Maximilian Brichta Original Technology

How Cryptocurrencies Allow Fundraisers to Sidestep Censorship

Fundraisers for Julian Assange’s legal defense and Freedom Convoy protesters highlight faults and affordances of crypto-funded initiatives.
[QuoteInspector.com / CC BY-ND 2.0]

By Maximilian Brichta / Original to ScheerPost

Cryptocurrencies are being used to bypass legacy payment rails to crowdfund causes that would otherwise be censored. Two unique cases utilizing two separate cryptocurrencies, Ether and Bitcoin, have been carried out in the early weeks of February. Each demonstrates a distinct use-case and illuminates some of the blockchain’s blessings and curses that deserve more nuanced attention. 

 WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently seeking to appeal his extradition to the United States on charges of espionage, recently scored a $50 million dollar donation in Ether (the native coin of the Ethereum blockchain) for his legal defense. Assange collaborated with anonymous digital artist Pak to create a non-fungible token (NFT) called “Clock” to be auctioned off as a fundraising device. On February 9th, the highest bid went to AssangeDAO, a collective of cypherpunks who created a blockchain-based, member-owned organization to raise funds for Assange, who is himself an icon of the cypherpunk community. The artist Pak has posted his transaction receipt on Twitter, proving to the public the funds have been transferred in full to the Germany-based Wau Holland Foundation who manages donations for Assange. 

NFTs have become a popular investment and crowdfunding tool over the last year. Their most popular form, digital images, are assigned unique serial numbers that allow users to authenticate their ownership on a public distributed ledger, making them verifiable digital collectables. While some of the most popular collections, such as Bored Ape Yacht Club, serve primarily as status symbols, a vast array of collections factor in a charity component in which all or a percentage of the proceeds go to predetermined organizations. AssangeDAO is modeled after FreeRossDAO, which raised legal defense funds for Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht by purchasing and fractionalizing ownership of his NFT artwork. 

While the $50 million bag appears to indicate the magnitude of global support for the captive journalist, AssangeDAO’s Discord server, the central communication hub for the members, tells a more complicated story. It appears that many of the members joined the DAO – short for Decentralized Autonomous Organization – under the impression they would be able to vote for the allocation of the funds that were raised. Members voiced their displeasure with the decision for the organization’s founders to bid the full amount locked in the treasury and donate it to Assange. The move exposed the fact there was little by way of organization coded into the DAO for management of this initial crowdfunded purse. 

Other users shrugged off the pseudo-decentralization and emphasized the fact that the group’s main objective—raising funds for the WikiLeaks founder—was met. One user, Novocrypto, pointed out the potential catastrophe avoided by assuring all the funds were used to purchase the NFT: “Now imagine if we hadn’t succeeded in getting a max bid in and huge portion of funds were left in this DAO with as of yet [defined] structure! It would have been mayhem!”

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[Screen shot / Discord]

Had there been more clarity over the structure of the organization and the fact that all funds would be treated as donations, it’s possible that the $50 million war chest would have been much smaller. While the organization’s website states that “AssangeDAO aims to raise ETH to purchase the 1/1 dynamic NFT” and that users could “contribute” Ether to that “will be used to bid” on it, there is no direct indication that the full amount would be used as a bid. The winning bid was four times the amount of the second-place bid. 

The lack of clarity appears to have attracted speculators who were looking for stake in an NFT they imagined could appreciate. AssangeDAO’s Discord forum is replete with users commenting on the price and market capitalization of the organization’s governance token, $JUSTICE. As user Zylo.eth clarifies, “The purpose of this DAO is to raise funds to Free Assange, with the first goal already completed. You contributed, not invested.” While contributions for the “Clock” NFT have closed, the AssangeDAO website claims that holders of $JUSTICE token “will decide via governance what to do with the NFT and the future roadmap of the DAO.”

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[Screen shot / Discord]

A concurrent crowdfunding effort, Honkhonkhodl, is using Bitcoin to help supply resources to truckers participating in the Freedom Convoy 2022, a protest in downtown Ottawa that started in late January over Covid-19 vaccine mandates and social regulations. 

The crowdfunding effort was set up after two other efforts using popular crowdfunding sites GoFundMe and GiveSendGo respectively froze donated funds and suffered a security lapse. GoFundMe forbid the $10 million dollars that were raised for the Freedom Convoy 2022 and is issuing refunds for $9 million of the donations. In an official statement, GoFundMe cites “evidence from law enforcement that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity,” which violates the platform’s promotion of violence and harassment clause in their terms of services. The remaining million was transferred to two TD Bank accounts—though it remains unclear who they belong to—where the funds were once again frozen. A member of the team leading the Honkhonkhodl campaign claims the funds have since been recovered with legal effort. Keith Wilson, a lawyer for the convoy, is seeking a court order for the release of those funds and says that a non-profit organization has been set up to manage them. 

Following the denial of service from GoFundMe, donors turned to the Christian crowdfunding service GiveSendGo. While the funds remained secure on this service, TechCrunch received a tip regarding “a security lapse that exposed passports and driver licenses of donors.” 

Honkhonkhodl organizers responded to the GoFundMe service denial and GiveSendGo data lapse by setting up a bitcoin fundraiser on the site Tallyco.in, a crowdfunding site that only accepts Bitcoin, where nearly $1 million dollars (21 bitcoins) have been raised to date. When explaining the choice to use Bitcoin for donations, one of the lead organizers, who goes by the pseudonym Nobody Caribou, wrote, “It’s a global financial network that is un-censorable, permissionless and when you custody it properly it’s un-confiscatable… these are the three primary variables that are most relevant for us right now, based on the challenges that we face so far.” The team leading this fundraiser campaign are on-the-ground at the Ottawa protest helping truckers download Bitcoin wallets so that funds can be distributed to them individually. 

Each of these campaigns demonstrates how cryptocurrency is increasingly being used to support a variety of initiatives that call for censorship-resistant donations. A common thread of freedom of speech and financial freedom weave these two examples together, despite the specific organizing structures afforded by each blockchain and the transparency of the teams leading the efforts. For AssangeDAO, there very well may have been a higher premium on the team and artist staying pseudonymous given the political controversies  surrounding Assange’s case. 

While a fundraiser could have very well been organized for Assange using Bitcoin, there’s little doubt that it would have raised as much money as the NFT auction. Although, the disorganization and misleading nature of the AssangeDAO should give us pause when it comes to celebrating it as a triumph of decentralized organization. Much of the press that has come out about this story has missed the confusion and dissatisfaction of the organization’s members behind the scenes. Honkhonkhodl, on the other hand, is demonstrating how an aboveboard approach can successfully be used to securely collect and distribute funds to protesters on the ground, albeit for a very different type of cause. 

Maximilian Brichta
Maximilian Brichta

Maximilian Brichta is a Doctoral student of Communication at the University of Southern California that writes about the participatory culture and politics of cryptocurrency. 

14 comments

  1. I would like to say THANK YOU for writing this piece in a fairly neutral tone. I enjoyed reading it, and appreciated that both of the stories without the usual rage-rhetoric messaging that comes with either example.
    Well done.

  2. Yawn. So, one foot sea level rise by 2050, amazing amounts of crop failures, no water, water wars, DARPA genocides, more war war war, land theft, multiple chonic illnesses/co-morbities for the globe, diabetes will destroy you (sugar drinks), and then heart disease through pollution, and, well, you know, the list is big, yet, we get this crap about the rich and NFT’s and crypto enslavement.

    Bizarre. read:

    Diego — https://siliconicarus.org/author/raul-diego/

    &

    https://wrenchinthegears.com/2022/01/23/fin-tech-digital-identity-and-e-government-in-brazil/

    The Metaverse will run on blockchain, and it must be coded into reality. As I see it, those at the top intend to get low-income Black and Brown youth do much of that work – either through unwaged or low-wage labor. They will likely also coerce youth into self-financing the training to earn the right to do that work, creating new debt products like ISAs (income share agreements) and Career Impact Bonds to further enrich the puppet masters.

    The World Bank is a research partner on “Program Your Future,” a training initiative for “opportunity youth” run out of a community sports center, Vila Olimpica Clares Nunes. They will document the model to create a base of evidence demonstrating “positive social outcomes,” so the low-cost training program can be brought to scale. Similar types of programs cultivating this demographic are cropping up around the world, like a gamified phone-based employment app targeting vulnerable Arizona children as young as sixteen with digital nudges. The app scheduled for roll out in 2022 is being created by students at Arizona State University’s Smart City Innovation Center in collaboration with Amazon Web Services and client St. Joseph The Worker’s Mission in Phoenix.

    I predict app-based gig employment will ultimately be melded with online “lifelong learning” modules, since ASU is deeply involved in blockchain credentials and is rapidly moving forward with the dream of Michael Crow, ASU president and founding board chair of In-Q-Tel, to create a billion-person university. The Koch Foundation has been pouring money into expanding the school’s “trusted learner” network with “customized” learner journeys and mastery transcripts, all of which I expect will circle back around to data-mining to feed machine learning systems as we pressure the coming generations to remake the natural world as a militarized, synthetic counterfeit. The Center for Games and Impact at the university, which maintains close institutional ties with US defense interests, has developed a micro-credential-based “lifelong learning platform” called Thrivecast.

    The 120 participants in that World Bank program in Rio get weekly classes in basic programming along with financial literacy instruction. This latter part is important, because based on what I am seeing in blockchain media, there are organizations planning to set up social impact markets around finclusion, or financial inclusion (we’ve got you on blockchain). I suspect savings rates in digital accounts are going to end up being an impact metric for human capital investors. In a May 2020 blog post, MakerDAO signaled that is was wading into the social impact space, “Doing Well By Doing Good,” noting the importance of DAI savings rates and highlighting its participation in a FIFA-affiliated e-sports charity event. Viewers of the online competition, which aired on Twitch, were encouraged to donate DAI in support of Red Cross Covid-19 relief. In this one event we see the melding of soccer, gaming, digital media, crypto currency, social impact, public health, and the reach of NGOs with the youth of the Global South smack in the center.

    If students pass a proficiency exam at the end of the main course, they qualify for a higher-level option to begin to learn blockchain technology. Partners include the Brazilian Securities and Exchange Commission; Banco Mare, a fin-tech banking alternative advancing social impact investing in the favelas; the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; Centro de Intergracao Empresa-Escola, apprenticeship broker; and SICOOB, an organization of credit cooperatives. Support for the blockchain portion of the program comes from MakerDAO.

    1. Bloody shame … I see crypto as emblematic of the “Metaverse” – all imaginary, all fake …
      The Emperor’s New Clothes come to “life” ..

    2. Sure Paul… Yawn about the thing (legal sanction of privacy as a fundamental human right) that would defend against the dystopia you read about in your autocracy porn rags.

      I work in tech, including crypto… to suggest that any application of it is a foregone conclusion and not something that anyone living today can actively participate would be ridiculous, if not for people you you citing it > biasing people against the tech who could otherwise learn it and effect a different outcome.

      The state of blockchain at this very moment is much like the internet in the early nineties. Which is to say its an extremely free space. The power of decentralized tech to thwart hegemonic power structures is exactly why we need to embrace it, and also why monied interests are rushing deathstar it by creating financial and (soon) regulatory hurdles. That process will be faster than internet 1.0, but it’s far from complete. There is plenty of opportunity ,as this article rightly calls out.

      But sure, let’s listen to a people who will tell you what you want to hear (it’s all bad bad bad) and cite no evidence for their wild conclusions other than corporate brochures…. the naivety is staggering.

      1. While I have no expertise in this arena, I don’t see where you refuted the points that Paul made.
        I’m open to multiple points of view.
        As of now, Paul’s comment is more compelling than the one that you offered.
        But, again, I will keep an open mind, and wait for additional information.
        Have a wonderful day.

  3. Remember the Colonial Pipeline ransom ware attack? They were paid with 75 Bitcoins. The FBI recovered 63.7 Bitcoins. The FBI said it used a personal key code for recovery. They didn’t disclose where they got it or whose key code it was. Seems to me that Bitcoin and probably other cryptocurrencies are not as secure as advertised. A well referenced explanation would be appreciated.

    1. The strength and weakness of crypto is blockchain’s distributed ledger. It means any transaction happening on the blockchain is publicly discoverable. They don’t reveal their methods, but people seem to continuously cite the ability of agencies to trace crypto transactions as evidence of its lack of security.

      Far from the case… it’s likely more a measure how how effective the data gathering operations of intelligence agencies have become. As with anything else, the strength of protection comes down to the individual users’ practices in securing their personal keys. The only foolproof way to secure a wallet is to only keep your personal code in written form AND any time you use it, ensure that you are transacting on a secure platform with anonymized IP and encrypted channels. In all likelihood, the Feds backed into keys by tracing sloppy transactions of the recipients–i.e. downloading the digital dossiers of the perpetrators.

  4. OT a bit, but why should our government spend a dime policing fake money
    let it go – crazy

  5. Purchase a Paul Klee as an NFT while not having seen a single Klee painting.
    But you own “it,” right?
    Immaterial materialism!
    It had to happen.

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