A group supporting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange raised more than $50 million in ether cryptocurrency on Wednesday by selling an NFT of a clock to a blockchain-based activist collective set up to support his legal bills.
The non-fungible token, titled “Clock,” is a joint creation by Assange and digital artist Pak. It displays a digital counter of the days Assange has spent behind bars at London’s Belmarsh Prison, where he’s being held awaiting extradition to the US.
Assange plans to appeal a UK court decision to extradite him to the US to face multiple espionage charges stemming from WikiLeaks’ publication of confidential files on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. If found guilty, he could face up to 175 years in jail. Pak has said the proceeds from the NFT clock sale to the activist collective, called AssangeDAO, will go to the Hamburg-based Wau Holland foundation, a nonprofit that accepts donations for Assange’s legal defense.
The WikiLeaks founder is the latest controversial figure to benefit from a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) set up to support his cause, bypassing traditional fundraising sites, as well as the scrutiny that goes with them.
Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton, who was involved in setting up the DAO, says that he had been going to cryptocurrency conferences for years, hoping to muster support from a crowd whose goals he believes are “totally aligned with Julian's philosophy.” After all, Assange was an influential creator of encryption technology and a member of the Cypherpunks mailing list, where the building blocks of cryptocurrency were discussed. His brainchild, WikiLeaks, was one of the first high-profile organizations to accept bitcoin donations, in 2011, after being blacklisted by payment providers in 2010. But Shipton’s efforts did not bear fruit until 2021, when he teamed up with a group of modern-day cypherpunks, including British cryptocurrency developer Amir Taaki, Irish journalist Rachel-Rose O’Leary, Berlin-based mathematician Silke Noa, and two pseudonymous hacktivists who go by the names McKenna and Fiskantes.
The group started discussing how to help Assange on Telegram, in the wake of the decision to extradite him in December. They were inspired by FreeRossDAO, a group launched that same month to support Ross Ulbricht, the creator of darknet drug marketplace Silk Road, who is serving a double life sentence in a federal prison in Arizona. FreeRossDAO raised $12 million, $6.2 million of which was spent on NFTs Ulbricht had created. The proceeds went toward Ulbricht’s legal and PR expenses and to charities of his choice. “FreeRoss happened, and that was a big success—that gave us an indication” of what to do, Taaki says.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden raised $5.4 million in April 2021 by selling an NFT featuring his own face made from pages of a US appeals court decision. So AssangeDAO agreed on a simple mission: raise as much crypto as it could and funnel it into Pak and Assange’s NFT auction, in an attempt to either secure the clock NFT or at least raise its price floor.
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On February 3, the group started accepting ether donations on crypto crowdfunding platform Juicebox, eventually raising some $52 million. In exchange for their contributions, all donors received cryptocurrency $JUSTICE tokens, which give holders a voice in how AssangeDAO’s resources are used. That element, Taaki says, makes the DAO mechanism more effective at raising funds than just asking for direct donations in dollars or crypto. “Simple donations don't work,” he says. “But if you give a little bit of incentive—that's the extra impetus.” Taaki says that the AssangeDAO was the perfect way for cypherpunks to rally together to “liberate the original cypherpunk: Assange.”
In the lead-up to the auction, the group debated whether it should bid less for the project and keep cryptocurrency aside for other Assange-focused projects, but it ended up going all in: AssangeDAO’s winning offer—16,593 ETH—was $40 million higher than the second-highest bid, from the CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Kraken.
Assange’s history is checkered: He was investigated for sexual offenses in Sweden, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition, and was accused of spreading material hacked by Russia’s GRU. But Noa says that whatever one thinks of Assange, the charges against him are a “travesty” and represent a wider threat to “press freedom and whistleblower protection.”
Stella Moris, a lawyer and Julian Assange’s partner, says the DAO “provides a new model for political prisoners and causes to galvanize support.” She says she hopes others will follow in its footsteps.
Initially conceived as the cryptocurrency industry’s flawed answer to Kickstarter, DAOs were used to raise capital for cryptocurrency startups while giving donors a stake through custom tokens. Now they are also evolving into devices to orchestrate other kinds of collective actions—from the activist to the political to the whimsical. Last year, shortly before the FreeRossDAO, the ConstitutionDAO raised $47 million in an unsuccessful attempt to buy an original copy of the US Constitution (which was eventually snapped up by a hedge fund manager). In 2018, Taaki, who in the 2010s fought with the Kurds against the Islamic State in Syria, announced plans to create an academy of hackers well-versed in cryptography and revolutionary techniques alike. He says that he will likely launch a DAO to fund that project.
These new types of DAOs may still have a problem in certain cases: Crypto backers who decide to participate risk being unmasked. While widely touted as totally private, the most popular cryptocurrencies are in fact pseudonymous and leave a permanent trail that can in some cases lead to a user’s identity. “Right now the process is completely transparent. That might be OK for something like ConstitutionDAO, but when it comes to something like AssangeDAO, it creates a risk both for donors and organizers,” O’Leary says.
In a cryptocurrency conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in October 2021, Taaki and O’Leary unveiled a project called DarkFi—a wordplay on cryptocurrency-fueled decentralized finance, or “DeFi”, which would offer stronger anonymity features for cryptocurrency and DeFi users. DarkFi aims to make DAO crowdfunding fully anonymous, minimizing any risk linked to backing controversial causes or figures. “We will have DAOs and auctions which are completely anonymous—where nobody can see anything that's happening,” Taaki says.
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