EOS, A Distributed Civil Society In The Making

in eos •  last year 

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By: Bilal Saleh | EOS Arabia


Open source technologies tend to emerge as a result of the work of a small community of passionate technologists. Naturally, their primary focus is on the technology until a conflict not solvable by technology strikes. Then, and only then, technologists and their loyal crowd start thinking about how to resolve conflicts while keeping the community together. The Bitcoin scaling dispute, which resulted in a hard fork that split the Bitcoin Blockchain in two and created Bitcoin Cash, is a recent example. The Ethereum DAO attack is a more foundational fiasco which caused the Blockchain community to challenge the notion of “the code is law”

The new kid on the “Blockchain”, EOS, is different. Its founders take credit for thinking through some key non-technical issues early on and ahead of launching the EOS Mainnet, particularly, the constitution, governance, and arbitration. Their work is still incomplete and needs experts in law and governance to address some pivotal and critical issues such as the power granted to the Block Producers, which some argue is brutal. The freezing of some EOS funds to prevent theft stirred some foundational debates across the EOS community and the Blockchain community at large.

EOS is a fascinating Distributed Civil Society experiment in cyberspace-- its early attempt to develop a constitution, governance, and arbitration, and the passionate reaction and participation of the EOS and Blockchain communities promise success. EOS in essence adds a civil society dimension to Blockchain.
In order to understand and appreciate the EOS Civil Society experiment and collaborate on making it a success, we need to define a framework. Doing so can help us correlate the established definitions by political scientists about civil society and governance with the work being done by the EOS community in that regard.

What is a Civil Society?

The term “civil society” is loosely associated with a wide range of community-based organizations such as NGOs, charities, unions, and professional associations, to name a few. These organizations are autonomous and are neither public nor private associations. Their members are volunteers who advocate a particular interest through civil, non-violent means.

Philippe Schmitter defines civil society as a “set or system of self- organized intermediary groups” that collectively “…

res[t] on four conditions or norms:

  1. dual autonomy [between government and the market];
  2. collective action [in pursuit of specific “interests/passions”];
  3. non-usurpation [of the role of the state or the market];
  4. civility [including adherence to rules or laws] “

EOS’s early attempt to build a civil society in cyberspace bears some resemblance to Schmitter’s definition. EOS is a self-organized community advocating a scalable Blockchain Operating system with built-in protocol-level governance and a voting process. More precisely:

  1. EOS is independent of public authorities and, to some extent, from private enterprises. The issue of Block Producers being private enterprises and having some degree of power is subject to further discussion
  2. EOS ECAF is an attempt to create a body for taking collective actions to protect the interests of the EOS community
  3. EOS has no declared interest or intent to replace state agents or to become a private enterprise
  4. The EOS constitution, voting process, and arbitration constitute pre-established rules of a civil/legal nature.

Acknowledging that EOS is still an experiment and needs some serious work, one can argue that EOS has established

its dual autonomy by not being affiliated with any public sector or any private enterprise;
activities that are community-driven and are based on a rudimentary voting process that needs formalization;
regulations and technical mechanisms for protecting stakeholders’ tokens and interests
a culture of cooperation and a primitive mechanism for debating and reaching consensus on issues in a civil manner

What is governance?

Mark Bevir defines governance as “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market, or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization, or territory, and whether through laws, norms, power, or language. Governance differs from government in that it focuses less on the state and its institutions and more on social practices and activities.”

Mark Hufty defines governance as "the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions."[2]

Applying both definitions to the state of governance in the EOS community, we find that EOS is an informal organization of a network of diverse participants who are enacting certain social practices and activities. EOS is still going through the growing pains of defining and establishing the decision-making and reinforcement processes of its nascent governance.

For the EOS community to succeed in building a civil society in cyberspace, it should clearly define, through a voting process, how decisions are made and modified. It should also set parameters for how power is distributed and shared across the entire EOS ecosystem--not just the BPs. The EOS community also needs to develop a mechanism for developing and ratifying policies.

The beauty of Blockchain is that it is open and transparent in nature. It allows all community members to verify the proper execution of governance decisions taken by the community.

EOS and Governance

Some contentious issues have arisen recently in the emerging EOS governance model, to the extent that Dan Larimar proposed a referendum on the constitution. But that should not be a surprise! The EOS civil society is still an experiment and will go through a very complex and challenging maturation process. Its founders developed a constitution and a voting process and baked them in the code. They also introduced a very rudimentary arbitration process. These pillars of the EOS governance are a work-in-progress with the potential to mature into a robust governing model that could be adopted by other online communities.

EOS Block Producers are selected through a very elaborate and continuous voting process. This goal of this voting process is to create a healthy, competitive environment which incentivizes the BPs to offer best services to the community. Also, the declared intent of the EOS constitution is to give the EOS token holders power to rid the system of bad actors and vote out less performing BPs. This intent gained a widespread support from the community, however, it has not been fully thought through and there are some valid concerns that whales can game the system.

For example, if just a handful of whales collude, they can control the system and can vote for multiple BPs they support just enough to veto any decision they don’t support. Also, there is some resentment in the community around certain BPs who are supposed to be voted out because they are not fulfilling their duties. However, they remain in the system because of the votes they are getting from the whales.

These issues are under discussion and the community will figure out a way to address them. The important point is that the whole process is still work-in-progress and is not perfect, but the community is fully aware of these issues and will be working through these issues until resolved.

What makes this voting process even more powerful is the inherited transparency of Blockchain and the continuous feedback that the community enjoys. The BP voting process occurs every 2 minutes and 6 seconds. This short window allows the community to act quickly in case of any bad behavior that may harm the system.

The EOS civil society experiment construct can be characterized by the following:
It consists of:

  • Institutions: ECAF and the voting process
  • Actors: Voters, Block Producers, and Arbitrators
  • Resources: EOS Tokens
  • Incentives: Block Producers are incentivized to maintain a state-of-the-art network infrastructure

These are underpinned by a set of shared values:

  • Commitment to civility: Establishment of the constitution, voting, and ECAF.
  • Commitment to technology: Advancements and support of developing a global ecosystem of Decentralized applications (dApps)
  • Transparency: The very nature of Blockchain --- being a public distributed ledger-- provides a quick feedback loop to the community
  • A Constitution that serves as the legal embodiment of the established values

This arguably yields a system of checks and balances between Block Producers, ECAF, and the token holders (voters):

Block Producers have the power (they operate the infrastructure) but don’t have the authority to use it. The intent of the constitution by introducing the concept of ECAP is to allow disputing parties to go through an arbitration process to reach a resolution. Supposedly, the arbitrator’s decision constitutes an order to the BPs to act. BPs also don’t have the mandate to set policy.

ECAF is intended to be the body that helps the community resolve conflicts through arbitration. EOS community members may use any legitimate arbitration body of their choosing. The intent is to establish an authority that ensures that the BP’s power is used for the good of the EOS community.
The EOS token holders have the voting power over BP and ECAF.

Is code law?

Lawrence Lessig coined the phrase “Code is Law” in his 1999 book, Code and other laws of cyberspace. The chief thesis of this book is that computer code has the power to regulate conduct in much the same way that the legal system can. Lessig introduced the concept of the pathetic dot theory which argues that Law, Norms, Market, and Architecture are four regulators, each of which has a profound impact on society.

Unfortunately, Lessig’s concept of “Code is Law” has been misunderstood and to some extent misused. In the context of Blockchain, Bitcoin in particular, zealots treated code literally as the ultimate law of the Blockchain land and that outcome or behavior of the system can not, and should not, be disputed or altered. There are numerous examples of millions of dollars in cryptocurrency that were lost. These staggering losses could have been prevented, except that some of the Blockchain operators (miners) could not reverse these transactions and return the lost tokens because the code did not allow them to! The DAO attack is another such example.

The EOS community believes that the code is not perfect and may be faulty; as such, it is not literally law. In fact, Dan Larimar argues that the intent of the code is law. A departure from the pervasive belief within the Blockchain community can prove to be a great development in the context the EOS civic society experiment. Rejecting the notion that the letter of the code is law and endorsing instead the notion of the spirit of the code is law provides a flexible framework for the EOS civil society experiment to iteratively learn from mistakes and improve and optimize its governance model.

Final thoughts

The EOS civic society experiment will no doubt face tremendous challenges and will endure attacks and setbacks. Its success is crucial for the future of EOS and to Blockchain in general. We all need to support this initiative through active, positive participation and valuable technical and non-technical contributions.


Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

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Good article! I think of governance as "protecting the assets" which stands independently of the deployment of the assets for good use, aka profit.

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Hey - what do you think of the EOS Alliance, announced slightly after your post!

What a well written article. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

" Rejecting the notion that the letter of the code is law and endorsing instead the notion of the spirit of the code is law provides a flexible framework for the EOS civil society experiment to iteratively learn from mistakes and improve and optimize its governance model."

I believe that this is a crucial step in the evolution of law. It needs to be flexible in today's world so it can adapt quickly. Laws tend to get outdated and misunderstood quite quickly (2nd amendment comes to mind) but the intent is usually the same even after 242 years.

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Good post. Would you please allow me to translate it to Chinese, so Chinese readers will also know about your opinions? Of course, I will put the original links and authors at the beginning of the Chinese version post. Thanks a lot.