architecture was still based on client-server logic, and secure communication was never a mainstream focus in the early days of the Internet, but selected researchers were intrigued by exactly this question. Ralph Merkle’s cryptographic research in the early 1970s laid the foundation of secure communication over P2P networks. His work conceptualized how to resolve “secure communication over insecure channels” like a computer network, and laid the foundation for modern public-key cryptography. In his dissertation, he furthermore described a method of building collision-resistant cryptographic hash functions. He also filed a patent for a special type of hash table called a Merkle tree that allowed more efficient and secure verification of the contents of large data structures.

In 1976, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman built on some of his ideas and created a mechanism for securely exchanging cryptographic keys over a public network. It was one of the earliest implemented examples of public key exchange, and also introduced the concept of digital signatures. Before public key methods were invented, cryptographic keys had to be transmitted in physical form, so secure digital key exchange over public networks was groundbreaking work, without which Bitcoin and subsequent technologies would not work. In 1978, Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman found a way to create a one-way cryptographic function that was hard to invert. Their algorithm — now known as RSA — introduced the era of asymmetric cryptography, which then evolved into the use of elliptic curves in cryptography — suggested independently by Neal Koblitz and Victor S. Miller in 1985, also a key technology in Bitcoin.

In public computer networks, the structure of the system — network topology, network latency, and number of computers — is not known in advance. The computer network can therefore consist of unknown and untrusted computers and network links. The size and composition of the network can also change at any time during the execution of a distributed program. The ability to provide and maintain an acceptable level of service in the face of faulty processes is thus essential to the resilience of a network. The focus back in the day was on data transmission in a public network, which was already a hard problem to solve. Neither TCP or IP resolved the question of where to store and how to manage the data. For economic reasons, centralized data storage and management became mainstream. The problem with client-server networks is that the system administrators, or institutions controlling the servers, have sole control over the data, which makes those systems prone to censorship, corruption, and attack.

In the meantime, with the rise of the personal computer and the introduction of the Internet Protocol Suite, the Internet became more widespread. However, usability was still a problem. You had to navigate the Internet using command lines, a.k.a. computer language. Tim Berners-Lee resolved this problem with his vision for the World Wide Web. He introduced a standard for creating visual websites with a relatively simple markup language, and navigating the Web with links, which point to other websites with a simple click. From a publishing point of view, the WWW allowed everyone to easily be an equal contributor to information available on the Internet. However, data was still stored and managed behind the walled garden of servers.

In 1982, David Chaum introduced the concept of Blind signatures, which guaranteed the privacy of the sender of information. It was conceptualized for use in voting systems and digital cash systems. Chaum introduced the idea of “Ecash” as an anonymous cryptographic electronic money or electronic cash system, which was commercialized through his company “Digicash” and used as a micropayment system at one US bank from 1995 to 1998. The system was dissolved in 1998, possibly because he was ahead of his time, as e-commerce applications were not that widespread yet.

In 1991, Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta introduced a system where document timestamps could not be tampered with, introducing the earliest academic works on a cryptographically secured chain of blocks. Their aim was to certify when a document was created or modified “in a world in which all text, audio, pictures, and video documents are in digital form and in easily modifiable media.” In their initial proposals, they used centralized timestamping services. They then tried to distribute trust by requiring several users — that were selected through pseudo-random number generators — to timestamp the hash, instead of a centralized institution. A year later, in 1992, Bayer, Haber, and Stornetta wrote another paper where they included Merkle trees in the mechanism. This improved the system efficiency by allowing several document certificates to be collected into one block.

In 1997, Adam Back introduced “Hashcash,” the first Proof-of-Work function, to limit email spam and denial of service attacks by forcing computers to invest with computational work. The original idea was proposed by Cynthia Dwork and Moni Naor in their 1992 paper, “Pricing via Processing or Combatting Junk Mail.”

In 2004, the concept introduced by Hashcash was also used as a mining mechanism in “B-money,” a proposal by Wei Dai for an “anonymous, distributed electronic cash system.” It was proposed on the “cypherpunk mailing list,” which represented a group of activists advocating use of strong cryptography and privacy-enhancing technologies over the Internet. Many of the above mentioned individuals who contributed key technologies that were later used in Bitcoin were active “cypherpunks.”

In 1998, Nick Szabo designed a mechanism for a decentralized digital currency — “BitGold” — where he implemented many of his prior ideas around smart contracts and added a PoW-based consensus algorithm where computing power would be spent to solve cryptographic puzzles (read more: Part 1 — Smart Contracts). BitGold was never deployed, possibly because it could not resolve the problem of double-spending in a fully decentralized, sybil attack–resistant way. Szabo was speculated by many to be Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s anonymous creator, but it is a rumor he has always denied.

In 1999, “Napster,” a music-sharing application, introduced the concept of P2P networks that changed the way data was stored and distributed over the Internet. Napster created a virtual overlay network for decentralized file sharing applications, which was independent from the physical network of the Internet, removing the “single point of failure” of centralized data systems. However, Napster relied on the operation of central indexing servers, and was thus susceptible to shutdown, after copyright infringement claims and a legal battle.

A new family of file sharing protocols spearheaded by Gnutella in 2000 eliminated such central points of failure. It allowed users to find each other and connect remotely, searching every node on the network, and therefore was more decentralized and censorship resistant. While Gnutella resolved the decentralization problem, they did not resolve the privacy problem. Third-generation file sharing networks like BitTorrent used distributed hash tables to store resource locations throughout the entire network, in a cryptographically secure way. Distributed hash tables not only replaced indexing servers but also guaranteed anonymity of its network actors and all data being shared over the network. These distributed hash tables are now also used by blockchain networks and other Web3 protocols like IPFS and Ethereum. While P2P networks, since the emergence of Napster, have resolved the problem of efficiently distributing data within a network, they did not resolve decentralized validation or verification of data. Neither did they solve the free-rider problem, the fact that large numbers of users would use resources shared by other users while not contributing with files themselves. Users did not have a short-term economic incentive to upload files and instead consumed resources while degrading their own performance.

In 2004, Hal Finney introduced a reusable PoW system (RPoW), a concept where the value of a token is guaranteed by the value of the real-world resources required to “mint” a PoW token. The fact that Finney received the first Bitcoin transaction from Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009, and that he apparently lived in the same town as a person called “Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto,” led to speculation that he may have been Satoshi, a rumor that he always denied.

Modern P2P networks such as Napster suffered from a missing incentive mechanism for network contributions, and early e-cash ideas were not able to defend against sybil attacks. The Bitcoin white paper, published in 2008 under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, resolved these issues by proposing a sybil attack–resistant incentive mechanism for collective validation of data. Proof-of-Work resolved the free-rider problem of previous P2P networks by introducing tokenized incentives to motivate all actors to contribute to the system in a truthful manner. Bitcoin was proposed in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and the collapse of major banks like Lehman Brothers. The aim was to provide a system for P2P electronic cash without banks. While the first specifications were implemented by Satoshi, a group of dedicated individuals gradually took over to implement further development of the code, which was finalized and deployed in early 2009. Interestingly, the Bitcoin white paper only mentioned a “chain of blocks.” The term “blockchain” became widespread years later, when people started to replicate the Bitcoin codebase for developing similar blockchain-based protocols.

Even though Bitcoin was never designed with file sharing in mind, it eventually inspired a new class of P2P storage frameworks, a crucial building block for the Web3. Such decentralized storage networks can now use the power of tokens to build on the legacy of previous file-sharing protocols, using a blockchain as a universal state layer. Bitcoin also spurred a lot of research around sybil attack–resistant consensus mechanisms. Sibyl attack resistance, however, also depends on the resilience of the assumptions made on how network actors will react to economic incentives. How people react to incentives has long been a field of study in economics. In 2007, Hurwicz, Maskin, and Myerson won the Nobel Prize in economics for their research on Mechanism Design, an emerging field of research (read more: Part 4 — Purpose-Driven Tokens).

Originally published at https://blockchainhub.net on July 12, 2019.

References & Further Reading

Author of ‘Token Economy’ http://bit.ly/token3con // Founder @blockchainhub & @crypto3conomics// Artist @kamikat.se

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