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…