Web3 needs critics and criticism

[Note: The views expressed below are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer or any organization I advise.]

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[A public position lacking specific citations]

As we have discussed before, “Web3” is a nebulous term that has been used to market a slew of products and services, often via “chainwashing.”

What is “Web3?”

This past week 25 guys and one gal signed and published a 741-word letter to senior U.S. legislators calling for “Support of Responsible Fintech Policy.” And while many “Web3” promoters do deserve a good chastising, this letter has many technical shortcomings and is a disappointment to those who have been in the trenches for years… before being a “critic” was considered en vogue. Worst, it doesn’t define what “Web3” or even a “blockchain” is or is not.

But let’s start with a comment that I thought was pretty good, the intro:

“Today, we write to you urging you to take a critical, skeptical approach toward industry claims that crypto-assets (sometimes called cryptocurrencies, crypto tokens, or web3) are an innovative technology that is unreservedly good. We urge you to resist pressure from digital asset industry financiers, lobbyists, and boosters to create a regulatory safe haven for these risky, flawed, and unproven digital financial instruments and to instead take an approach that protects the public interest and ensures technology is deployed in genuine service to the needs of ordinary citizens.”

I – along with a number of other independent researchers such as Angela Walch (who they referenced) – have publicly made similar requests in the past. For instance, the original conclusion in my 2018 WSJ op-ed expanded upon the lack of transparency and surveillance sharing for why the SEC has not approved a bitcoin-denominated ETF by stating, “…the retail public wants seductive narratives and fantastical returns. The supply of fraud will therefore grow to meet that demand.”

To reuse a cliché analogy, throughout most of 2021 you could probably throw a baseball at a collection of dapps and hit one that at the very least, played fast and loose with marketing high APR yields.

This was followed with a quizzical take:

“Not all innovation is unqualifiedly good; not everything that we can build should be built. The history of technology is full of dead ends, false starts, and wrong turns. Append-only digital ledgers are not a new innovation. They have been known and used since 1980 for rather limited functions.”

The first sentence probably has a lot of supporters, including myself, as it relates to non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The somber and horrific legacies of the atomic and hydrogen bombs are certainly an example of something that should not have been built.

But the shade thrown at “append-only digital ledgers” is pretty farcical. Why do these authors get to determine what is or is not useful in the spring of 2022?

For instance, if we look at the core moving pieces of the Bitcoin blockchain, all of the main elements (“prerequisites“) had been around for years. And it was by assembling them together that we have arguably the first blockchain.1 The authors are taking a page from the lazy Maximalist playbook, one that does not withstand empirical scrutiny.

In looking at the “tech stack” of Big Tech, Google maintains a project called “Certificate Transparency” (implemented as “Trillian“).2 Certificate Transparency is not a blockchain, but it is a Merkle tree of things which are interconnected and signed and in production today.

From the Trillian team:

The ideas underpinning Certificate Transparency, Revocation Transparency and related efforts are not specific to certificates, but can in fact be used to make almost anything transparent. These technologies are strongly related to the much-hyped blockchain. The reality, of course, is that there isn’t a “the” blockchain, and that decentralisation is not always the answer. We are not making “the” blockchain, and we do not claim to support decentralisation.

As mentioned in a previous post, the problem with the a priori position that anti-coiners (and many maximalists) have is that over time they continually get backed up into a corner. Why? Because over the past decade we continue to see – empirically – how blockchains and blockchain-like elements are incorporated by a spectrum of organizations from Big Tech and Big Finance all the way down to small startups.

As Matthew Green (a cryptographer) explains in a thread on this topic, the granular fine points around “blockchain technology” is mostly bad:

Unfortunately the authors – while seemingly well intentioned – do not clearly state what parts of a blockchain they dislike, what parts of “distributed ledger technology” that they explicitly think is bad.

Furthermore, the idea of a neutrally owned, shared ledger is not a new concept. Several initiatives in the financial industry — such as a Joint Back Office (JBO) — pre-date the euphoria around blockchains but languished in concept mode.3 What is the lure for maintaining a shared ledger between (competing) organizations? Resiliency and reduction of reconciliation often come up as two of the main reasons but the list is long and deserves its own post. Suffice to say, claiming that “append-only digital ledgers” are a plaything of the ’80s is not even wrong.

Another broad sweeping set of statements that lack precision:

As software engineers and technologists with deep expertise in our fields, we dispute the claims made in recent years about the novelty and potential of blockchain technology. Blockchain technology cannot, and will not, have transaction reversal mechanisms because they are antithetical to its base design.

As Green and Byrne (among other responders) have pointed out, there is a missing nuance by the authors in that there are different types of blockchains. For instance, depending on the implementation some permissioned blockchains allow – in theory – certain participants to freeze transactions.4

Likewise on public chains, administrators of USDC, USDT, and other collateral-backed pegged coins, regularly blacklist and freeze transactions. In fact, any chain with smart contract functionality can provide some form of reversibility (or at the very least, freezing of state). We also see this empirically during and after exploits, with developer teams freezing tokens.

This is a strange miss because one of the signatories is Stephen Diehl, who as far back as July 2017 (when I spoke to him in an official meeting) was/is the CTO and director at Adjoint, which is a British private blockchain firm that has previously announced payment-related partnerships.

This statement starts out good:

Similarly, most public blockchain-based financial products are a disaster for financial privacy; the exceptions are a handful of emerging privacy-focused blockchain finance alternatives, and these are a gift to money-launderers. Financial technologies that serve the public must always have mechanisms for fraud mitigation and allow a human-in-the-loop to reverse transactions; blockchain permits neither.

Green (and suzuha) points out that the authors are trying to have their cake and eat it too:

Source: Twitter

For example, as far back as 2015, banks involved in R3 presented use-cases that required – by law – protection of PII. At the time, any company or organization wanting to engage with regulated financial institutions quickly learned how PII was an unmovable touchstone (see this related presentation). And so from those functional requirements arose different solutions ranging from hardware-based solutions (like SGX) to software-based solutions (like ZK-Snarks). The public chain world was often where these ideas either first originated or at the very least, first tested.5

Over the years I have regularly pointed out how privacy and confidentiality-features could be used for a sundry of illicit activities. But just because it could be used by those types of actors, does not mean it regularly is.

On that point, in 2016 I helped edit a paper on this very topic. It was co-authored by Danny Yang (founder of Blockseer), Zooko Wilcox-O’Hearn, and Jack Gavigan. Wilcox-O’Hearn and Gavigan are executives at the Electric Coin Company, a for-profit company leading the development of Zcash. Worth pointing out that one of the signatories on the letter above amplified false information about myself two months ago, claiming I was not an advisor at Blockseer. Not only is this false, but I still own the equity in DMG Blockchain (which acquired Blockseer four years ago). This calls into question the credibility of the individuals amplifying information they did not fact check. What other false information are they claiming about blockchains?

Scare quotes is not the only thing that harms this section:

By its very design, blockchain technology, specifically so-called “public blockchains”, are poorly suited for just about every purpose currently touted as a present or potential source of public benefit. From its inception, this technology has been a solution in search of a problem and has now latched onto concepts such as financial inclusion and data transparency to justify its existence, despite far better solutions already in use.

The paragraph preceding this one also mentions “public blockchains” but doesn’t use quotes around it. And neither defines or provides nuance to explain the differences between “permissioned” (or private) blockchains compared with “public” (or anarchic) blockchains.

Either way, the authors make a good argument about how pulling on the heart strings of financial inclusion is mostly bupkis and I agree, and others have pointed that this rings hollow too.6 To strengthen this, the authors should have provided a citation or at least an example of “far better solutions already in use.” For example, Raúl Carrillo (who is not one of the listed authors) has pointed to Postal Banking as a possible avenue for (re)banking not just marginalized persons. Blockchains aren’t need for that or arguably for other retail activity.7

The next part of the paragraph is painfully arbitrary:

After more than thirteen years of development, it has severe limitations and design flaws that preclude almost all applications that deal with public customer data and regulated financial transactions and are not an improvement on existing non-blockchain solutions.

First of all, the first web browser (appropriately called the “WorldWideWeb“) was launched in 1990. It wasn’t until 2004 that Google revealed Ajax-based Gmail followed by Google Maps. If the authors are trying to make the claim that anything (everything?) useful should have been invented in 13 years then they should hold other tech initiatives to the same standard.

The lack of nuance in this letter is striking because not every blockchain is based on the purposefully limited architecture of Bitcoin. Between 2009-2015, a typical on-chain user could only access Bitcoin or a Bitcoin-based fork or clone (like Litecoin). Ethereum and other chains with a virtual machine, did not launch until the summer of 2015.8 That is part of the reason why regulated financial institutions (Big Banks) and large technology companies (Big Tech) began deploying resources in this sector in 2015: first with consortia and later setting up their own internal teams of subject matter experts. What a user could do with a blockchain changed over time thus a priori declaring “almost all applications” dead is incredulous.

And again, the authors provide no examples of what “existing non-blockchain solutions” they are referring to. For example, every single major vendor that provides core banking software for banks — such as FIS, Fiserve, and Jack Henry — have integrated tools that enable the software to interact with or hook into a blockchain. Every major Big Cloud vendor provides both tools for blockchain node operators as well as dedicated “Web3” development teams to compete with Alchemy and Infura. Several CSDs and CCPs have invested in a blockchain-focused company (like Digital Asset or Axoni) and have announced blockchain-based pilots. Pretending that this digitization and tokenization trend is not occurring beyond niche NFT art collections is intellectually dishonest.

I agree with most of this statement but it needs nuance:

Finally, blockchain technologies facilitate few, if any, real-economy uses. On the other hand, the underlying crypto-assets have been the vehicle for unsound and highly volatile speculative investment schemes that are being actively promoted to retail investors who may be unable to understand their nature and risk. Other significant externalities include threats to national security through money laundering and ransomware attacks, financial stability risks from high price volatility, speculation and susceptibility to run risk, massive climate emissions from the proof-of-work technology utilized by some of the most widely traded crypto-assets, and investor risk from large scale scams and other criminal financial activity.

The nuance these authors need to include is defining what “blockchain technology” is and is not. Trillian is not a blockchain but shares several common elements. Thus throwing the baby with the bath water flies in the face of the empirical reality.9 As far as criticisms around the negative externalities created by proof-of-work-based blockchains: I 100% agree. I have written on this topic roughly every 18 months. What would strengthen their statement is to provide actual statistics and data regarding each of their points (the data exists from companies like Chainalysis or previously, Blockseer).

Their polemical statement meanders on a bit more but this statement is worth assessing:

The catastrophes and externalities related to blockchain technologies and crypto-asset investments are neither isolated nor are they growing pains of a nascent technology. They are the inevitable outcomes of a technology that is not built for purpose and will remain forever unsuitable as a foundation for large-scale economic activity.

The second sentence falls under Hitchens razor: that which is presented without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. In fact, we do know why Bitcoin was built, Satoshi explained it at length on mailing lists and in the white paper. And Bitcoin was just the first “blockchain,” other chains have arisen later that fulfill other requirements. Onyx from JP Morgan is now being used for trading intraday repos. Maybe Onyx is just a flash in the pan, but it serves as a narrative violation — and there are more than a dozen other examples that the authors are likely unaware of, just read Ledger Insights each week.10

Lastly, in the Financial Times, one of the authors was quoted saying:

“The computational power is equivalent to what you could do in a centralised way with a $100 computer,” said de Icaza. “We’re essentially wasting millions of dollars’ worth of equipment because we’ve decided that we don’t trust the banking system.”

This is true with respect to proof-of-work-based blockchains but not at all relevant to alternate Sybil resistant models like proof-of-stake (P-o-S). Conflating the two is not accurate. Also, de Icaza and others needlessly defend the status quo, both with comments like this as well as the letter itself. Fortunately for retail, “the banking system” is not completely static and changes over time (it is also not a single monolithic entity). Also, not a single author listed works for a financial institution yet opines on it; there are plenty of blockchain “skeptics” within the financial industry why not find one?

Which brings us to the next section.

(Un)intentionally defending the status quo

The only reason to publicly identify themselves is to give weight or credibility to the matters discussed in the letter. Even though this letter was directed at U.S. congressmen and women, more than half of the signees are neither US residents or citizens. Even though more than a handful work at public tech companies or large organizations that rely on donations, let us give them the benefit of the doubt that they were not explicitly defending the status quo.

Yet without offering specifics beyond vague “non-blockchain solutions,” the authors are implicitly defending both systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs) and systemically important cloud providers. Both are bad for society and we should not defend their existence.

It is worth pointing out apart from two or three, most of these authors were not actively critical during the very public 2017-2018 ICO boom.11 What has motivated them to self-deputize and attempt to police what can and cannot be done with a blockchain in 2022 and ignore those who have been pathfinders in prior years? Perhaps there is a good reason, busy solving other worldly problems. I am certainly a fan of more introspection by disinterested parties!

I have written about it before but if the aim is to (1) influence policy makers and work with (2) regulators, there are at least two ways to achieve their goals:

  1. Set up a not-for-profit lobbying organization modeled after Coin Center… the Anti-Coin Center. Hire former regulators and policy makers and re-use the lobbyist blueprint to engage with decision makers. A couple of years ago I wrote out a general overview to a couple L1 creators, it’s not complicated. You don’t even need a blockchain. But it does require some capital to hire for various roles, so it is not completely lean (e.g., would probably need to hire an actual blockchain engineer instead of relying on IT administrators). Oh and someone who posts frivolous memes all day is a must.
  2. About four months ago, I asked one of the authors to submit their concerns directly with various agencies, such as the SEC and CFTC. This can be done formally through a whistle blower process (I’ve done it!). An ad hoc Hail Mary… is to informally do so through letter writing campaigns coordinated on social media. And as they haven’t stated otherwise, instead of submitting paperwork, some of these authors spend all day engagement farming on social media. If the outcome is “to get regulators to do something” this seems suboptimal because U.S. regulators typically need a paper trail to get the bureaucracy moving.

The blockchain world needs critics and criticism but it also needs criticism that is technically valid. And this letter is not only imprecise but sounds like something incumbent technology firms would write to defend their turf (which probably isn’t how it originated).

Bonafides

Over the past 18 months, the most recent coin bull market brought in a slew of new commentators a few of whom have attempted to co-opt the term “critic.” Clearly no one owns this term, there is no monopoly on it. Heck, I’ve even been labeled a “crypto” or “bitcoin” critic on more than one occasion. Yet we are seeing a cottage industry of professional “skeptics” who have a priori made up their mind irrespective of the evidence presented.

In addition to writing the most widely cited paper on “permissioned” blockchains, I wrote the first long form discussion on potential systemic important cryptocurrency networks in 2018 and think it is a bit absurd that some anti-coin commentary claims that cyber coins currently threaten the entire financial system. Feel free to disagree, but the onus is on the party making the positive claim. The counterfactual occurred the past five months: more than half of the aggregate coin marketcap evaporated. As collateral-backed pegged coins unwound, they did not lead to massive treasury liquidations crushing the traditional financial market.12

This is not defending the way centralized, commercial-bank backed pegged coins arose or currently operate.13 Rather it is a statement of fact: today the cyber coin world is not “too big to fail” and hopefully it never will be. Contagion can be real and should be simulated and stress tested!14 There are plenty of good criticisms to be lobbed at the “Web3” world, none of which requires making up fanciful conspiracies or playing fast and loose with technical verbiage.

If we are going to (rightly) criticize startups, investors, and other interested parties for mis-marketing “Web3” we should provide specific reasons as well as definitions. And while we are at it, let us bring a fine comb and scrutinize other hyped tech verticals that dramatically impact the well being of individuals such as: A.I. and workplace discrimination, privacy rights over data (including identity).15

Crusades can be big tent and incorporate more than just a small echo chamber of folks who (rightly) point out that a lot of cryptocurrency buzz is likely a financial grift with little real utility. Yet it is not a coincidence that perhaps the best critics are actual practioners, engineers, and architects who saw the limitations or drawbacks in certain blockchain designs and decided to build a different way. If there is a second version of this letter, it is highly recommended that input from outsiders be solicited. Including the world’s richest man, Colin Platt!

Or maybe we’ll just have to settle for a Kimberley process for Web3 claims, for both promoters and pundits alike.

End notes

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  1. Depending on how it is defined, a candidate for the “original blockchain” was the Haber and Stornetta timestamping system published in 1990 (and thrice cited in the Bitcoin whitepaper). Therefore archaic blockchains had a useful niche before Bitcoin but were not capable of moving assets without a third party. Note: as they failed to provide a definition of a “blockchain” in their letter, the authors overly broad usage of “not useful” could encompass e-signature providers such as DocuSign and HelloSign. []
  2. One of the authors, Kelsey Hightower, works at Google, and a couple others work for large tech companies partly reliant on adtech revenue [e.g., monetizing personal information and data.] []
  3. SIFI intermediaries such as Swift, Euroclear, and CLS have done deep dives and pilots into “DLT.” A quick literature review pulls up the following relevant papers that the anti-coin authors may be unaware of: Distributed ledger technology in payment, clearing and settlement from the Bank for International Settlements; Distributed ledger technology for securities clearing and settlement: benefits, risks, and regulatory implications from Randy Priem; Distributed ledger technologies in securities post-trading from the European Central Bank; Distributed ledger technology in payments, clearing, and settlement from the Federal Reserve Board; The Tokenisation of Assets and Potential Implications for Financial Markets from the OCED; Digital Securities Management Bringing Private Markets Infrastructure Into the 21st Century from the DTCC. []
  4. At one point Accenture proposed an “edit” feature that does not appear to have been adopted by any chain. Stellar has implemented a feature that allows developers to “burn an asset.” []
  5. The experiments in the “dangerous” public chain space are funding and battle testing some of the new privacy and tech stacks that ‘Big Banks’ were not incentivized to build. Two examples in the U.S.: the FTX clearing proposal might be a better “exchange stack” than existing traditional finance operations and the Silvergate banking API (SEN) quickly confirms transactions based on on-chain data. Both services might not have been built even in the private blockchain world; at least they have not thus far. []
  6. To be fair, a number of financial incumbents and non-blockchain-related fintechs market their products and services as “financial inclusion.” They all attend many of the same events and sit on the same panels too. []
  7. See also the proposed E-Cash Act co-authored by Rohan Grey. []
  8. Technically Mastercoin, Counterparty, and several colored coin projects launched before Ethereum did, but they did not include a virtual machine that can run arbitrary code. []
  9. For balance, traditional financial markets also facilitate the transfer of illicit funds (money laundering) and ill-gotten gains from scams and fraud. The authors would have a stronger argument if they provided actual stats, e.g., what percentage of on-chain transactions involved illicit activities. []
  10. For instance, this coming October, a tokenized pound (‘synthetic CBDC’) on a blockchain platform operated by Fnality International will go-live in the U.K. Uptake may be slow in part because of issues around composability and because initial participants are banks that need to change the way they make payments. AntChain from Alibaba is a production chain used to settle e-commerce payments (connecting their banks to their merchants). Another example would be “perpetuals” which were conceived by Robert Shiller in 1992 and first implemented in 2016 by Bitmex, and now widespread on many major CEXs and a few DEXs. []
  11. At least two of the authors have previously cited my article on this crazy time period: Eight Things Cryptocurrency Enthusiasts Probably Won’t Tell You. []
  12. Yesterday the Japanese parliament passed a bill aimed at clarifying the legal status of “stablecoins.” Similar laws and/or guidance are expected to be brought up in other countries. []
  13. See Parasitic Stablecoins. []
  14. The Federal Reserve Board annually conducts stress tests of the U.S. financial system. Similar tests occur in other countries. Researchers at the IMF recently released a paper describing the underlying framework of GST. []
  15. U.S. legislators at the national level have failed at providing a comprehensive digital rights and privacy framework, as well as A.I. auditing guidance. These issues are arguably just as important and impactful as cryptocurrency-related topics. []

One thought on “Web3 needs critics and criticism

  1. Even Proof of Stake blockchains are too expensive to be practical for most applications. Exhibit A – EOS.

    Ricardian Contracts, or you might call it, a cryptographic ledger, is far more useful and applicable using contract law than contactless, permissionless blockchains. A blockchain is a bloated slow database. If all you need is a database, a blockchain is not the right tool for it.

    The people, starting with Satoshi, who turned blockchain into a religion are basically deluded cultists, little better than the Heaven’s Gate cult that committed mass suicide over the Hale Bopp comet. The comet didn’t care. Bitcoin is a thing. It has some interesting uses. Bitcoin itself is not the answer to the central banking problem. But it certainly has scared the pants off the central banks, so that was fun to watch.

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