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First Assassination Markets Appear on Prediction Platform Augur

Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:05 PM
Josiah Wilmoth
Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:05 PM

Everyone knew that it was inevitable that assassination markets would quickly pop up on decentralized prediction market platform Augur, but that doesn’t make the fact that users are now betting on whether U.S. President Donald Trump will be assassinated by the end of the year any less jarring.

Assassination Markets Let Augur Users Gamble on Trump Murder

Yet this market exists, and, though not the most popular bet on Augur, more than 50 shares have been traded on it as of the time of writing. Similar markets, moreover, exist for a number of other public figures, allowing users to gamble on whether 96-year-old actress Betty White and U.S. Senator John McCain — who has been diagnosed with brain cancer — will survive until Jan. 1, 2019.

Augur assassination market
Source: gateway.ipfs.io

Some decentralized application (dApp) browsers are filtering out these markets from the user interface, hiding them from bettors. However, there’s no way to remove them from the network, making them available through any overlay that does not engage in front-end censorship.

Moreover, it’s not too difficult for users to create proxy markets that avoid key-word filtering. “Will Donald Trump still be president at the end of 2018?” is close enough to “Will Donald Trump be killed in 2018?” to attract the same type of gambler.

Grappling with the Logical Outgrowth of a Decentralized Prediction Market

Now that assassination markets are here, a fierce debate has emerged in cryptocurrency circles over what — if anything — should be done about them, as well as who should be held responsible for these clearly-illegal death markets.

The core issue stems from the fact that, in addition to the pure revulsion that these markets should engender in any decent human being, they also create a financial incentive for someone to place a large bet that a public figure will be assassinated and then murder that person for profit. Consequently, the mere presence of these markets makes it more likely that these events will occur, however slim that increase may be.

Augur supporters argue that a project’s developers should not be held liable for how a decentralized technology is misused since the creators do not have the power to censor unethical markets. Many have also compared the platform to the propagation of technologies like encryption and cryptocurrency, tools which have been used for both social good and criminal activities. Death markets, by extension, are a necessary evil if one hopes to achieve censorship resistance.


However, up until about 12 hours ago, Augur’s developers possessed a “kill switch” that could lock up all contracts on the network in the event of a critical bug and save the platform from falling prey to another DAO hack situation. Because two weeks had passed since the platform’s launch without such an incident, they transferred ownership of the kill switch to a burn address, meaning that no single entity can control the network.

Aside from questions surrounding the legality of prediction markets in general, some have questioned whether the fact that assassination markets appeared prior to the destruction of the kill switch makes Augur at all liable, particularly in the horrific event that someone committed murder as a result.

The ‘Ethics of the Crowd’

Granted, the Augur team knew this debate was coming, which is why they took steps to make assassination markets less accessible — or, depending on one’s level of cynicism, to provide themselves with legal cover.

Since the Augur platform is decentralized, the network relies on the “wisdom of the crowd” to determine the outcome of markets. It also relies on the crowd to rule on whether markets are not ethical. Reporters — the mass of for-profit individuals on the network who verify the outcome of events — can flag individual markets as unethical, preventing any bettors from profiting from them.

However, there’s no guarantee that reporters will ultimately decide to censor payouts for these markets, and in fact, individual reporters could be financially penalized for flagging a market as unethical if doing so causes them to break from consensus.

In any case, at this point, the debate is largely moot. Augur is an open-source project, so even if the developers did find a way to block these markets, it’s likely that a splinter group would fork the platform and remove whatever restrictions they had put in place.

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