One of BTC Core’s longest-serving and most prolific code maintainers, Pieter Wuille, has announced he will resign his position. Only four others can now execute changes to BTC’s working code, raising more questions about power centralization and maintainers’ legal liabilities.
Hailing from Belgium, Wuille (aka “sipa”) has been a contributor and maintainer for the BTC project since 2011. He has contributed the most code to the BTC project after Satoshi Nakamoto.
Wuille is credited with some of BTC’s major code implementations, including segregated witness signatures (SegWit), HD wallets, the libsecp256k1 code library, and most recently Taproot/Schnorr. He also co-founded Blockstream with Adam Back in 2014 before leaving the company in 2020. He now works at New York-based BTC research and development firm Chaincode Labs. In the early 2010s, Wuille worked for Google in Switzerland.
Wuille said he would remain a contributor to BTC Core and related projects, but would resign the power to maintain (or change) the code.
To be clear: I won’t stop contributing to code, review, and all the projects I’m involved in. It just so happens I’m not doing much maintenance anymore, so it’s time to drop my permissions. https://t.co/8OAJaw02MM
— Pieter Wuille (@pwuille) July 7, 2022
Wuille’s departure leaves only four individuals known to have commit access to the BTC code repository: Lead Developer Wladimir van der Laan, Marco Falke, and Michael Ford. While, in theory, anyone can contribute code to the BTC Core project, only those with commit access can incorporate that code into the actual BTC protocol.
Wuille joins fellow code repository maintainer Jonas Schnelli, who turned in his keys in October 2021, citing increasing “legal risks” for BTC developers, “which can be stressful.” At the time, Schnelli also said new BTC Core contributors should “join anonymously.” Another maintainer, Samuel Dobson, resigned in December 2021, along with contributor John Newbery. Newbury had managed BTC Core’s pull requests.
We should note once again that contributor anonymity does not remove the legal risks or pressures, given that GitHub is a U.S. company owned by Microsoft and headquartered in California. Both are high-profile brands and, as such, are subject to the same kind of legal/political stresses as any other high-stakes player.
Commit access essentially gives BTC’s four-person group of elites ultimate responsibility over BTC’s “monetary policy”—every one of its functions and its basic protocol rules. While open source advocates argue that major changes still require a large degree of consensus to avoid a mutiny or code fork, code maintainers are the executors.
For comparison, imagine if full executive power over an independent state or other financial system rested with a committee of four people. No matter what checks and balances, codified or otherwise, exist in such a system, the result is centralization and concentration of power. That group of four would be subject to powerful influences, but must also bear responsibility for any events resulting from their actions.
Centralized vs. decentralized power in Bitcoin
Bitcoin creator Dr. Craig S. Wright, who created the “Satoshi Nakamoto” moniker to author the Bitcoin white paper (2008) and its original code (2009), has said that repository code maintainers are fiduciaries under the law. As such, they take ultimate legal responsibility for the system and potentially several of the ways in which the system has been used. The issue is the subject of active legal disputes.
Only existing maintainers can add new maintainers or remove existing ones. Gavin Andresen, who was handed the lead developer role after Satoshi “left” the BTC project in 2010, had his GitHub commit access revoked in 2016 over fears “he may have been hacked.” In reality, those fears were more of a convenient excuse to remove him from the project after he worked on a new version of the BTC protocol that would increase transaction block sizes.
— Peter Todd (@peterktodd) May 2, 2016
Andresen’s removal is one example of centralized power and how it could be used to influence BTC’s fundamental rules. A lack of consensus over other major changes led to an actual code split in 2017, after which BTC implemented SegWit.
Only Bitcoin SV now runs using Satoshi Nakamoto’s original protocol and rules, which have been “set in stone” and may not be altered. Authority over its direction rests with the Bitcoin Association, a Swiss not-for-profit foundation. While individual users have commit access to BSV’s code repository, they remain under the direction of the Bitcoin Association, the legal entity holding that power.
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