WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is currently being held on remand in a London maximum-security prison, solely on the basis of a U.S. extradition request. Assange has been charged with 17 counts of espionage related to WikiLeaks’ 2010 to 2011 publications concerning the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, embarrassing U.S. diplomatic communications and evidence of torture in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Assange’s U.S. extradition case is recognized by free speech groups as the most important press freedom case of the 21st century. As the aggressive judicial overreach of this U.S. government is already creating a chilling effect on reporters and media organizations, some recognize consequences far beyond the future of journalism.
Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, who regularly attends cryptocurrency conferences, has warned those who are involved in the development of new technologies that they are not immune to suffering the same fate as his son.
How does the prosecution of Assange threaten the crypto movement? And why does the Bitcoin community need to be concerned about his plight for freedom?
At its heart, WikiLeaks is an innovative endeavor. Started as a project of Sunshine Press, it was an invention of a new form of journalism built on the platform of the internet. On its website’s “About” page, WikiLeaks described how it started with an online dialogue between activists around the world, who shared their aspiration to eliminate injustice and human suffering caused by the abuses of power of corporations and governments, especially oppressive regimes.
WikiLeaks also acknowledges the efforts of Philip Zimmerman, the creator of an encryption software program known as Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, and how the vision of this lone computer programmer in Colorado instigated a global revolution for mass distribution of privacy technologies.
Inspired by this pioneer of private and secure online communication, the founding members of WikiLeaks sought for a way to deploy information technologies to create a robust system of publishing that protects the anonymity of sources and enables transparency of the powerful. This new journalistic organization aimed to make “document leaking technology” available at a global scale in order to better bring accountability to governments and other institutions.
The Crypto Wars
History has shown how new ideas and inventions are often met with opposition and fierce condemnation by the state. At the start of the 1990s, when Zimmermann released PGP, the U.S. government considered what he had done the equivalent of exporting munitions. It launched a three-year criminal investigation against him, creating a battle over encryption that became known to some as “The Crypto Wars.” The case was eventually dropped when U.S. courts ruled that software source code qualifies as speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Two decades later, WikiLeaks’ efforts to amplify information technologies to tackle the problem of government secrecy created another global revolution, this time disrupting the media landscape. Like its forerunner, this new free press of the digital age soon became a target of political retaliation.
After WikiLeaks released classified documents that revealed U.S. war crimes, the U.S. government decided that its editor-in-chief had damaged national security, though it produced no shred of evidence that the published documents caused any harm. It effectively declared war on the First Amendment, charging an Australian journalist under the Espionage Act in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Just as in the first Crypto War, where it tried to ban encryption, it was now trying to shut down WikiLeaks.
What is this new Crypto War — now being waged against the whistleblowing site — all about? This battle is not just about Assange as an individual. While mainstream media fixates on Assange and his character, WikiLeaks is not driven solely by one charismatic man. Behind the organization, there are thousands of ordinary people worldwide who are dedicated to the principle of freedom of speech.
At the end of 2010, when WikiLeaks began publishing troves of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables, its website came under heavy pressure by the U.S. government and its allies. Insurgency swiftly emerged from deep inside the web to help WikiLeaks counteract distributed-denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks. By keeping multiple copies of its website, and setting up mirror sites, anonymous networks allowed information to continue to flow.
Inspiring those collective acts of resistance in an underground subculture of the internet are shared values and ideals, embodied in the cypherpunk philosophy. Emerging in the late 1980s, the cypherpunk movement is a loosely tied group of mathematicians, computer scientists and online activists who advocate privacy through the use of strong cryptography.
Shifting the Balance of Power
Assange is known to have joined the cypherpunk mailing list in late 1993 or early 1994. His engagement with those on the edges on the internet had a large influence on his intellectual development. The native Australian software programmer and expert in cryptography once summed up the core values behind WikiLeaks by saying, “capable, generous men do not create victims, they nurture victims.”
He acknowledged this is something that he learned from his own father and other capable, generous men in his life. This moral value, installed at an early age, found practical application in the cypherpunks’ core belief: “Cryptography can be a key tool for protecting individual autonomy threatened by power.”
In his 2006 essay “Conspiracy as Governance”, a kind of manifesto from which WikiLeaks was conceived, Assange analyzed the structure of power and means to shift the balance of power between the individual and the state. By using cryptography as a “non-violent democratic weapon that gives claws to the weak,” Assange found a way to provide information to the public, to hold the powerful accountable, and to help ordinary people empower themselves with knowledge.
Ethics of Cryptography
Cypherpunks saw the political implications of their work and strove for proper use of the power inherent in cryptography. This attitude has shaped the ethics of cryptographers and defined cypherpunk cryptography as “crypto with values.”
Eric Hughes who, in 1992, co-founded the influential cypherpunk mailing list, together with Timothy C. May and John Gilmore, described those values as openness, the free flow of information and decentralization. In “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” published in 1993, he declared that “code is free for all to use, worldwide.” Assange also articulated the moral values of cypherpunks, noting “the whole point of free software is to liberate it in all senses.” He added that, “It’s part of the intellectual heritage of man. True intellectual heritage can’t be bound up in intellectual property.”
Instead of claiming ownership of their knowledge, cypherpunks aimed to build software on a ground of free sharing and open platforms, in which everyone can participate and make contributions to the development and utilization.
Zimmermann gave PGP away online, making the source code free and freely available. Through people all over the world simply downloading and using it, the decentralization of that technology helped to secure the right to privacy at a large scale. By deploying an anonymous, secure drop box, WikiLeaks made it possible for people around the globe to speak out against their governments’ wrongdoing without fear of their identity being revealed. Courage of whistleblowers became contagious, creating waves of disclosures. WikiLeaks, powered by free software, began to liberate information that had been captured under the proprietary ownership of corporations and governments.
It is with this cypherpunk vision of ethics that Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, also published its white paper online. The invention of Bitcoin, a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, unleashed the revolutionary power of cryptography. This community-driven, free software project set in motion a decentralized movement to liberate money from the monopoly of central banks. By people across the world simply choosing to run full nodes, each containing a complete record of all Bitcoin transactions, a network secures this stateless digital cash as a form of free speech that belongs to everyone.
Years before the U.S. government’s assault on free speech escalated into the indictment against the WikiLeaks founder, the mysterious creator of Bitcoin recognized the potential fate that would befall the world’s first global Fourth Estate.
In December 2010, WikiLeaks faced the unlawful financial blockade imposed by private payment processing companies, and the organization was considering using Bitcoin to circumvent it. Satoshi, who was concerned about the risk of drawing unwanted government attention to his then infant currency, appealed to WikiLeaks not to take such action.
In an online post, Satoshi noted that, “WikiLeaks has kicked the hornet’s nest, and the swarm is headed towards us.”
WikiLeaks eventually did turn to Bitcoin to achieve financial sovereignty. And now the swarm is now getting larger, bringing a new war on cryptography.
Currency of Resistance
The citizens of the internet have been longing for another world, independent from the old world of exploitation, violence and control. Dreams for freenet, for the internet to become an emancipatory tool for building peer-to-peer systems, have united people around the world together in the frontier of cyberspace.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s prosecution of Assange is a direct attack on freedom of expression; people’s ability to form and exchange ideas and collaborate creatively. What is now being threatened is our shared values and a vision for the future of the internet at the heart of Bitcoin’s decentralized consensus.
Bitcoin, from its inception, was a political act. This is shown in the highly politicized message in the genesis block, referring to a banking bailout. In the lively discussion of public cryptography in 1992 on the cypherpunk mailing list, the late Hal Finney, a noted cryptographer who is considered to be one of the earliest Bitcoin pioneers, reminded us of the ethical responsibility of cryptographers:
“The computer can be used as a tool to liberate and protect people, rather than to control them,” Finney, who received the very first bitcoin transaction sent by Satoshi, wrote, urging Bitcoin early adopters to put their “unearned wealth to good use.”
Now, as Assange’s U.S. extradition battle intensifies, the internet is calling for the rise of cypherpunks ‚ Assange’s fellow “capable generous men,” who exercise their power for social good to unite once again and take up their moral duty. The future of the internet believes in Bitcoin, the potential of this “crypto with values” to become the currency of resistance to defend its freedom.
Author’s Note: WikiLeaks has launched the official campaign page, “Don’t Extradite Assange.” You can get information on how you can help stop Assange’s extradition. Please consider donating to the WikiLeaks official Defense Fund and take action.
This is a guest post by Nozomi Hayase. Opinions expressed are entirely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.
Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements. Find her on Twitter @nozomimagine