Despite being known as a protocol that is slow to change, Bitcoin does have its own way to add new functionalities to the network. Soft forks, a type of upgrade that ensures those who don’t use the new software can still participate in the peer-to-peer network, is likely the preferred method to introduce novel features to Bitcoin. However, do soft forks have their downsides? What are the tradeoffs for Bitcoin users?
A panel moderated by Ben Perrin, creator of the BTC Sessions YouTube channel, at Bitcoin 2022 set out to explore that question. The conversation, “Soft Forks: Benefits And Tradeoffs,” featured long-time Bitcoin developer and educator Jimmy Song, developer and founder of Bitcoin R&D organization Judica Jeremy Rubin, and thought-provoking Bitcoin blogger Paul Sztorc.
“For a while I thought that the soft forks protected us from tyranny because you can stay in your own node,” Sztorc said, adding that nowadays, he sees how they can actually be similar.
Rubin explained that although there is overarching consensus that soft forks are benevolent, an “evil” soft fork could harm users.
“In hard forks there is a propensity to shove it down people’s throat and soft forks generally align with opt-in, but you can do both with both,” Rubin said.
Song acknowledged that evil soft forks could exist, however he disagreed that there is a big enough chance they would ever happen in Bitcoin.
“With soft forks, at least with the ones that bitcoin has done, the benevolent ones, those are the ones that don’t change permanent rules,” Song said. “Soft forks are important to stay in that area and avoid the evil soft forks.”
Rubin is currently working on a soft fork of his own. CheckTemplateVerify (CTV) aims to bring a new type of programmability to Bitcoin with covenants. Whereas currently a Bitcoin developer can restrict when or under what conditions a coin can be spent, CTV would allow him or her to also restrict where that coin can be spent to. This new level of programmability seems scary for some people and has divided the community, even though Rubin’s CTV proposes a simple and basic format of covenants that is verifiable.
“The thing is that hard of soft forks… is that we do these things that involve major consensus,” Rubin said.
Song continued along the consensus line, “Each soft fork has its own environment in which it has to activate, and you have to get consensus in whatever way you can for that one. There is no process, you just kind of have to go get consensus. The burden is on you to prove that this is something desirable. And this is really hard to do, I sympathize with these guys.”
Bitcoin 2022 is part of the Bitcoin Event Series hosted by BTC Inc, the parent company of Bitcoin Magazine.