“Ethereum isn’t Decentralized”…And Other Myths

Kent Barton
Feb 4, 2020 · 14 min read

Ask a Bitcoin maximalist to sing you the song of their people, and it’ll sound something like this:

https://twitter.com/hodlonaut/status/1224029126597713920

That’s a lot to unpack. First — an assertion that Ethereum is centralized, followed by a never-to-be-witnessed again “immaculate conception” premise for Bitcoin’s emergence, followed by the implication that only Bitcoin is invulnerable to being co-opted by government agencies and scammers.

Do the space cat’s claims have merit? Let’s take a closer look, starting with the big one.

Is Ethereum Centralized?

For the sake of this analysis, we’ll broadly define a centralized blockchain as follows: an environment where a single actor, or a handful of actors, can exert unilateral control over the platform’s day-to-day functioning and ongoing development.

Your own definition might vary somewhat, but I think we can all agree that a centralized blockchain is one that could a.) be easily taken over by governments or corporations, and/or b.) have its functionality and development unilaterally dictated by its core creators & development team. That’s not much of a desirable outcome…hence the need for decentralization!

With that in mind, let’s turn to some of the most common arguments maximalists make when talking about Ethereum’s supposed centralization. We’ll examine their claims and consider evidence to the contrary.

Claim: Ethereum’s nodes are centralized. It takes too long to sync them, and there aren’t enough of them.

According to etherscan, there are currently over 6000 unique Ethereum nodes spread around the globe. Ethernodes shows a higher figure of around 7500.

By way of comparison, Bitcoin’s node count is somewhat more robust, at around 11,000 nodes.

Does this higher node count mean that Ethereum is centralized, while Bitcoin is not? While more nodes is certainly better (all things considered equal), Ethereum’s node count appears to be sufficiently high to avoid network attacks; the blockchain’s five years of 100% uptime offers evidence of this robustness, evoking maximalists’ beloved Lindy effect. Also consider that Bitcoin itself has performed perfectly fine recently with node counts in the 8000’s.

To be sure, this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison; the two chains’ nodes are different in important ways. Nonetheless, the underlying point remains: if an attacker such as a well-funded nation-state attempted to disrupt the network with a sustained DDOS attack, they’d face a nearly insurmountable (but not impossible) task thanks to Ethereum’s global and decentralized node distribution.

Maximalists conflate Ethereum with blockchains that have clearly chosen to trade decentralization for scalability. NEO, for instance, has a grand total of seven consensus nodes, while EOS famously has just 21 nodes. Are they being disingenuous with this conflation, or are they simply not able to see the difference? It’s hard to say.

https://twitter.com/lopp/status/1223617231164018689

Additionally, recent improvements in Geth have made it easier and faster to spin up a full node. State bloat remains a centralization threat if left unchecked, although there’s plenty of promising research on this front, as well as layer-2 scaling solutions designed to mitigate its impact. Currently, however, this state growth is not a major impediment to node decentralization, as shown by the healthy node count.

A kernel of truth behind the myth: As of September of last year, around 60% of Ethereum nodes were hosted in AWS or other cloud platforms. That’s a problem! (Somewhere around 40% of Bitcoin nodes are cloud-hosted as well). Ongoing reliance on cloud services is a threat to Ethereum’s decentralization; what would happen if Jeff Bezos suddenly decides he hates the blockchain? The good news: the architecture of ETH 2.0 includes stateless clients, which should sharply reduce the system requirements of nodes. The bad news: stateless clients are still being researched and probably won’t be deployed for 1–2 years.

Claim: Vitalik and the Ethereum Foundation have carte blanche to dictate what happens on the platform.

Ethereans gather to hear Vitalik’s latest marching orders.

No doubt about it, Vitalik does have an outsized influence on Ethereum. Unlike Satoshi, his contributions to the platform did not end shortly after the publication of the white paper. His thoughts on governance, cryptoeconomics, and scaling have more of an impact on Ethereum than any other single individual.

Does this influence fall into the “benevolent dictator” category? Not by a longshot.

The Ethereum ecosystem is vast and diverse. Miners, investors, DApp developers, large corporations, scrappy startups, Consensys, the EF, and of course end users all have varying goals and values. No single group or individual can run roughshod over all others. This panoply of interests has only increased over time as more developers and DApps join the ecosystem.

Where Vitalik was once the primary guiding force in Ethereum (understandable, since he conceptualized it), he’s taken a more research-focused role in recent years. The collective community typically deliberates on important new changes (such as the EIP’s that are included in hard forks), independent of Vitalik’s opinion or guidance.

Yeah but what about The DAO? That PROVES that Ethereum is centralized.

Yup, Ethereum had its mulligan in 2016, much like Bitcoin had an irregular, immutability-breaking hard fork after 184 billion BTC were minted in 2010.

In the intervening four years, things have changed immensely. The ecosystem is far more diverse and mature; the perception is that it can withstand a large loss of funds, whereas in 2016 the DAO was seen as a potential Game Over scenario — an existential threat, just like Bitcoin’s 2010 Value Overflow incident. The community at large no longer supports breaking immutability or irregular state changes. Witness, for example, the majority support in favor of leaving the Parity multi-sig wallets untouched. (This consensus against breaking immutability could very well be tested again in the near future if a large DeFi-related project is hacked.)

As for a “take over the chain by co-opting the leader” threat posed by Vitalik’s influence, consider a scenario where Mr. Buterin has been Vitali-napped by a powerful nation and, under the threat of something unpleasant, is coerced into making proclamations about what should happen next on Ethereum. Would the community act on these proclamations if they damaged the network? Of course not; to do so would go against their own economic interest. Vitalik is not the CEO of a corporation; despite his influence, he cannot unilaterally determine what happens.

Maximalists like to perpetuate an image of an Ethereum community populated solely by Vitalik sycophants, drooling and eager to do his bidding (r/ethtrader circa 2017 probably didn’t help matters). The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The long, hard slog toward scalability is a prime example. Plasma, a layer-2 scaling solution co-invented by Vitalik, eventually failed to gain traction because of some intractable UX and security tradeoffs. An approach conceptualized independently by researcher John Adler, initially referred to as Merged Consensus (and now under the name “Optimistic Rollup”) has replaced Plasma as the layer-2-du-jour at the EF.

So much for dictatorial carte blanche. Ethereum, by and large, is a meritocracy of ideas.

Also consider the dozens of researchers working on ETH 2.0. These people aren’t taking marching orders directly from Vitalik, and there’s plenty of back-and-forth about the best way to proceed. The Ethereum Foundation is not like a monolithic corporation; there are many developers, all with their own thoughts on how to proceed.

At the end of the day, maximalists chafe at the notion of a clearly-defined leader. Doesn’t Satoshi’s John-Galt-esque disappearing act prove that leaders aren’t necessary? Aren’t leaders bad in a decentralized framework?

Only if they can exert unilateral control. As we’ve seen, Vitalik lacks this ability — and if he tried to act dictatorially, the community would not take him seriously.

A kernel of truth behind the myth: Vitalik and the Ethereum Foundation do exert a disproportionate influence over what happens when it comes to setting the ETH 2.0 scaling roadmap. Witness, for example, the rapid embrace of Vitalik’s proposed shard-count reduction from 1024 to 64 in the midst of Devcon5. This suggestion was quickly embraced and incorporated into the roadmap. Would another researcher have been able to enact such a rapid shift in a key spec? Probably not. The danger here is that some opinions and ideas might be lost in the Ether, so to speak, if they’re coming from lesser-known individuals. Ultimately, ideas should be weighed on their own merit, rather than on who is championing them.

Claim: The Ethereum crowdsale was inherently unfair because it disproportionately favored early investors. As such, everything that happens on Ethereum is vulnerable to centralization.

No doubt about it, Ethereum’s crowdsale led to a highly-skewed wealth distribution. That’s still the case today, although five years of trading, mining, and usage have led to a significant “spreading of the wealth” as compared to the initial ICO distribution.

Maximalists prefer the term “premine,” as it brings to mind countless failed, scammy, or highly centralized projects — many of which got funded on the basis of a simple BitcoinTalk thread. But does a premine/crowdsale mean that a project is destined to be unfair and centralized?

Let’s carefully unpack this claim, because ultimately it’s saying two things — one of which has nothing to do with decentralization. For starters, maximalists like to characterize the crowdsale as unfair; they think it’s wrong that participants in the presale got such a wide advantage over those who didn’t participate. The fairness of the initial fundraising effort is ultimately a subjective judgement call; many maximalists (and Bitcoiners in general) prefer to eschew crowdsales in favor of an everyone-starts-from-zero approach, as embraced by projects such as GRIN. Fair enough!

The second assertion is more relevant to our discussion. That assertion states that the presale means that Ethereum is centralized. And on this count, the logic falls apart completely.

It’s interesting to note that Bitcoin itself has a very skewed wealth distribution. Rather than presale investors, Bitcoin has its early-adopter whales. Where smart/lucky investors bought into the presale, smart/lucky early adopters decided to mine some crazy new coin. Both groups were heavily rewarded for their ability to think outside the box and try something new. Presale investors with a larger amount of funds aren’t able to unilaterally control what happens on Ethereum, just as early-adopter Bitcoin whales aren’t able to determine what happens to the development of Bitcoin Core.

Are early ETH and BTC investors (or miners) able to heavily invest in projects on those respective chains? Without a doubt. And in this sense, they can certainly exert more influence than someone who did not invest early. Yet they don’t come close to meeting our definitional requirement of unilateral control.

WHAT ABOUT THE SPACE CAT’S OTHER CLAIMS?

You’ll recall that hodlonaut didn’t just talk about centralization; he also made two other insinuations. They’re big, sweeping statements, and deserve further scrutiny.

(Note that I’m not making a concerted effort to attack this particular Bitcoiner; I love cats, and space, and I’m sure he/she is a perfectly nice human being who is passionate about liberty. However, these assertions so perfectly mirror the typical maximalist talking points that it just makes sense to address them all right here).

Space Cat Non-Centralization Assertion #1: “A crypto project can never again grow for years in obscurity. With pure ideals. Brilliant minds, motivated not by financial gain. In 2009 nobody cared.”

The implication here is that only Bitcoin has the requisite purity to be decentralized and free from outside influence. “Purity” is a subjective characteristic; it cannot be quantified. But one imagines what hodlonaut is getting at here is the notion that only Bitcoin developed without being influenced by wanting to reap giant gainz. As such, all other subsequent projects will be tainted by the stench of human greed and lust for power.

This touches on perhaps the most annoying of maximalist claims: that only Bitcoin is capable of advancing the cypherpunk values that gave rise to this technological revolution in the first place.

As we speak, Ethereum is hosting hundreds of permissionless, state-resistant DApps that provide users with abilities they heretofore did not have. An Argentinian beset by rapid inflation can transact in DAI. They can use DeFi DApps to earn interest on that DAI, or leverage a DEX to swap the DAI into REP and participate in Augur markets. Or, they can use Aztec’s newly-launched privacy features and conceal the amounts of their transactions.

Consider the following litmus test, maximalists: in all of the use cases outlined in the paragraph above, could a powerful government prevent them from happening? Or similarly, could China prevent its citizens from publishing censored information (much like they did in 2018) on the Ethereum blockchain? The answer is no.

Much like Bitcoin, Ethereum is decentralized to the point where it cannot be shut down by nation-states. And that’s pretty fucking cypherpunk.

Space Cat Non-Centralization Assertion #2: “Today, bad actors and alphabet agencies stand ready to swarm and coopt any promising project.”

This assertion is downright dangerous, for it could instill a false sense of security amongst Bitcoiners. Is Bitcoin somehow magically immune from various government agencies? Not by a long shot. All it takes is one megalomaniac president to shut down all Bitcoin on-and-off ramps in the U.S. Other nations could quickly follow suit. Similarly, China could decide to nationalize every Bitcoin miner within its borders. Havoc would ensue.

The SEC certainly had its fun with various ICO’s, but members of the agency have stated repeatedly that neither ETH nor BTC is a security.

What if the Ethereum Foundation came under siege by alphabet agencies? Ethereum itself would continue to operate, albeit in a significantly hamstrung fashion. Given enough motivation, governments could locate and swarm Bitcoin Core developers as well. Same result: the chain would go on, albeit without some of its most talented contributors.

As far as “bad actors” — well — every chain has its set of scammers and malicious actors. This is a caveat emptor environment, regardless of whether you’re using a third-party merchant to make a purchase via lightning network, or locking up your DAI via some exotic new DeFi DApp.

BONUS ROUND! (Say it in the Mortal Kombat voice)

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at a few other claims bandied about by the Maximalist community.

Claim: Nobody is using Ethereum and its close cousin, Ethereum is only used for ICO scams

Not even the most elaborate of mental gymnastics, aided by a tremendous amount of high-powered psychedelics, can alter the fabric of reality enough to square this claim with the actual facts.

Here’s the actual facts: hundreds of projects, from Fortune 500 companies all the way down to upstart projects spawned in hackathons, are using Ethereum — either currently building on it, or using it in production.

The hard work is done for me here by this exhaustive thread. Please read it, maximalists, before repeating these claims:

https://twitter.com/AdamScochran/status/1217524744909660162

Claim: Ethereum is a scam

This is how you can immediately tell that a maximalist is not arguing in good faith, and in fact has become blinded by their hatred for (or fear of) Ethereum. Even if one fervently believes Ethereum is a centralized trainwreck, to put the project in the same category as Bitconnect or OneCoin or Bernie Madoff is a gross misuse of the word “scam.” Scams do not develop the burgeoning ecosystem and adoption described above. Would the following companies (to name just a few) be leveraging a scam project?

Maximalists: if you want to be taken seriously, stop calling Ethereum a scam. Call it unfair, call it centralized (despite the aforementioned evidence to the contrary), call it whatever you want. But if you call it a scam, you’re gonna look like an idiot. (Not even Tuur, an ardent Ethereum skeptic, calls it a scam).

Bitcoin maximalists seem to be resistant to facts. Why is that?

Consider that of many of the more prominent maximalists have harbored an animus toward Ethereum since its inception. Outraged that an erstwhile champion of Bitcoin (Vitalik served as Editor in Chief of Bitcoin Magazine) abandoned efforts to build on BTC, Mastercoin, and colored-coin technology, they have hated Ethereum since its inception. They hated it before the DAO, they hated it before crowdsale. They’ve always hated it, and always will.

Others claim to have started hating it after the DAO fork, since Ethereum’s mulligan was deemed more egregious than Bitcoin’s.

The majority of maximalists, however, seem to have been forged in the great turmoil of Bitcoin’s scaling wars of 2016–2017. Out of the fires of the big-block debates emerged a militarized, us-against-the-world, tribalist type of Bitcoiner that wasn’t nearly as prominent back in the day. They’ve got the lightning bolts on their twitter handle (many non-maximalists have the bolts too), they’re the human embodiment of Honey Fucking Badgers, and they’re ready to go to war with everything that’s not Bitcoin — including other blockchains. These maximalists are also influential on newcomers; they inculcate their militaristic approach (intentionally or not), and before you know it even recent converts to Bitcoin are spouting the maximalist myths and calling Ethereum a scam.

Not all Bitcoiners are maximalists. It’s just that maximalists are really, really loud. They react in a knee-jerk fashion without considering the actual facts. (Some will undoubtedly react to this article on twitter without actually reading it). For them, the world is cast in black and white — or more aptly, black and orange. Us vs. Them. In-group and Out-group. Ideologically Pure-Hearted vs. The Corrupted.

For champions of a platform that’s supposed to be a mighty honey badger, an antifragile world-beater of history-altering proportions, it’s curious that maximalists fret so much about the existence of a perceived alternative. Ultimately, maximalists harbor something else: a deep-seated fear that Ethereum, or some other blockchain technology, will ultimately replace it. There’s no other way to explain their obsession with Ethereum.

AD ASTRA!

Perhaps one of the most egregious sleights-of-hand performed by maximalists is implying that Ethereum is essentially the same as a permissioned blockchain, or one that’s sacrificed decentralization for scaling. In fact, it’s sufficiently decentralized to the point where — much like Bitcoin — it’s effectively unstoppable.

Maximalists. Take off the horse blinders. Open your minds a bit and objectively look at the evidence. Come hang out at some Ethereum events. Go to a hackathon or a meetup. You’ll find that at the end of the day, we have far more in common than our differences.

Ethereum is not your opposition; that role is aptly filled by government regulators who seek to shut down crypto, and by central bank policies that inexorably drain you of your savings. A permissionless, decentralized smart contract platform is an ideal complement to a self-sovereign system of storing and transacting value.

Ethereum isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s only getting bigger. So is Bitcoin. We might as well figure how these two technologies can interact, fill in each others’ weaknesses, and thrive together in this brave new crypto world. A freer and more prosperous humanity is far more likely if we can find ways to coexist, rather than waste time on mindless maximalism.

Someday, humans may join the space cat in colonizing the stars. Our chances of getting there are a lot better, thanks to permissionless and decentralized platforms. But to get there, we’ll have to take the first steps of learning how not to fear one another. And it all starts with taking those blinders off.

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Kent Barton

Written by

Head of R&D @ ShapeShift. Founder: Ethereum Denver.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

Kent Barton

Written by

Head of R&D @ ShapeShift. Founder: Ethereum Denver.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

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