“Hard fork” is a term that often incites heated debates. Some communities explicitly embrace on-chain governance, such as freezing accounts and changing smart contract code on-the-fly, while others are known to be fiercely rooted in the “you don’t hard fork, ever” camp.
The Bitcoin community has a reputation for being strictly hard-fork-averse. Major changes on the protocol level usually don’t make it into the mainline Bitcoin Core client (i.e. hard forks are always contentious and lead to splits from the main BTC chain). While this makes it hard to implement meaningful protocol updates, it also creates confidence into Bitcoins’s reliability and the finality of Bitcoin transactions.
The Ethereum community regularly implements protocol updates via coordinated hard forks and is generally believed to be more pragmatic. Famously, a hard fork was used once before to reverse the effects of a major attack. EIPs exist that propose processes for restoring lost funds (EIP-999) and bailing out the victims of programming errors (EIP-867).
My motivation behind doing this survey was to assess community sentiment regarding hard forks. How likely are proposals like EIP-867 and EIP-999 to actually achieve consensus? By how much do the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities really differ in their views? Here’s what I found out.
Audience and Methodology
I created a Google form with the title:
“Under what conditions would you consent to a hard fork that reverses the effects of unwanted events on the blockchain?”
The form contained a multiple choice question listing nine possible hard fork scenarios as well as a “code-is-law” option.
Additionally, I asked people to identify either as Bitcoin maximalist, Ethereum maximalist or neutral by asking about their general world view.
- Responders who checked “Bitcoin not blockchain. Ethereum is a scam.” were assumed to be Bitcoin maximalists.
- Responders who checked “Ethereum enables a lot of use-cases. Bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme.” were assumed to be Ethereum maximalists.
I posted the link on my Twitter stream as well as on the Bitcoin and Ethereum subreddits. Unfortunately, my post was removed from /r/bitcoin after a few minutes for “promoting altcoins”. It did however stay at the top of /r/ethereum for a while. In total, at the time of exporting the results I had received 192 responses.
The first interesting observation was that 80% of respondents identified as neutral (i.e. not Bitcoin or Ethereum maximalist). For me, this was a welcome surprise: Even though maximalists are very vocal they appear to be a minority. Note however that that numbers are skewed towards the Ethereum community as the survey post was removed from /r/bitcoin so quickly.
The overall result for the general population (all survey participants):
Generally, there is widespread consensus that hard forks should only be used in case of existential threats and critical protocol-level exploits. One respondent submitted the following comment which nicely summarizes the sentiment expressed by most repondents:
“Code should be respected. Unless there are serious mistakes made; the developers are under no burden to hard fork to provide refunds. Things should stay status-quo as they are as often as possible unless ridiculously large sums are caught up in a programming error in the underlying crypto currency code. (THIS EXCLUDES ICOs and SMART CONTRACTS WHO WRITE THEIR OWN CODE THAT THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR) Code is law; unless and until that code is found to be significantly flawed. All risks assumed are by the users of cryptocurrency; not the broader community. Exchanges do deserve some leniency; you and the law would do the same for a robbed bank if they could. The blame and responsibility lands on the criminal; so long as the exchange isn’t found to be criminally negligent and we should be able to easily recover funds and invalidate bad transactions if we can prove that the exchange is secured properly. We may however require that all legal steps are taken against the criminal first.”
As a bonus, I looked at the difference between Bitcoin maximalists and Ethereum maximalists. Not surprisingly, Bitcoin maximalists are more adamant in rejecting hard forks. However, a majority of Bitcoin maximalists would support a hard fork if the US government secretly developed an quantum computer and confiscated users’ funds (54%). Roughly one quarter would support reversing the effects of a widespread protocol-level attack. The other scenarios received zero support.
Ethereum maximalists were more lenient than the general population in supporting hard forks. Here, bailing out an Exchange after theft of 15% of ETH supply was supported by a majority. But the remaining proposals received little support even by Ethereum maximalists.
In a survey posted to the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities only 20% identified as maximalists of either chain. Key findings:
- The majority of respondents would support a hard fork to reverse the effects of critical protocol-level attacks.
- Roughly 1/3 of respondents would support a hard fork if 15% of monetary supply was stolen from an exchange.
- All other proposals received support from a small minority (<10%).
- The Bitcoin and Ethereum communities are pretty much aligned in rejecting the use of hard forks for reversing the effects of “unwanted” events, but Bitcoin maximalists more strongly rejected hard forks than Ethereum maximalists.
Raw survey data is available here.
Favorite Quotes from the “Comments, rants and personal insults” section
The following responses were submitted by users in the “Comments, rants and personal insults” section. I’m quoting them here without attribution as I didn’t collect email addresses (PM me if you want your name added).
- “I am assuming that the first two options in the “this justifies a hard fork” list (NSA and double-spend exploit) represent flaws being uncovered and exploited in the protocol rather than just finding some clever way to be better at mining or whatnot. I suspect that in the case of the first one (revolutionary new computing technology breaking fundamental widely-used cryptography) the state of Ethereum will not be a major concern in the midst of a more widespread collapse of computer networking in general, but sure, if an emergency patch can be made that salvages Ethereum that seems fine. I should note that there’s already work going into quantum-proofing Ethereum preemptively, though.”
- “Political hard-forks can be perfectly healthy for the ecosystem, mmmkay?”
- “If the NSA builds that quantum computer, a hard fork won’t stop them from just using it twice.”
- “HODL BTC”
- “EIP-999 can go fuck itself.”