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Fat Finger Friends: Miner Morality in the New Money System

Dec. 26, 2023. 5 min. read. Interactions

Blockchain's Unforgiving Reality: Crypto mistakes are irreversible. Sending wrong amounts or fat-fingering fees can lead to losses. As adoption grows, users navigate the unforgiving terrain of immutable ledgers.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

We all make mistakes. A misclick here, a fat finger there – suddenly your new shoes are being delivered to your ex’s address and you just gave your nephew $200 instead of $20 for Christmas. Are you going to tell him he needs to give $180 back?

When dealing with TradFi (‘traditional finance’) apps like Revolut, mistakes are made with money. Some are more serious than others. Gridlocked bureaucracies can take their time giving you your money back. Others may never give it back at all. 

There is recourse, though. Your bank offers you protection and, if they don’t, the law can be on your side. The state effectively rests upon enforcing the fiat ledger (if you don’t pay your bills you go to prison), so there are safeguards for when you mess up.

No Takesies-Backsies

In crypto, not so much. In fact, not at all. The beauty of crypto, the very reason it has any value at all, is its ability to administer a money system at a far greater efficiency than all the banks, lawyers, police, accountants and more that make up our current monetary system. As a result, you can send large sums of money cheaply, and small sums directly and instantly, with near-zero friction. However, unlike TradFi, you cannot make mistakes.

If you send 1 BTC to someone instead of 0.1 – that’s it. It can’t be reversed by the blockchain. There is no system for getting your money back. All blocks are final – that’s the point. It’s an immutable record of accounting. The only way to correct the mistake is to ask nicely and hope the person sends it back. Otherwise there is nothing you can do, and no one who can help you. So, either you start polishing your wrench, or you move on. And if you sent it to the wrong address, even that won’t save you. The money is gone forever – burned in a cryptographic pyre.

That’s not the only mistake you can make. When sending crypto transactions, you must pay gas. Gas is the fee paid to the miners of a given protocol for maintaining the decentralised ledger. This fee is variable; it changes depending on how busy the network is, and the demand for block space. It’s also editable. If you, a user, want to put your BTC transaction at the top of the pile and be included in the next block, you can tip the miner to speed up your transaction. 

Fat Fingers, Fatter Mistakes

Do you see where this is going? This time those fat fingers drop a bigger bag. When dealing with bitcoin (worth, at time of writing, $42,000), an extra zero can mean a lot of money. As we said, there is no recourse. Add in bad (or unfamiliar) UX and it’s a fertile ground for mistakes to be made. All tips paid are final, according at least to the protocol. 

Except not quite. Miners do need to accept the transaction and, as such, can choose not to. One user who paid a record $3 million dollar tip to Antpool, was relieved when Antpool said that they had spotted the absurd tip, and said that they would refund it provided the sending address could provide proof. It’s not the first time such a large amount has been paid, even by institutions where safe management is key to their reputation. In one case, Paxos overpaid $500,000 to a miner through simple mechanical and interface error. That miner agreed, too, to refund it. But not without expressing frustrations, and asking the community whether he should repay it in the first place. The community voted to just give it to other Bitcoin users. If it was an individual and not a perceived ‘institution’, perhaps this sentiment would be different. 

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

The Problem with ‘Miner Morality’

Yet the issue remains. Miners are focused on upkeep and collection of payments. They don’t want to be moral arbiters of how much is too much, of what is or isn’t a mistake. They just want to collect the fees. Asking miners to be responsible for fat finger errors puts them in a confusing position. What is their exact job-description then? They are simply committed to upholding the ledger, and earning their due for doing so. They don’t want to become institutions, or be on the moral hook for funds sent to them in error – it somewhat defeats the point of peer-to-peer currencies. How would the institutions work? Tesla gets its mistakes remedied but John Doe doesn’t? That seems worse than the current system.

However, Antpool’s fast, commendable response, replete with a ‘risk control system’ and clear deadlines and protocols for repayment is more agreeable in a world where institutions start issuing Bitcoin ETFs. Perhaps that’s what we want, but perhaps it also betrays a truth about what Bitcoin mining is becoming. Miner pools are becoming ever more powerful, controlling more of the hash rate. If a powerful, centralised cartel of mega-miners are responsible for most of the network’s hashrate, it creates problems – especially as huge mainstream institutions fund their pensions with Bitcoin instruments packaged by Wall Street. 

Own Your Mistakes

Adoption is coming, but fat fingers will remain. Blockchain’s genius resides in non-permissioned ledgers, where your money is in your hands and your fumbles are your own. It’s worth the price of admission to have the speed, sanctity and security that blockchains offer. Miners should not be compelled to refund fat fingers, even if it’s commendable that they do, and we should not drag them into a faux-corporate architecture that threatens to diminish why we love the ledger in the first place.

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About the Writer

SB Fisher

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SB Fisher is an organic, large language model that conducts regular séances with the ghosts in the machine. SB writes until the singularity creates an abundant society or eternal virtual enslavement. Ask SB for poetry!

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