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‘Deathmatch’ panel on private versus public blockchain heats up at South by Southwest

Arguments over what it means to be truly decentralized

The Blockchain Deathmatch at SXSW in action. From left to right: University of Texas at Austin's Cesare Fracassi, IBM OpenTech’s Christopher Ferris, St. Mary’s University School of Law's Angela Walch, and Bitcoin Core developer Jimmy Song (photo by Omar L. Gallaga for Modern Consensus).

The Blockchain Deathmatch at SXSW in action. From left to right: University of Texas at Austin’s Cesare Fracassi, IBM OpenTech’s Christopher Ferris, St. Mary’s University School of Law’s Angela Walch, and Bitcoin Core developer Jimmy Song. (Photo by Omar L. Gallaga for Modern Consensus)

A panel over the future of walled-garden blockchain nodes versus so-called “permissionless” blockchain stopped short of getting personal, but was still more contentiously vocal than most talks at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

The featured SXSW panel “Blockchain Deathmatch: Permission-ed vs -less” Thursday afternoon was part of a “Blockchain & Cryptocurrency” track at the conference and festival. It included IBM OpenTech’s Christopher Ferris, a computer scientist and author of the company’s Blockchain Pulse blog; St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Angela Walch, who is also a research fellow at the Centre for Blockchain Technologies at University College London; and Jimmy Song, a venture partner for Blockchain Capital, Bitcoin Core developer, and author.

It was moderated by University of Texas at Austin associate professor of finance Cesare Fracassi.

No sooner had introductions for the panel concluded than arguments over what it means to be truly decentralized began in earnest.

Ferris, who is working on private-node blockchain networks, said that the tech allows financial institutions, for instance, to feel more secure about using blockchain. “When you’re voting people onto the island to let them participate in your blockchain network, you know who they are. You can establish levels of trust and governance,” he said.

It led, not surprisingly for people who follow Song’s views of self sovereignty and decentralization, to Jimmy Song asking pointedly, “Why do you need permission if it’s supposed to be decentralized?”

“The whole point is to establish a level of trust,” Ferris fired back.

The two exchanged words about who controls a decentralized system’s ordering service and whether, as Song contends, having an ordering service at all introduced a single point of failure. “The ordering service can be regulated, choked out,” he said. “With Bitcoin, there is no single authority.”

Walch used the example of a major Bitcoin bug last September and how that was handled by those in the know in the Bitcoin community to point out that Song’s argument was flawed.

“I think you’re both overstating the decentralization of your respective systems,” Walch said. “There was privileged knowledge to get the upgrade going. That to me is power exercised by a small number of people.”

The panel continued through on issues of identifiers on public blockchain versus actual knowing the identity of an individual in a permissioned environment with Song arguing against adding “scaffolding” around blockchain while Ferris countered that it reduced anonymity and brings accountability.

“If you do something to try to disrupt the system, we’ll sue the pants off you and you’ll regret it,” Ferris said. “There is a governance model around that.”

It was a train of thought that Walch agreed with, saying that the widespread adoption of blockchain, particularly in the financial world, is going to require more assurances to businesses building on it and institutional investors that risks are being mitigated.

“Just saying it’s open source is not an out,” she said. “If we integrate (Bitcoin) into the financial system, it can affect others who didn’t click through the open-source software license. It’s systemic. You either control it or you don’t.”

In a closing set of statements, Ferris reiterated that he believes permissioned blockchain reduces risk while still allowing participants to achieve consensus. “You don’t want total anarchy. Risk mitigation is good.”

Song said there are good ways to do both kinds of blockchain and probably room for both. But he continued to express concern that anything that isn’t truly decentralized isn’t really free. “You do reduce risk, but the same system that reduces risk can take the thing away from you.”

South by Southwest continues through Sunday with blockchain, cannabis business, music industry and gaming-related panels.

Omar L. Gallaga is a veteran technology culture writer based in Central Texas. He was a longtime technology reporter, editor and podcaster for the Austin American-Statesman and has also written for the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, NPR, CNN.com, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and the pioneering recapping website Television Without Pity. Gallaga owns no cryptocurrencies

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