WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at court in London on May 1, 2019 to be sentenced for bail … [+]
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When Wikileaks first emerged, it represented an affinity with another emerging community: bitcoin. Julian Assange had spoken at length about the Cypherpunks, the early 90s movement that sought to enact change through code and the laws of cryptography. This included experiments with early versions of digital money. So it was a natural fit for Wikileaks to use bitcoin due to its uncensorable nature, with Assange once commenting that “bitcoin is the real Occupy Wall Street”.
The threat model for Wikileaks was simple and yet devastatingly powerful: the most powerful state collective in the world was likely to go after them eventually, if not now, then sometime in the future. This included not only the “rogue’s gallery” Assange described in a 2010 speech to the Oslo Freedom Forum (states such as North Korea, Iran and the People’s Republic of China), but also the states that controlled the financial and trade apparatus that ran the world’s financial system, one where deviation and dissent was routinely punished with sanctions and exclusion. Even as early as 2010, Assange expressed a desire to wrestle with censorship in the West, including in “common law” societies that “prided” themselves on fundamental freedoms and Enlightenment ideals.
No good deed goes unpunished. A decade or so later, Assange sits in Balmarsh Prison for the third year without an official sentence. This is the harshest prison in the United Kingdom, usually reserved for violent repeat offenders, many of whom have committed rape or murder — it is hard to justify why a non-violent activist would be here aside from sadistic extension of state power.
I sat down and spoke with Gabriel Shipton, Julian Assange’s half-brother, to discuss the case and what is happening with it. He has recently been active in publishing articles describing the effects Assange’s imprisonment can have broadly when it comes to the Internet and press freedoms, and specifically when it comes to bitcoin.
One of the first things he commented on was Assange’s continued belief in bitcoin, his love for a tool that made it possible to do his work. The way he thought about cryptography fighting the inevitable centralization of repression made his thought process a natural complement and extension of bitcoin’s fight to remake classical economic and financial systems.
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People who support bitcoin should be concerned about Assange’s imprisonment not only because it reflects the betrayal of bitcoin’s ideals in the specific case of Assange — states tying themselves into pretzel knots in order to undermine a non-violent disseminator of information — it also makes vulnerable the principles of true transaction neutrality that underpin bitcoin, creating the most pressing version of the “wrench attack”. If you cannot go after the system, you must go after the person.
Dissidents around the world are using bitcoin now: some are using it to avoid censorship in Nigeria by the ruling economic elites against police brutality protests that have involved the murder of civilians by the ruling class. People in Belarus are accepting payment in order to defy the government, which has tried to crush protests with force. Hong Kong Free Press, a bastion of pro-democracy views in a Hong Kong that is seeking to crush journalists through weaponization of the financial system, accepts bitcoin.
The point isn’t trying to determine whether or not any of these individual causes is more worthy or not, or which ones align with our geopolitical views. The point is to acknowledge that all of them are only possible if they are branches stemming from the same uncensorable tree.
As the Internet’s gatekeepers get more and more actively involved in the Internet itself, often forced by nation-states (such as the United States leaning on payment processors to cut off payments to Wikileaks), the Internet itself becomes a shadow of itself. Originally meant as a means of open communication between people with the understanding that knowledge wants to be shared, it has long grown into a contested place where “moderation” rules the day. Yet the hope remains, as Assange himself noted, that new technologies will be able to mediate the unblunted power of many states — rather than consolidating their ability to control the discussion and their citizenry at scale.
The Internet has become bent towards authority and power in analog instances. State entities that consolidate control become verified accounts online: payment systems between individuals are now seen as ledgers to track rather than decentralized manners of marking value.
Gabriel Shipton and his father John (who is Julian Assange’s father) are now engaged in a tour of the United States to help unite many different groups dedicated to the freedom of Julian Assange — and as a way to counter the consolidation of analog power online. As a concrete way to support the cause, people are asked to donate money in bitcoin (other cryptocurrency options are also possible), making true the ideal that bitcoin can help even those whose enmity is assured from the most powerful entities on Earth.
Just as we’ve seen bitcoin hash power migrate after a crackdown from the second most powerful state in the world — we’ve also seen bitcoin work even under sustained attack from the political elite of many countries, including the preeminent political and economic power in the world. Julian Assange’s continued imprisonment at the hands of nation-states is a testament to the fact that he could only be stopped through force on his person. It is a reminder of bitcoin’s unique resiliency to the strongest of attackers — and a reminder of why bitcoin matters in the first place.
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Author: Roger Huang, Contributor