The Cypherpunks Mobilize to Save Julian Assange

“Censored” is a Collection by Pak and Assange and You —Pak

It was an auction like no other. When it opened on February 7 at 2 p.m. GMT, the equivalent of more than $40 million in crypto currency had already been raised to bid on the single-edition NFT artwork titled “Clock”. When the auction closed 48 hours later, the winning bid was 16,593 ether, or more than $52 million, pooled from a group of supporters of Julian Assange.

The prized object, which is part of an NFT collection called “Censored”, is not something one can take home, like, say, one of Louis XIV’s famous clocks; rather it’s a dynamic generative artwork that exists only in a digital format, changes daily, and was created with a very specific goal: to free Julian Assange through raising funds for his legal defense and raising awareness of the free-speech implications of his case.

“Clock”, as its name suggests, does actually mark time—the number of days Julian has been incarcerated in high-security Belmarsh prison, that number being ONE THOUSAND THIRTY SEVEN days as of this writing, or so indicated the muted timer in uppercase white letters on a black background, blinking rhythmically, some have said, in sync with Julian’s heartbeat.

The two visionaries behind this collaboration are Julian himself, the award-winning founder of WikiLeaks, currently a prisoner in high-security Belmarsh prison where he faces extradition to the United States and a 175-year prison sentence for basically practicing journalism; and the pseudonymous Pak, a renowned digital artist, crypto investor, and NFT creator, whose other crowd-sourced NFT work titled “Merge” raised $91.8 million from 30,000 buyers last December, making him the highest-paid living artist for an auctioned work.

Spearheading Censored’s fundraising efforts and pooling the money for the winning bid was AssangeDAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization), a group of Cypherpunks who formed this collective on Dec 10 of last year, the day Britain’s High Court ruled that, contrary to a lower court’s decision, Julian could be extradited to the U.S. “We represent a line in the sand where Cypherpunks stand up for the original Cypherpunk who helped make all this possible,” they proclaim.

Julian was indeed one of the original Cypherpunks back in the 1990s. In the Introduction to his eponymously titled 2012 book he explained that Cypherpunks call for cryptography and similar methods to be used to effect political and societal change around the world. And in that same spirit, AssangeDAO says that “by galvanizing an Assange solidarity network we hope to send a powerful signal that the time of passivity is over.  A new era of Cypherpunk organization has dawned.” More than 10,000 people were galvanized in a record amount of time to participate in this project.

WikiLeaks, too, has been a major player, rather like the standard bearer, announcing, sometimes in cryptic teases, what was to come. And Julian’s family has been fully supporting this effort.

The second part of “Censored” was a dynamic 48-hour open edition (the opposite of single edition) whereby supporters created their own NFTs, or packets of data stored on the blockchain. They chose any amount they wished to pay—which could even be zero—and typed in a short message—a word, a symbol, a vision, an exhortation, basically anything—that became an image, their message then “censored” by a thick black line running across.

At the end of the 48 hours, this part of “Censored” had raised some 670 ether (more than $2 million), with buyers creating more than 29,000 “censored” tokenized messages (you can view them—with difficulty behind the black bar—at OpenSea). Proceeds will go to organizations chosen by Julian and Pak that fight censorship, champion press freedom, and defend fundamental rights.

“Censored” is certainly an appropriate title. Julian has been silenced since the beginning of 2018 when his Internet access and telephone were cut off by the Ecuadorian embassy where he had been granted asylum, continuing through to today when he has been allowed only very limited, sometimes none at all—and usually heavily monitored—communication with the outside world whilst incarcerated in Belmarsh, a prison for alleged terrorists and dangerous criminals.

Repeated ad hominem attacks on Julian over the years have attempted to discredit and dismiss him. The diversion and reframing of WikiLeaks revelations by governments and their stenographers in the press have detracted from the gravity of the information revealed. Then there’s been the denial of potentially exculpatory evidence in Julian’s legal battles, and the ultimate “censorship”—plans by the CIA to poison and assassinate Julian.

More globally, there is of course the rampant crushing censorship we see everywhere today, including the very debilitating self-censorship.

While Julian has been an ardent campaigner against censorship in any form, he also sees its positive side: “When organizations or governments … attempt to contain knowledge and suppress it,” he said during a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “they are giving you the most important information you need to know—that there is something worth looking at to see if it should be exposed, and that censorship expresses weakness, not strength.”

Pak, in an interview with Artnet, said he, too, “constantly feel(s) gatekeeping and censorship.” He had been working on a project around the theme of freedom, he said, when Julian’s brother Gabriel Shipton contacted him. After learning extensively about Julian and his situation, Pak said he decided that “Julian was just the perfect fit” for his project. And so this collaboration called “Censored” came to be, with we the people also being a key player. “Censored was a drop with no creator, developer, platform, middlemen share,” tweeted Pak. “All from people, for the people.”

Julian and Pak are in many ways kindred spirits, both pushing the limits of technology to create innovative systems that can benefit humanity. In Julian’s case, it was principally developing a system whereby whistleblowers could transmit material securely and anonymously, which, in the millions of resulting documents published by WikiLeaks, has raised awareness of war crimes, corruption, mass surveillance, among other grievous offenses. In Pak’s case, as he explained to Artnet, he invented the open edition mechanism, making possible infinite editions. It “established itself as the most successful method of reaching out to individuals and building a community,” he said.

Making their work available to the widest number of people where it can have the greatest impact is essential to both, and that often has meant providing it for free. “Censored”, Pak says, “is the first time an open edition drop has been available for free under a ‘pay-what-you-want’ model.” The troves of WikiLeaks documents are available to anyone for free—of course donations are welcome as they sustain the organization. What’s paramount is getting the information out.

“Censored” is not the first time that crypto currency has come to the aid of Julian. Ten days after the 2010 launch of Cablegate, which comprises 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables highly compromising to the U.S,  Bank of America, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and Western Union imposed an illegal financial blockade on WikiLeaks in retaliation. The attack destroyed 95 percent of its revenue and led the organization to rely primarily on crypto currency companies for financial transfers. As Julian commented to Obrist, “Those discouraging financial attacks will be encouraging to other organizations in the sense that we got through them. … They provide encouragement for people to set up alternative financial conveyance structures, and that is a really positive outcome.” It is also another message conveyed by “Censored”.

There’s perhaps an even more important one—the power of people uniting for a cause. As Joshua Bate of AssangeDAO said of “Censored”: “This is tens of thousands of people coming together to show real strength—the Power of the People. In less than one week we have shown that decentralized and distributed peoples can band together to fight injustice.”

On that glorious day when Julian will finally be freed from prison, the Clock will go back to zero, all the message tokens will be freed, and the censored line through the messages will be removed. “The message will outweigh the medium,” Pak has said.

Karen Sharpe is the editor of Julian Assange in His Own Words, OR Books 2021, which has been translated into French (Julian Assange Parle, Investig’Action), and into Spanish (Julian Assange Habla, El Viejo Topo).