Paper rip goodbye

John Newbery follows Samuel Dobson out the door at BTC Core

Another developer associated with “Bitcoin” Core is stepping back from the project. John Newbery’s announcement on December 11 follows closely behind that of Core code maintainer Samuel Dobson, and a few months after fellow maintainer Jonas Schnelli. What’s causing so many people to disassociate themselves from BTC?

Newbery posted on Twitter that he intended to be away from the BTC Core project “for some time.” He also announced his departure from related projects such as BTC development support groups Brink and Bitcoin Optech, and the Bitcoin Core PR Review Club (pull request review).

He was careful to point out that his decision was not due to lawsuits, funding issues… or Dr. Craig Wright:

However, Schnelli had cited growing legal pressures as a reason for his own departure in October 2021, and it’s likely others are feeling the same heat. Newbery may not consider Dr. Wright a direct threat to his activities, but Wright has mentioned several times that blockchain developers are considered legal fiduciaries under the law.

This means that developers, particularly those in high positions such as maintainers, those with commit access, and financial support networks, must bear some legal responsibility for the actions of users on their networks—or liability, in the case of losses or thefts.

This position has support from others outside the BSV world. Researcher Angela Walch, from the St. Mary’s University School of Law and the UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies, also published a 2018 paper that laid out the argument in detail. As recently as July 2021, Walch testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban about developers having a fiduciary responsibility to blockchain network participants.

De-decentralizing BTC

Newbery did not have commit access to the BTC Core code, but his positions as a developer and with organizations directing funding and education for developers had put him in an influential position within the community.

The number of people with commit access to BTC Core (i.e., those with the ability to actually save changes to BTC’s codebase on GitHub) is now 3-5. That includes the three maintainers, as well as Blockstream co-founder Pieter Wuille and Hennadii Stepanov (who by some accounts are not official maintainers).

As their numbers continue to dwindle, this centralizes power over the BTC protocol into a smaller number of hands. The protocol code is essentially monetary policy that determines BTC’s rules, how the network is structured, and what transactions it will and won’t process.

BTC claims to have several checks and balances over the process that determines whether change proposals should be written into the protocol. Controversial major changes have included breaking nLockTime when introducing CLTV (Check Lock Time Verify), deprecation of the Alert Key in 2016, deploying SegWit in 2017, and deploying Taproot in 2021. There have also been several others since the departure of Satoshi Nakamoto and Gavin Andresen that have fundamentally altered the way BTC transactions work.

These processes are self-defined by BTC developers and their networks. The wider community also has little insight into any offline negotiations or deals that promote certain changes over others. Even if there were no fiduciary responsibilities (there are) it’s a great deal of personal responsibility and pressure to put on just a handful of developers. It also proves that BTC is completely centralized around a very small handful of protocol developers and their paymasters despite what people think.

Dr. Wright and any potential lawsuits involving him might not present a direct threat to BTC Core developers’ positions. But he does loom large over the industry, especially with the extra legal and media clout bestowed upon him recently, following his victory in the Kleiman vs. Wright trial.

He has spoken at length about the legal problems developers could face and may potentially be involved in actions that focus on them. At the very least, he can’t be ignored, and regulators are taking an interest as well.

Follow CoinGeek’s Crypto Crime Cartel series, which delves into the stream of groups—a from BitMEX to BinanceBitcoin.comBlockstreamShapeShiftCoinbaseRippleEthereum, FTX and Tether—who have co-opted the digital asset revolution and turned the industry into a minefield for naïve (and even experienced) players in the market.

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