Exploring the Governance of Bitcoin Core

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Deciphering Bitcoin Core’s Development Dynamics

Who Oversees Bitcoin Core?

The recurring question of who holds the reins for merging code changes into Bitcoin Core’s GitHub repository is often raised. This is sometimes perceived as Bitcoin’s “central point of control.” However, I contend that this viewpoint is misleading, arising from an authoritarian mindset that is incompatible with Bitcoin’s ethos. The inner workings of Bitcoin Core, and by extension, the evolution of the Bitcoin protocol itself, are not immediately apparent, especially to those new to this field. This article aims to shed light on these processes.

Bitcoin Core: A Historical Perspective

Bitcoin Core represents a hub of Bitcoin protocol development, not a command center. Should Bitcoin Core cease to exist, another hub would naturally emerge. The platform it currently operates on (presently GitHub) is more a matter of convenience than a cornerstone of the project’s identity or integrity. In fact, the development hub of Bitcoin has already transitioned across platforms and even underwent a name change.

  • In early 2009, Bitcoin’s source code was a .rar file on SourceForge, with early developers exchanging code patches via email with Satoshi.
  • On October 30, 2009, Sirius (Martti Malmi) set up a SourceForge subversion repository for Bitcoin.
  • In 2011, the project moved from SourceForge to GitHub.
  • In 2014, the project was renamed to Bitcoin Core.

The Misconception of Trust

While a few GitHub “maintainer” accounts have the privilege to merge code into the master branch, this role is more akin to housekeeping rather than wielding power. Restricting merge access prevents a chaotic development environment. Bitcoin Core adheres to a principle of minimal privilege, ensuring any misused authority is quickly undermined.

From a security standpoint, GitHub’s trustworthiness is questionable. GitHub employees, with their admin rights, could theoretically alter the repository without maintainer consent. However, it’s improbable that such an attacker could also compromise a Bitcoin Core maintainer’s PGP key.

Bitcoin Core’s integrity relies not on GitHub accounts but on a continuous integration system that verifies trusted PGP keys, which sign every merge commit. While these keys are associated with known identities, their security isn’t absolute; a key compromise would remain undetected unless reported by the key’s owner. Thus, these keys, while enhancing security, are not foolproof.

Trusted PGP Fingerprints As of the current date, the following PGP fingerprints are trusted:

  • 71A3B16735405025D447E8F274810B012346C9A6
  • 133EAC179436F14A5CF1B794860FEB804E669320
  • 32EE5C4C3FA15CCADB46ABE529D4BCB6416F53EC
  • B8B3F1C0E58C15DB6A81D30C3648A882F4316B9B
  • CA03882CB1FC067B5D3ACFE4D300116E1C875A3D

Registered to:

This doesn’t imply blind trust in these individuals. Keys merely signal authority; they could fall into other hands. The verify-commits Python script validates this authority, ensuring all changes since a certain commit (over 3,400 merges) have been approved by a maintainer key. While this is not absolute proof against malicious code, it significantly narrows the risk.

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Security Through Layering

Bitcoin Core’s code integrity isn’t solely dependent on a few cryptographic keys. It incorporates several security layers for robust protection:

  • Pull Request Security: Anyone can propose improvements via pull requests. These undergo thorough reviews by developers, with no barriers to contributing. Merges occur only after consensus is reached, and maintainers enforce pre-push hooks to prevent unsigned commits.
  • Release Security: The deterministic build process is independently run by multiple developers to create identical binaries. Any discrepancies signal non-determinism, halting the release until resolved. Once a build is validated, developers sign the binaries. This process is transparent and auditable, removing single points of failure.

Despite these measures, the ultimate deployment of Bitcoin Core updates is at the discretion of individual node operators, who consciously choose whether to update their code. This decentralized approach is central to Bitcoin Core’s ethos.

Testing and Code Coverage

Bitcoin Core’s extensive testing is pivotal for consensus-critical software. This includes integration tests for each pull request and nightly extended tests.

  • Developers can verify code coverage by cloning the Bitcoin Core repository, installing dependencies, and running specific commands to generate a report.

The Free Market of Bitcoin Implementations

Bitcoin Core’s near-monopoly status among Bitcoin nodes is not due to a lack of alternatives. Over a dozen Bitcoin-compatible implementations exist. However, Bitcoin Core attracts the most developer time and talent, resulting in software that is generally more robust and secure. This is critical in consensus software where compatibility with the network majority is crucial.

Contributing to Bitcoin Core

Contributing to Bitcoin Core might seem daunting, but numerous resources and a welcoming community are available to aspiring developers. The process is guided by rough consensus, with maintainers considering patches in line with project principles, standards, and contributor consensus.

  • For example, a contribution to improve the verify-commits.py documentation was positively received and merged after collaborative input from several developers.

Who Controls Bitcoin?

Defining control over Bitcoin is complex. Like a language, Bitcoin evolves organically through consensus rather than authoritarian dictates. Its antifragility lies in this lack of centralized control, which would otherwise represent a single point of failure. Each network participant enforces the rules, ensuring the collective integrity of Bitcoin.

Changes to the Bitcoin protocol typically follow the Bitcoin Improvement Proposal process, a peer-reviewed method for achieving consensus on changes, though it’s not mandatory. This decentralized governance model underscores Bitcoin’s resilience and independence.

The new post would focus on the decentralized nature of Bitcoin Core’s development, the role of maintainers in the GitHub repository, and how the community’s consensus shapes the evolution of the Bitcoin protocol. It would also highlight the importance of security measures and the integrity of the code, stressing the community-driven process and the robust testing framework that underpins Bitcoin Core’s development. For a detailed exploration of these themes, you can refer to the original article here.

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