The Great Digital-Currency Debate: ‘New’ Ethereum Vs. Ethereum ‘Classic’

The new digital currency Ethereum is only about three years old, but after a controversial software upgrade, it already has split in two.

After the so-called “forking” of the cryptocurrency was carried out July 20 to undo a hack in June that led to the theft of $60 million worth of Ethereum,  some developers of the currency fought back by essentially ignoring the fork, not updating their software and maintaining the older version of the currency,

The new name of the older version: Ethereum Classic. The somewhat confounding result is that two exact versions of the same cryptocurrency exist.

A high-profile theft in June involving Ethereum, a bitcoin-like digital platform, led to the controversial decision to rewrite the software in such a way that the theft didn’t exist. Users were given a choice of whether or not to upgrade their software via a “hard fork;” in this new version, the transactions would be erased and the money returned.

Most adopted the fork. But a minority, driven by a philosophical disagreement, did not, choosing to work with the old software. Now, that “non-forked” version is gaining support  through a rising price and more adoption on trading platforms, leaving two versions of Ethereum that are identical in every respect save one. In one version, the theft doesn’t exist. In the other, it does.

A fortune at one point worth $60 million, and the reputation of a much-hyped bitcoin alternative, rests upon how quickly this schism is resolved. The value of the non-forked version, Ethereum Classic, has been extremely volatile, falling by nearly 90% one day and rising more than 200% another. It closed last week around $1.64, and was trading around $2.12 on Monday.

By comparison, the forked Ethereum traded at about $11.50 on Monday morning, with an overall market value of just under $1 billion, according to the website Crypto-Currency Market Capitalizations.

A more telling stat in this new civil war: the volume of Ethereum Classic traded on Monday was higher than the volume of Ethereum traded, even if the “hash rate,” a measure of the computing power on the network, is far higher for Ethereum than for Classic. It’s still a thin market, but the trading volume is a sign that for now, at least, there is a market for Classic.

One prominent bitcoin investor, Barry Silbert, announced on Twitter last week that he had invested an undisclosed amount in Classic, his first non-bitcoin cryptocurrency investment. He didn’t state his rationale exactly, but did clarify it was an investment and not a trading position.

“Many in the Ethereum community opposed the hard fork,” said Arthur Hayes, CEO of digital-exchange BitMex, which is also supporting Classic, even offering option trading on the currency as well. “These traders will place ideology ahead of profits, and that is very positive for the staying power of [Classic].”

Yet another exchange, Shapeshift, was supporting Classic, too. The decision to do so, said Shapeshift CEO Erik Voorhees, is “purely market driven.” He thinks that within a few weeks or a month, one version of Ethereum will overtake the other. “We don’t expect that both of the assets will persist indefinitely,” he said. “Until it’s settled we should probably trade them both.” Still, he acknowledged it was a tricky and unusual situation. “There’s not a lot of precedent for this.”

The decision to revise the history of Ethereum trading has split people who trade the currency and who designed it as a way to encourage open technology ledgers in a number of industries. The Ethereum Foundation itself said, in a blog post, that it is not opposed to alternative versions of its software, but it would be supporting only the forked version.

There is a vocal group opposed to the hard fork that argues cryptocurrencies are supposed to have inalterable public histories, the key feature that allows them to operate without third-party oversight. The hard fork, they argued, created a currency that could be altered at any time. In essence, it no longer reflect “the truth.”

The fork didn’t require 100% compliance, and holdouts were anticipated. They were expected, however, to be forced to move to the other version of the software, much like software users are forced to upgrade when older versions are no longer supported. But the non-forked version is gaining market share and backers.

Microsoft Corp. last year integrated Ethereum-based tools into its business-services platform, Azure, and has been among the technology’s most prominent backers. The company said it is not concerned about the competition between the factions, and has not seen any disruptions to projects from its customers. “We are happy with the successful fork,” said Marley Grey, the company’s director of BizDev & Strategy for Blockchain. “If anything, the successful implementation of the hard fork has further established Ethereum as a defacto standard for enterprise consortia networks.”

The seeds of the story go back to an outfit calling itself the DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization), which began a crowd-funding drive in May with the goal of creating a sort of venture fund for Ethereum-based startups. The fund would operate via “smart contracts,” programs that operate under a specific set of rules that obviates the need for human management. The fund surprisingly raised about $150 million worth of ether.

Shortly thereafter, an anonymous actor exploited a bug in the software that allowed the diversion of about $60 million of the fund’s holdings into a copycat account controlled by the hacker.

First appeared at WSJ