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SoK: Blockchain Governance

September/2022, To appear in: AFT '22

Blockchain systems come with a promise of decentralization that often stumbles on a roadblock when key decisions about modifying the software codebase need to be made. This is attested by the fact that both of the two major cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and Ethereum, have undergone hard forks that resulted in the creation of alternative systems, creating confusion and opportunities for fraudulent activities. These events, and numerous others, underscore the importance of Blockchain governance, namely the set of processes that blockchain platforms utilize in order to perform decision-making and converge to a widely accepted direction for the system to evolve. While a rich topic of study in other areas, governance of blockchain platforms is lacking a well established set of methods and practices that are adopted industry wide. This makes the topic of blockchain governance a fertile domain for a thorough systematization that we undertake in this work.

We start by distilling a comprehensive array of properties for sound governance systems drawn from academic sources as well as grey literature of election systems and blockchain white papers. These are divided into seven categories, confidentiality, verifiability, accountability, sustainability, Pareto efficiency, suffrage and liveness that capture the whole spectrum of desiderata of governance systems. We proceed to classify ten well-documented blockchain systems. While all properties are satisfied, even partially, by at least one system, no system that satisfies most of them. Our work lays out a foundation for assessing blockchain governance processes. While it highlights shortcomings and deficiencies in currently deployed systems, it can also be a catalyst for improving these processes to the highest possible standard with appropriate trade-offs, something direly needed for blockchain platforms to operate effectively in the long term.