Assange’s NFT watch sale is riding a wave of DAO crowdfunding

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A group supporting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Wednesday raised more than $50 million in ether cryptocurrency by selling an NFT of a watch to a blockchain-based activist collective formed to support his legal bills.

The non-fungible token, titled Clock, is a joint creation of Assange and digital artist Pak. It shows a digital counter of the days Assange has been behind bars in London’s Belmarsh Prison, where he awaits extradition to the US.

Assange plans to appeal a British court decision to extradite him to the US to face multiple espionage allegations stemming from WikiLeaks’ release of confidential files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If found guilty, he faces up to 175 years in prison. Pak said the proceeds from the NFT watch sale go to the activist collective called AssangeDAO, goes to the Wau Holland Foundation in Hamburga non-profit organization that accepts donations for Assange’s legal defense.

The WikiLeaks founder is the latest controversial figure to benefit from a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) created in support of his cause, bypassing traditional fundraising sites and associated scrutiny.

Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton, who helped found the DAO, says he has been going to cryptocurrency conferences for years hoping to garner support from a crowd whose goals he says are “completely aligned with Julian’s philosophy.” After all, Assange was an influential creator of encryption technology and a member of the Cypherpunks mailing list, which discussed the building blocks of cryptocurrency. His brainchild, WikiLeaks, was one of the first high-profile organizations to accept Bitcoin donations in 2011 after being blacklisted by payment processors in 2010. But Shipton’s efforts didn’t 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 known by the names McKenna and Fiskantes.

The group began 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 formed the same month to support Ross Ulbricht, creator of the dark web drug marketplace Silk Road, who is serving a double life sentence in an Arizona federal prison. FreeRossDAO raised $12 million, of which $6.2 million was spent on NFTs Ulbricht created. Proceeds went to Ulbricht’s legal and public relations expenses and to charities of his choosing. “FreeRoss happened, and it was a big hit — it gave us a clue” of what to do, says Taaki.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden raised $5.4 million in April 2021 by selling an NFT with his own face, stemming from a US appeals court decision. So AssangeDAO agreed to a simple mission: collect as much crypto as possible and funnel it into Pak and Assange’s NFT auction to either secure the NFT clock or at least raise its price floor.

On Feb. 3, the group began accepting Ether donations on crypto crowdfunding platform Juicebox, eventually raising around $52 million. In return for their contributions, all donors received cryptocurrency $JUSTICE tokens, giving holders a voice on how AssangeDAO’s resources are used. This 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 the AssangeDAO was the perfect way for cypherpunks to rally to “liberate the original cypherpunk: Assange.”

Leading up to the auction, the group debated whether to bid less on the project and set aside the cryptocurrency for other Assange-focused projects, but in the end they went all out: AssangeDAO’s winning bid – 16,593 ETH – was $40 million higher than the second-highest bid, from the CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Kraken.

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