The Infura Problem
“The job of miners is to secure the network via hashpower, not to provide network infrastructure.” — Vitalik Buterin.
Infura spends a lot of money providing access to the Ethereum network. Most blockchain developers consider this a good thing. As Vitalik Buterin has remarked, the job of miners is to mine, so having private companies step in to run infrastructure is a boon. And why complain? Is anyone seriously worried about Joe Lubin attacking the Ethereum network?
What this misses is that Infura’s growing market share is symptomatic of deeper problems. Nor are these problems restricted to Ethereum. When Bitcoin Cash supporters talk about “economic nodes” or Bitcoin SV supporters praise “archive nodes” they are all falling into the same trap: treating outside markets as “consequence-free” ways to fund core infrastructure.
There are actually three major risks in this approach, these are:
- Monopolization: the history of most information industries shows a trend towards industrial concentration; Microsoft and Google are the norm not the exception, and the fact that Infura is following the same trend-line should be concerning to everyone.
- Lost Openness: remember that POW and POS networks are asking outside markets to provide them with a constant inflow of free money. But this is not how markets work. Getting access to inbound transaction flows requires cooperation (“permission”) from the companies that are collecting them, and if those transactions are valuable the market solution is to monetize them.
- Cartelization: if there are profits available collecting transactions / users, companies can leverage competitive strength in ancillary markets to boost profits in the blockchain space, much like the way Google has leveraged its advertising network to drive out competitors in many other sectors.
All three outcomes are negative: either the inner network is subverted or the outer layer gets monopolized. Markets need to privatize benefits to cover costs. Asking a market to pay you forces the privatization of benefits on either the underlying blockchain or the layer that routes payments inwards.
There is zero recognition of this problem in the blockchain space. If you talk to Ethereum developers about Infura, they will insist that lite-clients will solve the problem. This shows a lack of appreciation for the underlying economic problem. Lite-clients lower costs on those running them, but increase the costs on the remaining full-nodes, making these economic problems more acute. Economic problems that stem from the network “passing the buck” cannot be solved by more “passing the buck”.
In the long-term, the only solution is to switch to consensus mechanisms that actually pay for fee-collection. The fact that this modification is impossible in POS and POW networks may partly explain why so many people cannot recognize the problem.
— David Lancashire, Saito (August 2019).
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