Dazed and confused, but trying to continue

I’m happy with the job I’m doing, happy to work with a few very smart people on an extremely interesting project, involving various entirely new challenges, that could have enormous impact. But on the other hand Bitcoin infrastucture development must be one of the most hostile and crazy working environments in existence, at least in software development.

This is my personal reflection on recent events, and should not be seen as any official statement for Bitcoin nor Bitcoin Core.

Atmospheric toxicity

Day in, day out, there is trolling, targeted attacks, shilling on social media targeted toward us. I don’t know of any other project like this. I’ve seen developer teams in MMOs under similar pressure from users; but possibly this is even worse. There, there are avid disagreements about how the game rules should be changed, here people get worked up about changes affecting a whole economic system. And the people attacking are, in many cases, not even users of the software.

But it is even worse when many of those attacks are agitated by someone that purports to be part of your own project. Not just involved with, even leading projects whose developers and users are openly hostile to us.

Some development tasks are extremely complex and require focus over a long time. It is essential to be able to reduce distractions, by being at least sure that your own team has your back.

For those reasons over the last years we’ve tried to create a more sane and focused environment for developers to work in. Part of this is a restructuring of the project. A decoupling of the name “Bitcoin Core” from “Bitcoin”. Bitcoin is (understandably) seen as public property. No one owns the bitcoin system, it is supposed to be decentralized and intangible.

However Bitcoin Core is a software project run by a team of people working together, on an open source basis. People who choose for themselves who they want to work with, and who they don’t want to work with.

There comes a point when it is time to break ties with certain individuals which were formative in the beginning but have, over time, ossified and even come to be seen as a toxic influence. Especially if they haven’t partaken in active development for a long time.

Scams all the way down

On a different note, Bitcoin has unfortunately always attracted scammers (remember mybitcoin?), con artists (remember pirateat40?), as well as assorted opportunists of all kinds.

Bitcoin also has its own creation myth, with borderline-religious support by some.

But now something truly fishy is going on. Someone is claiming to be that creator, but is surrounded by technological and social trickery, based on backdated GPG keys, faked digital signatures, maybe classic bait-and-switch parlor tricks. Despite various red flags, many people are convinced that a certain person is the creator of Bitcoin. There is a larger confusion than ever where truth starts and where misdirection and scams end. I am extrememly concerned about this.

I wasn’t sure, and am still not sure how Gavin is involved in this. It is no longer likely that he was hacked, but at the very least he is confused. When we saw the blog post convinced he found Satoshi, the prudent thing to do was to revoke his ownership of the ‘bitcoin’ organization on github, under which the Bitcoin Core repository currently lies, immediately.

In the past he has stated that “Satoshi can have write access to the github repo any time he asks.”, so if he is absolutely convinced that this is Satoshi, there is a risk that he’d give away the repository to a scammer.

Least privilege

But in a way this was only the final straw. His privileges were seen as a liability by members of the project for a while (and not just because of proxy threats from Mike Hearn to shut down the project).

The principle of least privilege in computer security says that users, should only have access to the resources they need for the purposes that are essential to the user’s job.

This is not an idle concern, for us. Remember how the bitcoin sourceforge was hacked using Satoshi’s inactive account?

Gavin hadn’t done anything as a maintainer for a year or so, and before that he already was hardly active for a long time.

That’s perfectly fine, people move on to other things, other interests, no one is bound to this project for life. However, the world also moves on, and if you go on to other things you can’t expect to be able to come back at any point and that everything is in the same place where you left it. It was time to revoke those privileges anyway.

I have personally asked, in a phone conversation as well as in mail, Gavin various times to give up his privileges with the github project himself - and so have other people. The response was always that he’d “sleep on it”. Despite allegations of the opposite, this did not come out of the blue.

Crossing the Rubicon

So when the question comes up whether we should make Gavin maintainer again, my answer, and that of many others is a resounding “no”. For one, there is just no point, as he wasn’t acting as a maintainer for Bitcoin Core anymore in the first place, and in addition to that, many feel that we can be more productive if we separate our ways.

Written on May 6, 2016
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