Essay
Ethereum Should Be Like Nature —Outside of Human Control
03.20.2019

Just over a decade ago, when I was a freelance journalist, three police officers from the Greater Manchester police terrorism unit came knocking at my door. When I asked why they had shown up at my flat, they told me they wanted to talk to me about the book I was in the middle of writing. Not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a democracy, where the writing of books should never be the concern of the police.

After I let them in, they served me with a draft order instructing me to give them all of my source materials — recordings, notes, transcripts — pretty much everything I’d created in the course of my reporting of terrorism. Of course, journalists don’t give up their sources. We don’t hand over notes and recordings for fear of betraying those which we have promised confidences to. So I fought it. And a few months later I was sitting before three of the most senior judges in the U.K. listening to their verdict.

A few years later, I would come against the Monopoly on Violence again in a more direct fashion after getting whacked over the head with a truncheon by a police officer at a protest over student fees.

Although the court came to modify the scope of order, in the end they agreed with the Manchester police. And in that moment I came face to face with the realization that if I didn’t want to do what three judges had ordered me to do — hand my precious belongings and my journalistic integrity to the police — I would likely be put in jail. The period of hearing out rational debate had ended and even though I’d committed no crime, nor caused civil injury, I could be forced against my will to do what the representatives of the state wanted me to do because, simply put, they had the right to put me in prison. I had come up against the wall that is the State Monopoly on Violence. So I gave in.

Shiv Malik

TheChain: Image

A few years later, I would come against the Monopoly on Violence again in a more direct fashion after getting whacked over the head with a truncheon by a police officer at a protest over student fees. I was covering the protest as a journalist, but I knew there would be little point complaining. In such circumstances, officers are given much more latitude to employ violence lawfully. Privately I joked afterward that I was grateful the cops didn’t prosecute me for allowing my head to get in the way of the administration of justice.

I’m writing this from a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, where it turns out, searching for the term “the Monopoly on Violence” on Wikipedia is banned. I only discover this because after trying a few times and receiving an Err_Timed_Out page, the hotel manager suddenly appears at my breakfast table and presents me with a cartoon from The Economist about freedom of speech. “Isn’t this a funny cartoon?,” she says, laughing nervously. I quickly realize what she means and stop what I’m doing, so both she and I don’t get into serious trouble.

Related: The Crypto-Governance Age Is Here

Of course, there are benefits to states having a Monopoly on Violence. Afghanistan and Somalia in the ’90s are examples of what happens when there is no such monopoly. Hobbes was right: Existence becomes “nasty, brutish, and short.” But in the modern era, the downsides are also very apparent.

The above examples are overt uses of the Monopoly on Violence. But there are many covert uses too. The Spy Cops scandal, where police officers appropriated the IDs of dead babies, and had children with ostensibly non-violent activists to maintain their deep-cover, is the horror version of Joseph Conrad’s, The Secret Agent. Except it was perpetrated by the U.K.’s largest policing authority, acting within a democracy with supposed civic controls over such matters, in the 21st century, not the 19th. States often abuse their Monopoly on Violence with total impunity. A lack of competition will have that effect.

In short, if you want to achieve serious change and you aren’t willing to be fined, go to jail, be killed, or renegotiate that monopoly through taking up arms yourself—many political groups from the Suffragettes to the Civil Rights movement have done just this—then you better be prepared to roll over and submit, however good or righteous you think your cause might be.

In Defense of Szabo’s Law

So what has any of the above got to do with Ethereum governance? It’s become a heated topic of late. The tension at the recent Ethereum Community Conference in Paris was palpable. There are flame-wars brewing around Parity stuck funds, how to resolve the interests of well-funded incumbents versus new but much poorer entrants, how to push through upgrades, diversity and equal representation, and much more besides. It’s feeling particularly fractious. Maybe the current very heated atmosphere might die down as Crypto Winter turns to (literal and figurative) spring. But the underlying issues aren’t going away.

Related: The Ethereum Community Calls for End to Threats and “Toxic” Behavior

There’s no point attempting to reference everyone here, despite the welter of incredibly well-articulated arguments. Primavera de Filippi is an especially cogent expert on these matters.

One high profile proponent for the pro-governance point of view is Vlad Zamfir, now at Casper Labs. Zamfir believes the reason for our lack of governance is our adherence to what he terms (Nick) Szabo’s Law. Given that blockchains will want to be, and should be legal, Zamfir asserts we should abandon the mindset that the only acceptable changes to the protocol should be those that “are required for the purpose of technical maintenance.” In effect, we should dump the thought that “code is law” because this is a misnomer, and “Szabo’s law is too radically anti-legal to be part of a sensible crypto legal system.” It’s simply not tenable, he argues, to tell people there can be no restitution in our system because the code runs autonomously.

Leaving aside the practical difficulties of trying to make a global protocol “legal” in even half a dozen jurisdictions, let alone 200, I find Zamfir’s assertion that blockchain should endeavor to be legal everywhere toadying of the worst kind. Ethereum’s vision has always been big and bold enough to set the ethical terms for itself, thereby forcing legal jurisdictions around the globe to follow suit, rather than the other way around. Why change that? Especially when state laws are not built around any consent to be governed, which any self-respecting Etherean would recognize.

Do we want Ethereum to be “legal” in Iran, Turkey, China, or even the U.S.? Looking at what happened to Google and Facebook when they adopted that outlook might offer some salient lessons.

More simply, ask yourself this: Do we want Ethereum to be “legal” in Iran, Turkey, China, or even the U.S.? Looking at what happened to Google and Facebook when they adopted that outlook might offer some salient lessons.

But the more fundamental point here is that as soon as you demonstrate you are operating a quasi-judicial system of any kind, you make yourself utterly susceptible to having your quasi-judicial system coming under the larger jurisdiction of a state that views itself as sovereign. You will have identified a locus of power for states and will subsequently be made to stand under them. And therein lies the problem. Is any Etherean willing to be heavily fined, or go to prison to keep the Ethereum network online?

And what will happen if Ethereum starts challenging financial structures of say incumbent military-run businesses of, say, Pakistan, Iran, or Egypt, and Ethereans get defined as financial terrorists under the “law” of those countries? Or someone gets bumped off? Don’t dismiss this as hyperbole. Investigative journalists regularly get killed in Russia, Latin America, and even “blockchain friendly” Malta — just for exposing illicit financial structures, let alone attempting to take them down.

Get the BREAKERMAG newsletter, a weekly roundup of blockchain business and culture.

It might be the case that Ethereum governance structures are already so formalized, that someone looking to retrieve lost funds might right now be in a position to file a lawsuit against named individuals whom they think can be held personally liable. But trying to head that potential threat off by introducing even more formalized governance procedures, seems a pretty dreadful tactic.

So when you take these factors into account, the State’s Monopoly on Violence enforced through overt practices like the courts, and the willingness of even democratic states to engage in deeply anti-civic practices, saying there’s nothing we can do because the code runs autonomously is actually profoundly powerful.

Zamfir is right when he says the code doesn’t run autonomously. Yes, it is still humans who choose to upgrade the basic protocol. Hell, the computers are still plugged into the walls. And de Filippi identifies lots of other vectors of attack that courts could deploy in this regard. But Szabo’s law is also another way of saying, no particular human is in charge of this revolt carried out by digital means. If we can’t all be as anonymous as Satoshi, then the best we can do is create a round robin of epic proportions.

And if you’re not familiar with the original round robin, it is “I am Spartacus” in letter form: a circular protocol ensured a level of anonymity for petition organizers.

And if you’re not familiar with the original round robin, it is the ‘I am Spartacus’ of protest letters—sailors would write their name on a petition from the centre outwards, like it was a spoke in a wheel. This way those signing at the top couldn’t be singled out for punishment.

I’ll end with another story. Some 2500 years ago, the historian Herodotus says that as Xerxes the Great stood on the cusp of invading Greece with one million soldiers, a storm rose up to destroy the Persian leaders’ newly built crossing over the Hellespont. Dripping with mockery, Herodotus writes that the King of Kings commanded his men to lash and brand the waters.

“Bitter water,” they chanted as they whipped, “Our master thus punishes you, because you did him wrong though he had done you none. … In accordance with justice no one offers you sacrifice, for you are a turbid and briny river.”

The lesson here is that instead of trying to be legal, Ethereum should for as long as possible, endeavor to operate, and be seen to operate, like the waters of the Hellespont, like nature : outside of human control. And so when kings and courts come to whip us, let them look ludicrous for even trying.

Shiv Malik is a former Guardian investigative journalist, author of two books, and a cofounder of the Intergenerational Foundation think tank. He has previously advised the Golem project and is currently head of communications and marketing for the open source project Streamr, where he evangelizes for a new decentralized data economy.