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ProgPoW debates show how Ethereum governance has improved


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The ProgPoW debate is much safer today than it would have been a few years ago.

At both its heart and its peripheries, the protracted Ethereum ProgPoW debate is all about the question of who holds decision-making power on Ethereum.

At the centre of the topic, proponents argue that it's necessary because miners hold governance power over the network, and can't be trusted. Its opponents argue that even if miners hold governance power, ProgPoW would just shift the locus of power in an unpredictable direction rather than solving anything.

But while miners may have veto power of a sort, they can still only react to the changes that Ethereum core developers put on the table. Does that mean core developers have the power?

Perhaps not. Ethereum developers are not a homogeneous group, and there's no agreement on whether to go through with ProgPoW. Instead, the debate is focused on how to best give Power To The People™.

It's easier said than done. There are ongoing debates about whether ASIC miners qualify as people, polls have been mostly inconclusive and even if you're genuinely committed to the ideals of democratic governance, the very act of siding with a narrow majority is divisive. Siding with 55% of people on a binary issue means disempowering 45% of them.

The fate of ProgPoW will be discussed at length, on a public Ethereum core developer's call, taking place at 2pm UTC, 6 March.

It will feature two attendees from the pro-ProgPoW camp and two representatives from the anti-ProgPoW camp to make their cases. The halftime show will feature Ben DiFrancesco with a rendition of A ProgPoW Compromise Pre-Proposal.

And when all the information is on the table, the Ethereum community will engage in a spirited bout of democracy.

But Ethereum isn't the same as it used to be. One of the things the ProgPoW debate could highlight is how much Ethereum's governance has developed over time. This can be exemplified in two ways in particular:

  1. There's probably no real risk of a contentious chain split
  2. Dapp growth has helped decentralise Ethereum governance in recent years

Chain splits are not an attractive option

Chain splits, ala Ethereum Classic, aren't on the cards anymore suggests Ruaridh O'Donnell, co-founder of Kava Labs, a Cosmos-powered cross-chain DeFi platform.

"The last time the community split, two viable chains emerged," he said. "That’s not going to happen this time, because projects don’t want or can't bear the overhead costs of supporting two chains. I think the desire for a single chain will override any preference for a particular mining algorithm."

This may be worth emphasising. With the passage of time, it's become clear that contentious forks are usually a bad idea. Ethereum Classic was created by a group who opposed an Ethereum rollback, but as a small splinter group it just ended up falling victim to a very ironic 51% attack, undermining the whole reason it forked off in the first place.

A contentious fork isn't the second option behind whatever someone's first choice is. It's a deeply unattractive and completely separate third option which exists in addition to yes ProgPoW and no ProgPoW. Before a chain split can occur, a critical mass of people would need to actively choose a deeply unattractive option ("I'd rather set myself on fire than go with/without ASIC resistance") over a slightly unattractive option ("fine, I guess we'll go with/without ASIC resistance if we really have to").

People don't take contentious forks as lightly as they used to. These days, it's probably safe to be incredulous of the idea that ProgPoW could result in a permanent chain split.

Additionally, the presence of governance systems like the Ethereum developers' call, Ethereum improvement proposals and other measures that make people feel like they have a voice, further reduces the odds of a contentious fork. As long as people have confidence in these governance mechanisms, they don't have to resort to voting with hashrate.

Dapp growth is naturally decentralising Ethereum governance

There weren't many live projects at the time of the Ethereum Classic split, O'Donnell points out. With a lack of active dapps, all the governance power on Ethereum was just being divided among Ethereum core blockchain developers, miners and token holders.

But now there's a whole field of dapps, which introduces dozens of influential new voices to the governance process.

"In the last split, core devs were more influential because the chain was smaller and less widely used," O'Donnell says. "With all the successful DeFi projects now live, the decision will come down to which chain the largest and most influential projects choose. We may see which projects have the most influence if, for example, USDC and MakerDao disagree on the best path forward."

"Hopefully we will have engaged discussions with all affected parties before we reach rough consensus," O'Donnell says. "But I expect that eventually, one chain will be the victor."

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Disclosure: The author holds BNB, BTC at the time of writing.

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