What is a Bitcoin User Activated Soft Fork?

There has been a lot of talk about a user-activated soft fork in the bitcoin world as of late. Considering how the debate between SegWit and BU supporters will not come to a close anytime soon, having more options on the table is never a bad thing. That being said, there is a lot of confusion as to what this user-activated soft fork entails and which problems it would solve.

Explaining the Bitcoin User-Activated Soft Fork

Although the concept of a UASF sounds rather dangerous, the consequences will have a positive impact on the bitcoin network as a whole. Since both Bitcoin Unlimited and Segregated Witness continue to struggle for majority network support, it is evident a third solution may need to be considered sooner or later. The user-activated soft fork offers that solution, although very few people seem to be aware of what this means exactly.

A soft fork allows changes to be made to the bitcoin protocol which will enforce existing rules in a stricter manner. Additionally, users have a choice to opt-in for a soft fork or not, while everyone is still part of the same protocol and the ecosystem. This will have a minimal impact on the surface, although a deeper look into the network data will yield different results for those supporting the soft fork. For all of this to be made possible, the soft fork code must be written properly and be bug-free, though.

Rather than requiring a specific amount of network hashpower – 95% in the case of Segregated Witness, or 75% in the case of Bitcoin Unlimited – a user-activated soft fork is triggered in a different manner. Individual users, companies, and service providers can activate this soft fork within their Bitcoin software client. At a predetermined time in the future, the soft fork will be activated. Any new block of data on the network not adhering to these new rules will be automatically rejected.

This would create an interesting scenario in which the miners would have to follow the rest of the community rather than the other way around. Failure to do so will result in miners running the risk of producing invalid blocks, which would not allow them to spend the coins earned from the block reward. In fact, miners would not earn anything as long as they support the wrong set of rules. It is an intriguing concept to think about, and it is not hard to see why so many people would favor this approach. After all, bitcoin is currently “directed” by the miners, even though they are only a part of the ecosystem as a whole.

It is quite intriguing to think of a soft fork as something users can opt-in for. This makes a lot of sense to less tech-savvy users, as everyone deserves their voice to be heard. It also gives the people who don’t like either Segregated Witness or Bitcoin Unlimited another option that looks appealing. Unfortunately, a UASF still has its drawbacks, as implementing a user-activated soft fork is not easy by any means. Plus, it can still result in a bitcoin fork, which is the last thing the ecosystem needs right now.

The first risk revolves around coordinating the activation of this soft fork. Having the economy enforce the soft fork sounds easy enough, yet things are hardly ever what they seem. Individual nodes can be listed as supporting the UASF, yet they may never activate it. Additionally, miners can still make things very difficult before this “upgrade” is completed. This would leave bitcoiners susceptible to double-spend attacks until miners switch to the correct fork backed by the majority of the economy. Moreover, details regarding whether or not to increase the block size still need to be worked out at this stage.

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