Throwback Stories #8: Funding WikiLeaks

Dominik Olech
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The beginning of Bitcoin’s history is poorly known among the crypto community. And no wonder, since this project was far different from what we know now. However, they are essential for a better understanding of the nature of this project.

Previous Throwback Stories was dedicated to a very special person among the people in the cryptocurrency industry. Hal Finney was devoted to developing a decentralized currency, free from government influence. However, not everything went exactly as he had planned. 

Humble beginnings 

Bitcoin is currently mostly known for being an investment target. People deliberate about its price and treat it just like any other asset on the stock exchange. It appears that many have forgotten that Satoshi developed the first cryptocurrency as a real payment measure. And during its initial years, Bitcoin’s community strongly believe in that idea. 

Back then, the number of supporters was still relatively small, but they all were dedicated to the development of the new currency. Discussions about Bitcoin’s role in the modern economy were conducted on the Bitcointalk forum. People like Satoshi Nakamoto and Hal Finney debate there with other initial contributors about possible usages of still very young cryptocurrency.

During this period, Bitcoin wasn’t known for the broader audience yet, and people were still looking for ideas where it could be implemented. One particular discussion is especially worth to be mentioned here. In this thread, one of the forum’s members proposed the idea of using Bitcoin to support the project WikiLeaks. It is now forgotten, but it could be more influential in the growing industry than we may think. 

But why this thread was so important? Let me only mention that Satoshi wrote there that cooperating with WikiLeaks would likely destroy Bitcoin. And it was one of his last messages, about a week before his disappearance. Interested?

Notorious troublemaker

But before we get to the point, it’s worth to stop for a moment at the WikiLeaks topic. This infamous whistleblower attracted much attention a few years ago. For those not familiar with it: WikiLeaks is a non-profit organization, which specializes in publishing leaked and classified information provided by anonymous sources. During 13 years of activity, it disclosed many confidential data on the governmental level. 

Most known leaks concerned, for example, Iraq War and Afghan War documentations and information, which included footage of American airstrike in Baghdad. The leaked video showed a US attack during the Iraqi insurgency, which concluded in several civilian casualties. On the other hand, WikiLeaks is also being accused of sympathizing with Russia and interfering in the 2016 United States elections. 

I’m not here to judge, so better focus on the whistleblower relation with Bitcoin. Publishing classified information drew international backlash on WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. The website became a common enemy for intelligence services. This ended with cut off from funding via conventional payment conductors like Visa, MasterCard, or PayPal. And that’s where our first cryptocurrency came in. 

Bitcoin: anarchistic despoiler?

The idea, which was proposed in the thread mentioned above, met both positive and negative feedback. Some of the Bitcointalk members enjoyed the support toward the WikiLeaks, sympathizing with its ideas of free speech and striking in the American government. Others were afraid of the potential outcomes. They believed that Bitcoin would be publicly associated with illegal activity, and perceived as a danger by governments. 

Both Hal Finney and Satoshi Nakamoto expressed such concerns. Finney noticed that associating with WikiLeaks would be fatal for money changers (it was hard to call them “traders” yet), and without them, Bitcoin would go “back to being play money.” Satoshi paid attention to the necessity of gradual building of the project’s structure. He described it as a “small beta community in its infancy,” and he was afraid that cooperation with WikiLeaks would only bring troubles.

The discussion eventually came to a standstill. In the meantime, Satoshi Nakamoto mysteriously disappeared, and he informally handed the project over to Gavin Andresen. Soon, the interests in Bitcoin growth significantly, both in the context of value and black market usage like Silk Road. Eventually, Bitcoin became a payment option for WikiLeaks on June 14, 2011. 

First contact

Thanks to the new funding channel, the website managed to survive, and it’s still active (whether we want it or not) until today. What’s essential for us too, Bitcoin is also doing quite well. Apparently, Satoshi’s apocalyptic visions did not come true, and both projects help each other. However, the importance of the relation between Bitcoin and WikiLeaks might be much more crucial than we thought. It was the first time when the community of Satoshi’s project gets clashed with the American government.

At this moment, it’s good to mention a lesser-known fact from those initial years. Gavin Andresen, who has later founded the Bitcoin Foundation, was invited by the CIA to talk about the project and community with American intelligence. He wrote about it openly on Bitcointalk, to avoid any conspiracy theories. However, exact details about the meeting are known, so we can only guess what Andresen has told the CIA. 

There’s also the case of Satoshi’s last message, which was quite enigmatic: 

“It would have been nice to get this attention in any other context. WikiLeaks has kicked the hornet’s nest, and the swarm is headed towards us.”

It might be a coincidence as well, but the fact that Bitcoin’s creator left his project with such unclear words is very interesting. He was afraid that WikiLeaks would bring unwanted attention to the growing community, and prevent it from development according to his vision. 

Natural symbiosis?

Nevertheless, since the turn of 2010 and 2011, Bitcoin became better known for the broader audience. However, it wasn’t always the right kind of popularity. The first cryptocurrency became associated with anarchistic and illegal groups. Many people saw Bitcoin’s supporters not as visionaries who want to change the world but as a group of suspicious hackers. 

Now we may only guess how the Bitcoin history would develop if WikiLeaks didn’t need help from the first crypto. Maybe more time for growth would make it an actual payment measure, less popular, but more functional? Or perhaps the clash with authorities was inevitable, given the decentralized nature of the blockchain technology. After all, both Bitcoin and WikiLeaks grow up on similar ideas. One thing is for sure. We should be glad that Satoshi’s project survives, despite his pessimistic attitude.

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