Mike Hearn, a British computer programmer, holed up in his two-bedroom apartment in Zurich over several days and nights last week, writing a cri de coeur.
Two years ago, Mr. Hearn quit a cushy programming job at Google’s Swiss headquarters to devote himself full time to what was his great passion: the virtual currency Bitcoin. He was one of a handful of developers around the world dedicated to maintaining the basic software that governs both the creation of new Bitcoins and the network on which the financial transactions take place.
But a nasty fight has torn apart the small brotherhood of Bitcoin developers and raised questions about the survival of the virtual currency. Mr. Hearn, until recently one of the most prominent leaders of the Bitcoin project, became so disillusioned that in December he sold the few hundred Bitcoins he had left and quietly took a job at a new start-up.
The impassioned blog post he was working on last week was an announcement that he was leaving Bitcoin behind entirely: “Bitcoin has gone from being a transparent and open community to one that is dominated by rampant censorship and attacks on bitcoiners by other bitcoiners.”
The dispute — which grew out of a question about the number of transactions the Bitcoin network can handle — may sound like something of interest only to the most die-hard techies. But it has exposed fundamental differences about the basic aims of the Bitcoin project, and how online communities should be governed. The two camps have broadly painted each other as, on one side, populists who are focused on expanding Bitcoin’s commercial potential and, on the other side, elitists who are more concerned with protecting its status as a radical challenger to existing currencies.
The divide has led over the last six months to death threats against Bitcoin developers and hacking attacks that have taken down Internet providers. The sense of betrayal is strong on both sides. One of Mr. Hearn’s primary antagonists, a bearded California-based programmer named Gregory Maxwell, also appears to have pulled back from his work on Bitcoin after receiving anonymous death threats.
These internal struggles have surfaced at the same time that the Bitcoin technology is gaining credibility on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. Throughout the various controversies that have plagued the virtual currency — including many instances of theft and fraud — the basic software has continued working as expected. That consistency has pushed the value of all outstanding Bitcoins above $6 billion and led many venture capitalists to imagine the technology as the future of finance, a cheaper and faster way to carry out financial transactions of all sorts.
Part of the basic appeal of Bitcoin has been its promise to provide a more reliable and trustworthy alternative to existing currencies and financial networks. Unlike the Federal Reserve and Wall Street, institutions that are managed by humans, Bitcoin was supposed to rest on the infallible logic of math and computer code. In this system, programmers like Mr. Hearn, who often volunteered their expertise and effort, were viewed as neutral technicians.
The current dispute, though, is a reminder that the Bitcoin software — like all computer code — is an evolving product of the human mind, and its deployment is vulnerable to human frailties and divergent ideals.
There may yet be a middle ground on the question that began the fight, but for the moment the sides are deadlocked, and that has left the Bitcoin software — and the virtual currency itself — in a state of limbo. Mr. Hearn is convinced that the stalemate will soon make it hard to complete even simple transactions and will eventually drive away users and lead to a price collapse. Mr. Hearn’s concerns about this impasse have been echoed, often in less strident tones, by a growing number of other developers, as well as by start-ups that buy, sell and hold Bitcoins.
Gavin Andresen, a close collaborator of Mr. Hearn’s and one of the longest-standing contributors to the Bitcoin software, said the dispute was likely to cause disruptions in the short term, but he disagrees with the notion that it will damage Bitcoin’s long-term prospects. Other Bitcoin leaders have expressed a similar sentiment, and investors have been inclined to believe them: The price of a Bitcoin has actually risen in recent months, to about $430 this week.
Some of Mr. Hearn’s allies in the battle are hoping the deadlock can be broken if the largest Bitcoin companies get behind something like Bitcoin Classic, a new version of the basic Bitcoin software that was announced this week, and that aims to expand the network’s capacity while also introducing new standards of governance.
But Mr. Hearn is convinced it is already too late. During nighttime walks in the woods near his apartment in Zurich, he has been trying to figure out where Bitcoin went wrong and what it means for the idealistic beliefs that led him to the project in the first place.
“It never occurred to me that the thing could just fall apart because of people getting crazy and having fundamental political disagreements over the goals of the project,” Mr. Hearn said in a Skype interview from his apartment. “It’s really shaken my faith in humanity.”
Read more: A Bitcoin Believer’s Crisis of Faith