There's a frightening, niche segment of the cryptocurrency community that is comprised of extreme anarchists. These people aren't just apolitical, they're anti-political (to the point that they will facilitate bets on the lives of politicians). The thinking is roughly this: If there are financial incentives to "off" politicians, then people will be afraid to run for office and thus, the state will collapse.
It might sound extreme, but assassination markets are not new phenomena. As early as 2013, some bitcoin enthusiasts were contributing toward assassination markets for prominent public figures including the US president, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and leaders of US government agencies. In November 2013, Forbes even profiled one of these market creators. Fortunately, nobody cashed in on those bets, which effectively functioned as bounties.
When Augur launched earlier this month, it was only a matter of time before cryptocurrency-tied assassination markets reappeared. Initially, Augur's market questions were relatively tame (e.g., "Will the price of Ether be above $500 at the end of 2018?" and "Will England win against Croatia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup?" Spoiler Alert: England lost). However, in the last several days, darker questions were posted about the life of the US president and the lives of other public figures.
These assassination markets raise ethical questions for Augur's creators and force us to confront a hideous side of society that seems to lurk in the seemingly pseudonymous depths of the internet. When ETHNews asked Augur co-founder Joey Krug whether there's any way to censor these questions, he simply directed us to Augur's FAQs:
"Users who decide to run the Augur code are the ones who perform trades and create markets on the Augur protocol. All functions of routing orders, matching orders, processing trades, escrow funds, manage the order book and resolve and settle markets are all operated and run on the Ethereum blockchain itself through a set of smart contracts, the Augur core protocol. Miners running Ethereum nodes route, match, store and process orders, trades and markets on the Augur protocol. All funds are escrowed and transferred directly on the Ethereum blockchain itself."
In short, Augur seems to be out of Krug's hands.
The responsibility instead lies with Augur's users (effectively any member of the public who has the technical know-how and financial wherewithal to place a wager). Another section on Augur's FAQ page explains, "Users of the Augur protocol must themselves ensure that the actions they are performing are compliant with the laws in all applicable jurisdictions and must acknowledge that others' use of the Augur protocol may not be compliant. Users of the Augur protocol do so at their own risk."
Note: This seems like an awfully convenient way for Augur's creators to disclaim responsibility, but we're left with the same old question: is the creator of a tool responsible for its usage?
Krug, for his part, doesn't seem worried about the assassination markets. He said, "As far as whether I'm personally concerned, it's a bit like asking the creators of SMTP if they're ok with email being used for ransom notes. Obviously, I would prefer people not use the tool for such things!"
He continued: "That said, it's irrelevant what I think because if it is illegal, market creators shouldn't be creating such markets anyway, just as people should not write ransom notes with email."
Personally, it would be easy to be outraged and appalled by Krug's response. He seems to unintentionally demonstrate the apparent invincibility and irresponsibility of youth. But is he really to blame?
Ultimately, I'm persuaded by Krug's point. If it wasn't Augur, there would be another assassination marketplace. Creators cannot control how their tools are used and, more importantly, a few bad apples shouldn't spoil the bunch. Just because a few miscreants have placed bets on people's lives, the prediction market itself is not evil. Augur remains agnostic. It's up to users to ensure that the tool is used in an ethical manner (especially if it achieves widespread use).
That said, maybe technologists should be sensitive to how their tools could be repurposed. One commenter on the Augur subreddit ominously posted: "Who should my decentralised assassination drone be launched at for 50 BTC? Hope you're all ready for the future, folks."