Video: Bruce Fenton on the Bitcoin Foundation, Satoshi Roundtable and Scaling

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Bruce Fenton is definitely a distinct personality in the Bitcoin space. After working as a stock market broker for about two decades, he chose to walk away from his Wall Street career and take a leap of faith with Bitcoin. 

“It’s been a wild ride, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In my opinion, Bitcoin is the most powerful and important open-source project out there,” said Fenton, an enthusiastic superhero fan. 

As he spoke, he sat next to a large Batman action figure that points to the duality of his own work. Much like Bruce Wayne, Fenton lives a double life. He works as the director of his own companies, Atlantic Financial and Chainstone Labs, during the day. However, it’s at night that he puts on his mask to defend sound money, freedom of transactions and privacy.

This ardent advocacy may stem from Fenton’s origins with the original cryptocurrency. When he first entered the Bitcoin space, the same kind of financial incentives that exist today were not apparent.

“I worked with some of the wealthiest organizations in the world, and when I got into Bitcoin I went from a very high income to basically no income,” he explained. “And it wasn’t like now, with lots of startups. Coinbase and BitPay were some of the early ones which appeared several months after I started.”

According to Fenton, it was the intellectual brilliance of the early Bitcoin community that first drew him into the space. To him, the journey has been truly exciting and transformational. 

“I think what attracted me at first was the electric excitement of going to these Bitcoin events,” he said. “The first couple of events that I attended were life-changing because I found this weird eclectic mix of strange people: hackers, anarchists and real geniuses. I could quickly tell that they knew their stuff and they were excited about it, and that got me excited about it too.”

Fenton’s biggest adjustment has been that of switching from a hierarchical and authority-driven background to a whole new world which eliminates statuses and tries to build a fairer system.

“I came from a world where everything was about authority, so I kept trying to find out who’s the leader,” he recalled. “Then I realized that Bitcoin belongs to everybody and that was a big mind shift — in my previous job I was dealing with kings, cabinet ministers and billionaires all the time.”

Memories From the Bitcoin Foundation

Experience has taught Fenton that attempts to centralize power and influence in Bitcoin are anathema to its very DNA and will end up as failures. Nonetheless, he spoke fondly of the Bitcoin Foundation, a nonprofit Bitcoin advocacy group that he led from 2015 to 2016.

“The Foundation is an interesting animal because it evolved a lot over time,” Fenton said. “In the early days, people were trying to make it an official organization that’s in charge. We didn’t have people like Andreas Antonopoulos to do public speaking and raise awareness, the media was confused and looking for spokespeople, so the Foundation was convenient at the time.”

Highlighting just how misunderstood Bitcoin was during the Foundation’s earlier days, Fenton recalled some humorous moments from his time there.

“The Foundation got a lot of crazy letters in the early days: they got a Cease and Desist from the State of California which said ‘stop all bitcoins’ just because they didn’t know better and thought the protocol can be controlled by this centralized entity,” he said. “People would call the Foundation and say ‘someone hacked me, I want my coins back.’ But now you no longer make these mistakes because even the media knows that you have no centralized power over the protocol.”

But despite his history of advocacy work, Fenton explained that he’s not interested in representing Bitcoin in a public debate with regulators or legislators. However, he did take a moment to step into the shoes of a public speaker who advocates for the freedom enabled by Bitcoin, making a short and concise argument for free code and exchange of ideas. 

“If I were to testify in Congress about Bitcoin, I would define it as an idea which is expressed in code,” Fenton explained. “People have the right to write down ideas, express them in code, give them away and run them on a computer. Nobody has any authority to mess with this.”

But for all of his own strong views, Fenton did point out that he enjoys listening to different perspectives and tries to remain friendly despite great differences in opinions.

“In my nature, I try to make more friends than enemies,” he said. “This extends to the Bitcoin space and I hope is something for which I’m known.”

That being said, Fenton considers himself a Bitcoin maximalist. It’s a label regularly applied to him by altcoiners, though other Bitcoin maximalists often dismiss him as an altcoiner. Nonetheless, Fenton believes that maximalists are the reason why Bitcoin is so successful and keeps on getting more robust at the protocol level and in price.

“Maximalists might not be that diplomatic, but they’re also protecting my bitcoins because I know they’ll never compromise,” he said. “I know that I’m not going to lose sleep at night worrying about the price or about the code being changed.”

On Satoshi Roundtable

The sixth Satoshi Roundtable event, an annual gathering established by Fenton, is set to take place between February 7 and February 10, 2020. According to its website, 175 leading Bitcoin industry members will be attending. However, the event’s selectivity and focus on privacy are controversial within the community.

“One misconception is that it’s closed,” Fenton explained. “It’s just limited in space, due to the reality of logistics. We only have a couple hundred seats. The main purpose is to not do something like Consensus, which is noisy and busy.”

Fenton added that community members who want to participate in the Satoshi Roundtable for the first time can simply reach out and try to get a seat, particularly those who’ve been there before and “haven’t pitched some kind of scam.”

As a way of proving the open and inclusive nature of the gathering, Fenton pointed to one unlikely guest who nonetheless garners a lot of enthusiasm in the Bitcoin space. 

“We never kicked anybody out to make room for someone else, but we always tried to make room for the people who can add the most to the conversation,” he said. “William Shatner is coming this year. He doesn’t have some huge street cred when it comes to Bitcoin code, but he has an interesting life and he’s a celebrity.”

In regards to the secretive nature of the gathering and the fact that the outside world doesn’t find out much about what’s being discussed, Fenton nodded to the fundamental need for privacy. 

“We try to respect the privacy of participants, which sometimes gets misinterpreted as secrecy,” he said.

The Bitcoin Scaling Debate

Between 2015 and 2017, Fenton took various stances regarding the scalability of Bitcoin. But regardless of his preferences and biases, he kept an open mind and an open door for debate. 

Further Reading: The Long Road to SegWit

“I think I was successful in not being too strong in taking a stance,” he said. “I was definitely open minded to the point of annoying people. At the time, I was arguing for both sides of the issue. In hindsight, I mostly argued on the corporate NYA/SegWit2X side.”

Interestingly, despite spending some time arguing in favor of the block size increase via SegWit2X, Fenton did not sign the New York Agreement (NYA) and merely participated in the discussions. 

“I didn’t support the NYA, but I did argue for it because I was still learning for myself. I think that one of my strengths is to be a debater type of person. So I think that I have a strength in taking people’s opinions and putting them in a way that makes me argue a case for somebody else,” he added. 

In his transition from arguing for bigger blocks to understanding why Bitcoin shouldn’t be changed, Fenton has received a lot of support from other community members who understood that security is a greater priority than cheap transactions. Correspondingly, he went on to thank some of the industry leaders who helped him change his mind. 

“Adam Back is probably the best example, as he was kind enough to spend a lot of time with me and people like me,” he recalled. “I remember one time we spoke on the phone for three and a half hours. All the time he tried to explain to me and convince me what’s different about open source and why this works. Eric Lombrozo, Nick Szabo and Jameson Lopp really informed my opinion too … Thank God I never signed that New York Agreement!”

According to Fenton’s recollection of the early days, many people came into Bitcoin and had misconceptions about free and fast transactions. 

“It was all about merchants and convincing them to accept Bitcoin,” he said. “And then Roger Ver gave a speech in which he said, ‘If this continues, then we’re going to pay 30 cents for a fee,’ and some people listening were appalled.”

Fenton is also convinced that both sides of the debate were acting in good faith and wanted what they genuinely thought was best for Bitcoin. In the end, he concluded that the Bitcoin maximalist understanding is the point of view which he also favors. However, he maintains a diplomatic stance in relation to “big blockers.” 

“Now I agree with the Bitcoin maximalists that security is most important and the base layer shouldn’t be changed, but I respect the people on the other side too,” he said. 

Fenton believes that the existence of Bitcoin Cash as a divisive project which onboards big block advocates is a net positive, but he dislikes the way in which the fork tries to call itself “Bitcoin.” He doesn’t regard chain forks as evil creations that should not exist, but natural consequences of the open-source environment that can be educational. 

“Forks are great because that’s the nature of open source,” he said. “And I do believe that all of these projects help Bitcoin because we learn what doesn’t work and there will always be a minority group that just wants to do something different. The nature of the software license is that anybody can do anything with it, and they can try to run their own code. If it’s something that becomes successful and has market value over time, then that will be good. Otherwise, it’s just a learning experience.”

Advocating for Bitcoin Privacy

In regards to Bitcoin privacy, Fenton believes that it’s very important. However, he’s convinced that many of the technical discussions regarding the right implementation of this privacy should be left to the engineers. 

“From an overall priority standpoint, I think that privacy should be way up there,” he said. “Security must always be first, but privacy should be second or third.”

Philosophically speaking, Fenton takes his views about privacy from his reading of cypherpunk literature, calling “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto” the “origin and ethos” of what Bitcoin is.  

But even though he appreciates the cypherpunk values, Fenton is against a hard fork that might force additional privacy measures and appears to be open to second layers that fulfill privacy requirements more easily. 

“I believe in a base layer that can’t be changed and is as close to immutability as can be, and also enables people to build privacy on top of it,” he clarified.   

Fenton also believes that privacy should exist by default for all users, and it shouldn’t just be an optional feature which reduces the anonymity set of everybody involved and doesn’t really solve problems. In order to make his case for private data protection, he told a short story about his early days in stock brokerage.

“When I became a stock broker in 1992, I could open an account over the phone just by getting a name and an address,” he explained. “It wasn’t until later that they added social security number and ID requirements. The government just slammed its fist down to add extra verification, and now roughly 20 years later, it’s like the government has some birthright to do complete KYC/AML. The economy worked just well for decades before this, most of the stuff has no economic value and is put in place for extra control.”

He also argued that mandatory KYC/AML requirements haven’t really brought the expected results and crime still exists in spite of them. 

“Imagine if you didn’t have all these arbitrary rules for money transmitting in bitcoin,” he said. “The industry would be a lot bigger, it would be easier for people to move money around.”

All told, Fenton’s history, opinions and current involvement in Bitcoin make him one of the most captivating figures in the space. As the technology grows, there’s little doubt that his own story will follow along with it.

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