The latest twist in Bitcoin’s scaling drama is a big one.
When a planned split of the Bitcoin network—theoretically, to speed up transactions—was unceremoniously postponed on Wednesday, one thought went through my mind: Someone crazy enough is still going to try and do it.
See, I’ve been writing about Bitcoin for a few years now. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you tell Bitcoiners they can’t do something, you’ve virtually guaranteed that it’s going to happen anyway.
The planned “hard fork,” as such splits are known, is called Segwit2x and it’s the brainchild of a handful of high-profile Bitcoin developers and businesses. Together, they believed, they could get the rest of the community to fall in line in order to smoothly implement a code change on a new version of Bitcoin. But the Bitcoiners rebelled, branding Segwit2x a “corporate takeover” of Bitcoin’s open-source code. On Wednesday, just one week before the planned launch on or around November 16, the fork was postponed indefinitely due to lack of community agreement.
The next day, Thursday, a person or group going by “BitPico” posted a message to the Segwit2x mailing list (where the people involved with the fork discuss related issues), stating that they will go ahead with the fork, even if they have to do it alone. In their message, they claimed to control a third of Bitcoin’s total computer power as miners—companies that run server farms contributing to the Bitcoin network in exchange for a reward.
Read More: The Third Bitcoin Fork Has Been Cancelled
“We are carrying out the fork regardless as everything is set in motion,” BitPico wrote. “A handful of humans cannot stop what they have no control over.”
A website with the URL “bitcoin2x.org” also began circulating within the Bitcoin community on Thursday, and a message on its homepage states, “We have decided to continue with the fork as planned.” The message continues: “Same date—November 15th.” It’s unclear if this website is connected to BitPico, and neither the site’s owner (from 2012 until this year, when the owner started using Whois protection) nor BitPico responded to Motherboard’s request for comment over email.
But who is BitPico? And can they pull off a fork?
Strictly speaking, anyone can fork Bitcoin’s code. Such is the nature of open source projects. More difficult is getting people to come over to your side; without other miners working on the network, and people buying and selling the digital coins, a forked chain is dead in the water. If BitPico is telling the truth about controlling one third of Bitcoin’s computer power, then they might not have much of a problem attracting interest. But there are some red flags with this claim.
The first red flag is that the biggest miners in Bitcoin are known entities and even the largest among them only control around 10-15 percent of all computer power. BitPico, however, doesn’t show up on any charts laying out the distribution of computer power in Bitcoin, and the network doesn’t seem to have experienced any significant slowdown, which you would expect if one third of the system’s computer power suddenly exited.
BitPico is a somewhat active poster on the Segwit2x mailing list, which gives us some clues as to the real state of things. In September, BitPico posted that their mining outfit controls just 1.63 percent of Bitcoin’s computer power. In mid-October, they wrote that they controlled 1.72 percent, and would be adding “an additional 3-4% in the next 14 days.”
The second red flag is that, if we accept these posts as truthful, then BitPico controlled at most 5 percent of Bitcoin’s computer power by the start of November. If we’re to believe BitPico’s claim that they now control 30 percent of Bitcoin’s computer power, then we have to assume that somehow BitPico managed to capture an additional 25 percent of Bitcoin’s computer power after months of being in the single-digits in 10 days.
It might be true, but it strains credulity.
It does appear as though BitPico is writing some Bitcoin code, but it’s not clear how much or for what. For example, BitPico posted a screenshot of what appears to be some BitPico software to the Segwit2x mailing list in September. But it appears as though the software in the screenshot is merely syncing with the Bitcoin network, not executing any actions. A Twitter account called “BitPico” also tweeted some snippets of code out in October, saying that the company is “not open source,” so folks can’t examine BitPico’s work even if they wanted to.
All in all, it seems as though BitPico isn’t quite what they appear to be. But a lack of resources hasn’t stopped groups from forking before. Another group called Bitcoin Gold recently forked Bitcoin’s code, but the developers behind that project didn’t have any tech set up and at this point the project is way behind schedule. Yet, it forked.
Bitcoin may yet get its Segwit2x fork on schedule, but it won’t be anything like the smooth and agreeable transition that the original Segwit2x boosters imagined.
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