In denouncing Bitcoin’s proof of work and Decentralized Identifiers, Mozilla’s Tantek Çelik undermines the W3C’s own ethical web principles.
On Wednesday, September 1, 2021, Tantek Çelik of the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Firefox web browser, responded to a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) web-based straw-poll mailing list “call for review” regarding Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs) specifications for web browsers.
DIDs are a new type of self-sovereign identifier that enables verifiable, decentralized digital identity — without the need for centralized organizations like Mozilla. Corporations and apps, such as browsers, are de facto owners of your digital identity. DIDs remove this invasive influence and put users in control of their own identities. Çelik’s response was concerning, not only because it was a direct attack on DIDs and proof of work, but because it demonstrated a stunning weaponization of the W3C’s ethical principles.
In his response, Çelik listed debatable technical reasons for why Mozilla has no plans to support DIDs. He also took the extra step of declaring that proof-of-work consensus methods are harmful for global sustainability:
“We (W3C) can no longer take a wait-and-see or neutral position on technologies with egregious energy use. We must instead firmly oppose such proof-of-work technologies including to the best of our ability blocking them from being incorporated or enabled (even optionally) by any specifications we develop. If anything we should pursue the opposite: develop specifications that supersede existing specifications, but with much less power consumption. We believe this is consistent with the TAG Ethical Web Sustainability principle.
“For these reasons we believe the DID specification may not be fixable (MUST NOT become a Recommendation). We suggest returning the specification to Working Draft status.”
— Tantek Çelik, on behalf of the Mozilla Foundation
Although Mozilla does not speak for the entire W3C, and Çelik was rebutted in a follow-up response, it’s disappointing that a member organization would use web standards as a means to outright ban emerging technology. His suggestion would be akin to browsers implementing standards to censor energy intensive YouTube videos, while not solving any meaningful environmental issues whatsoever.
Çelik cited the W3C’s Sustainability Principle as Mozilla’s reason for proposing a ban on proof of work. Here is the text of that principle:
“The web must be an environmentally sustainable platform
“The web, as a whole, is a big source of carbon emissions, because it is a big consumer of power. New web technologies should not make this situation worse. We will consider power consumption and the resulting emissions when we introduce new technologies to the web.” — W3C, “TAG Ethical Web Principles”
The W3C’s sustainability principle, while likely written with noble intentions, is neo-Malthusian. If not used for virtue signaling, it affords the W3C an immense amount of political policy-making power. However, the W3C should not have, nor want, the political power to bless energy usage as it can be weaponized as one of the highest forms of censorship, policy making and oppression — from an unelected body, no less.
Ironically, and disturbingly, the Sustainability Principle as cited by Mozilla subverts every one of the other eleven W3C ethics principles. Each of these subversions are examined, below:
This principle is sensible. In 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto proposed Bitcoin, a revolutionary decentralized protocol as a new layer within the existing multilayer web, and incorporated proof of work as part of its security apparatus. Bitcoin and proof of work have been battle-tested, for more than a decade, and are poised to enable an entirely new application layer for the decentralized web.
It is a financially-privileged perspective for members of the W3C to assume that vulnerable or marginalized groups of users would not need access to Bitcoin. A decision by the W3C to deny its relevance and importance, from an individual and human rights perspective, would cause a fragmented web to unfold as users who require decentralized identifiers would be forced to find non-standard solutions.
Agreed. Today, Bitcoin allows marginalized users to protect digital assets from censorship, oppression and confiscation. By refusing to support proof-of-work consensus methods, the W3C would be actively subverting these marginalized groups and causing them harm.
There are already applications built on top of Bitcoin providing private and secure communications. By denying easy access to these technologies the W3C would not support individual rights to engage in these platforms of healthy community and debate.
W3C member organizations who oppose Bitcoin ought to check their financial privilege. Today, 1.2 billion people live under double or triple digit inflation and 4.3 billion people live under authoritarianism. Denying access for people who use bitcoin as a lifeline — such as those in Afghanistan, Cuba, Palestine, Togo and Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia and Central America — is not a great look for Mozilla or the W3C.
Developing countries, such as El Salvador, are in the process of adopting bitcoin as legal tender. By restricting access to bitcoin, the W3C would actively subvert the democratic will of the people of El Salvador and any other countries that chooses to adopt a Bitcoin standard.
Proof of work empowers developing nations to utilize their otherwise stranded and wasted resources to protect their sovereignty in a neutral and non-violent fashion. Proof of work can, in theory, act as a successor to state violence.
If the W3C believes in a web for all people, it must consider these net positives when considering denying access to decentralized protocols, like Bitcoin, on the supposed basis of energy consumption.
Proof of work removes the need for human trust in consensus, acts as a foundation for private transactions on Bitcoin’s Layer 2, and has been battle-tested for more than a decade — making it the most secure computer network in the world. By denying easy access to proof-of-work methods, like Bitcoin, the W3C would be moving trust into the hands of fallible humans who are susceptible to coercion. It is imperative that the W3C consider this tradeoff and does not violate its core principle of ensuring security and privacy.
“We will create web technologies and platforms that encourage free expression, where that does not contravene other human rights.” — W3C, “TAG Ethical Web Principles”
Proof of work is, at its core, an expression of free speech. Humans pass physical energy, through machines, to communicate expressions of competition in the hopes of unlocking a hash that is easily verified by users throughout the world who run independent validating nodes. Bitcoin is becoming more commonplace, and a necessary expression and protector of human rights, particularly for people who live under oppressive regimes.
“Our work should not enable state censorship, surveillance or other practices that seek to limit this freedom” — W3C, “TAG Ethical Web Principles”
Bitcoin is the most inclusive and most powerful tool for resisting state censorship. By denying access to proof of work, the W3C would inadvertently choose to support competing consensus protocols, such as proof of stake, that enable a wealthy ruling class to govern users and offer far less protection from state-sponsored attacks. The W3C would cross a dangerous line here — one that favors plutocracy and censorship over equality and individual freedom.
It’s almost as if the W3C’s ethics principles were made for Bitcoin. Because proof of work removes human trust, and Bitcoin’s blocks are small, the entire blockchain can be easily and independently verified and enforced by anyone in an open, lightweight and inclusive manner. Today, Bitcoin’s proof-of-work ledger has grown to 350 gigabytes and increases relatively slowly compared to its monolithic “crypto” competitors. According to Moore’s law, in four years, popular smartphones will have 1 terabyte (TB) of capacity. In 10 years, smartphones will be 8.5 TB in size. Thus, in 10 years users will be able to independently verify the Bitcoin ledger on their own mobile devices.
The W3C would be infringing on users’ ability to independently verify transactions if browsers were blocked from directly interacting with Bitcoin. The W3C must recognize that denying easy access to Bitcoin will work against its own principle of origin and source being core to the web’s security model.
“We recognize that web technologies can be used by developers to manipulate people…” — W3C, “TAG Ethical Web Principles”
This principle is particularly fitting. As proof of stake relies on human trust and a consensus methodology where the wealthy are granted more governance, just like many legacy institutions do, it is susceptible to coercive manipulation and corruption that takes control away from individual users. The W3C would be inadvertently promoting a propensity for such manipulation if it chooses not to support proof of work on the basis of energy consumption. Bitcoin offers a superior form of user control by allowing users to easily partake in governance with their highly accessible full nodes.
“We recognize these risks and seek to mitigate against them when creating these technologies and platforms. We will therefore favor a decentralized web architecture that minimizes single points of failure and single points of control. We will also build Web technologies for individual developers as well for developers at large companies and organizations. The web should enable do-it-yourself developers.” — W3C, “TAG Ethical Web Principles”
It’s odd that Mozilla would overlook this principle when DIDs were specifically designed to support it. Or maybe it’s not so strange when you consider that Bitcoin DIDs would obviate the need for Mozilla’s centralized identity products. (To be fair, Mozilla offers products that at least attempt to centrally protect identities, rather than exploit them).
Prioritizing users over the needs of W3C members is a design principle and priority-of-constituencies of the W3C. However, by denying access to proof of work, on the basis of limiting energy consumption, the W3C would interfere with individual control and power.
Despite the fact that this principle may have noble intentions, Mozilla is weaponizing it for neo-Malthusian purposes, where a small group of people (i.e., the W3C) would be deciding what kind of energy usage users can partake in. This principle subverts the mission and ethical principles of the W3C as it discourages individual freedom of expression, promotes corruption, supports censorship and oppression, and violates every other ethics principle that guides the W3C.
The W3C would be wise to remove this principle. Neo-Malthusian policies have no place in the W3C, as they are inherently authoritarian, overly simplistic, lend to virtue signaling, and discourage the second- and third-order thinking our society needs to solve impactful environmental issues.
Property rights are an abstraction and the only thing making them real is the energy we spend to defend this abstraction. Bitcoin defends property rights, using non-violence and physical energy, and is extremely efficient at it. Proof of work also avoids the centralizing plutocracy of proof of stake.
Bitcoin has the highest penetration of renewables as an energy source of any industry on the planet. El Salvador plans to contribute to mining bitcoin with 100% renewable geothermal power, which is typically stranded and wasted, since populations tend to avoid making their homes near active volcanoes. Furthermore, the University of Cambridge explains how Bitcoin’s energy consumption is often misunderstood, overstated with “presenter bias” and poorly contrasted to other industries, by the media.
One can just as easily point out that, in 2018, Netflix usage accounted for 300 million tons of CO2, which is as much as Spain emits in a year. For comparison, if Bitcoin were hypothetically powered by the world’s least efficient and dirtiest coal plants, in a theoretical worst case scenario, it would emit about 111 million tons of CO2 annually, which is dubious considering the amount of renewables bBtcoin uses. Yet, nobody, not even Mozilla, would suggest that browsers should censor Netflix. W3C members must recognize that humans purchasing energy, for whatever creative expression they so choose, enables free speech. It’s not up to the W3C to say otherwise.
Many negative Bitcoin articles in the media cite Digiconomist, a heavily-biased website that publishes intellectually dishonest data and is run by an employee of the Dutch central bank. The Cambridge team explains in its FAQ that the energy-per-transaction metric, popularized by Digiconomist, is a “widespread misconception.”
In reality, Bitcoin’s carbon footprint is a rounding error compared to other industries. And it empowers millions of people all over the world — from Argentina to Nigeria to the Philippines. A W3C mailing list response to Çelik clarifies the matter:
“…Frankly, bitcoin does not use that much energy. Stand-by devices in the USA alone use more than twice as much energy as does all bitcoin mining, where the vast majority of bitcoin’s energy usage comes from. The video tag in the HTML spec is directly responsible for an order of magnitude (and more) more energy usage than all bitcoin mining, for less benefit (entertainment vs securing the base layer for decentralized global state does not begin to compare).” — Isaac C
At roughly 0.1% of today’s total global emissions, bitcoin’s contribution to overall climate change is virtually non-existent and its overstatement only serves to distract people from real issues that affect climate change. Banning access to Bitcoin would be nothing more than virtue signaling.
The W3C’s sustainability principle is clearly not equipped to evaluate the net benefits of a technology to society. Mozilla has also shown that this principle can be used to subvert every other ethical principle the W3C stands for. Thus, the W3C should consider removing it from its list of ethical principles.
The W3C should be encouraging the freedom for innovation which can incentivize renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction. The ability for humans to climb the Kardashev scale should not be held back by the W3C. Çelik of all people should know better, considering the web once had to fight the same exact criticisms.
The ability for users to be able to independently audit and inspect its decentralized ledger and code is a core tenet of Bitcoin. The W3C is violating this core principle by preventing users from easily accessing this technology. To prevent direct access to Bitcoin would threaten the security and privacy of users who choose to interact with the decentralized web.
“We will not create web technologies that encourage the creation of websites that work only in one browser.“ — W3C, “TAG Ethical Web Principles”
By choosing to make the decentralized web less accessible, the W3C would marginalize users — especially those who depend on decentralized technology for property protection or live under oppressive regimes. As users are further marginalized, they will be forced to create non-standard browsers to maintain their individual freedoms. This will only serve to fragment the web. The W3C’s self-appointed power to determine what constitutes valid energy consumption is misguided and is counterproductive to an interoperable web experience.
Twelve years after Satoshi Nakamoto introduced the world to Bitcoin, the users of every nation should be afforded the ability to use DIDs in a browser. The W3C is actively subverting this principle by not supporting this crucial user experience. That W3C members — such as the Ethereum Foundation and Mozilla—might stand to lose by allowing access to Proof of Work technologies and DIDs should not be given priority in the W3C’s decision making process. As the W3C’s own design principles state, user needs must come before the needs of specification writers.
It should be abundantly clear that policing energy consumption subverts all of the W3C’s own ethical principles. Members of the W3C, like Mozilla, would wield this power for the comfort of maintaining centralized control of our identities and to virtue signaling over a tiny sliver of total global emissions. By not weighing a technology’s net benefits, and solely relying on a subjective and authoritarian neo-Malthusian principle, the W3C would commit an egregious dereliction of ethics, and a disservice to the world, for some of the most vulnerable users.
Proof of Work, which minimizes human trust with incorruptible physics, by definition, requires higher levels of energy consumption. It is more than worth it. Protocols like Proof of Stake, which put trust in the hands of corruptible humans, require much less energy—at the detriment of increasing wealth gaps and weakening individual rights. The higher energy consumption of Proof of Work is an essential feature, not a bug. The W3C should not have an ethical principle that can favor the wealthy and shun vulnerable users. It is a moral and ethical imperative that users be allowed to choose higher-power protocols, to minimize human trust.
Peter Van Valkenburgh perhaps said it best, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives this year:
“What we have the benefit of is knowing everything that the peer-to-peer ledger tells us. It’s shared and open. It’s not a proprietary standard from a corporation. And the peer-to-peer ledger shows us how much work these miners are performing to make sure the transactions get in blocks and are not censored by some third party or some government that wants to coerce certain transactions or block certain transactions. It’s this vibrant competition between miners that guarantees that the miners cannot form a cartel and choose to systematically exclude certain persons from this financial system. When you have them compete and you have their evidence of their competition in the form of proof-of-work calculations on a public ledger that any person can audit, independently, you get that censorship resistance. As far as energy usage, it’s worth noting the traditional financial sector uses an estimated five times more energy than bitcoin. Now, granted, the traditional financial system moves more money. But, it is worth noting that bitcoin energy usage does not scale per transaction. So, most of the costs are the fixed cost of setting up a peer-to-peer system that’s robust. And we have technologies like the Lightning Network that can bundle millions of transactions into that existing system without a meaningful increase in energy. So, it’s possible we can have an open financial system that’s censorship resistant, using one fifth of the energy of the current financial system.” — Peter Van Valkenburgh
Bitcoin supports each of the W3C’s ethical web principles with an incorruptible integrity that the centralized W3C organizations simply cannot achieve. Alternative cryptocurrencies — particularly ones that utilize proof of stake — have no ethical principles to stand on. People who have the integrity to point this out are labeled toxic, by those who lack ethics.
As the W3C is a centralized organization, run by humans, it is susceptible to coercion. When that coercion leads to virtue signaling and protecting the interests of its own member organizations, the W3C will overlook the net benefits of technologies such as Bitcoin. That can threaten all of the W3C’s ethical principles and the needs of all users — especially the most marginalized and vulnerable — for corporate profit and control of our identities and lives.
Bitcoin and its proof-of-work technology minimizes that coercion more than any other technology, which is why users of the web need bitcoin DIDs to enforce the W3C’s ethics. Users deserve better from Mozilla and the W3C. Users deserve unfettered access to Bitcoin and DIDs.
This is a guest post by Level 39. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or BitcoinLinux.