How Julian Assange And WikiLeaks Changed Journalism

WikiLeaks founder arrested by the Metropolitan Police on April 11
WikiLeaks founder arrested by the Metropolitan Police on April 11
Margaret Sullivan


For press-freedom advocates, Julian Assange has long been a polarizing figure. And his arrest Thursday in London once again ignited the seemingly endless debate:

Is the WikiLeaks founder, who until Thursday had been holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London for years, essentially a publisher — though a notably strange one — who believes in taking radical steps to expose government secrets, and who thus should be afforded the same First Amendment protections given to news organizations? Or is he a reckless traitor — and by no means a journalist — who deserves no such consideration and who should be prosecuted without worrying about free-press concerns.

The nature of the charge from the U.S. government will make a difference.

Assange is being charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, with the government saying that he conspired with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning — and that he helped Manning crack a classified Defense Department password. He is not, notably, being charged under the Espionage Act, which has been used in recent years to go after journalists and their sources. Manning was imprisoned for seven years, in part for being found guilty of violating that act.

There's a substantial gray area here. And a troubling one.

The question hinges on this: Did Assange cross a crucial line by allegedly encouraging the password hack — a line that no legitimate journalist would, or should, cross? Assange's attorney certainly doesn't think so.

The charges, Barry Pollack said, "boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source." And some journalists were quick to agree. The prominent First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said Thursday that he hadn't made up his mind fully on the case but that one thing relieved him. The indictment is narrow in scope, not based on what journalists do all the time: receive and publish classified information, he told CNN.

What Assange is accused of — breaking into secure government computers — "is fortunately not commonplace journalistic conduct."

Still, there's a substantial gray area here. And a troubling one.

"The indictment discusses journalistic practices in the context of a criminal conspiracy: using encryption, making efforts to protect a source's identity, and source cultivation," said University of Georgia media law professor Jonathan Peters.

Those practices, he told me, are not only routine and lawful, "they're best practices for journalists." In fact, WikiLeaks and Assange — and certainly Edward Snowden's 2013 leak of vast amounts of government information, bringing widespread government surveillance to light — have helped to usher in a new era for journalists.

Pro-Assange protest in New York on Paril 11 — Photo: William Volcov/ZUMA

News organizations now provide secure drop boxes for sources. They wisely use encryption applications such as Signal to converse with, and receive information from, sources.

That these practices are cast as part of the conspiracy "should worry all journalists, whether or not Assange himself is seen as a journalist," Peters said. What is distinct, though, is the conspiracy to break the password on a secure network.

"That would distinguish Assange in practice from traditional journalists."

That Assange is such a strange and, to many, unsympathetic character may enter too much into the debate. He's hard to defend. "When governments are trying to restrict press rights of any kind, the inclination is not to go after the most popular kid in the room — it's to go after the least popular," Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told me last year.

Before we turn our backs on Assange, we ought to think deeply about what's at stake.

What WikiLeaks has consistently done, Timm said, "is publish information that is true and that the government considers secret." Recall the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War, which Daniel Ellsberg nearly 50 years ago stole from the Pentagon and delivered to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Even before the attempt to crack the password, Manning had given WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified records, prosecutors said. The material allegedly included four nearly complete databases, comprising 90,000 reports from the Afghanistan war, 400,000 reports from the Iraq War and 250,000 State Department cables, The Post reported Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union's director, Ben Wizner, remains firmly in Assange's corner. Prosecuting him "would be unprecedented and unconstitutional and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations."

I'm inclined to agree.

Yes, Assange crossed a line if he indeed conspired with his source to break a secure government password. But the risks to news organizations of prosecuting him remain very real. Before we turn our backs on Assange, we ought to think deeply about what's at stake. Casting him to the wolves as nothing but a narcissistic bad actor — "not like us," of course — may seem tempting. But organizations that aren't so very different in their aims may suffer the consequences.

The gray area here is bigger than it looks — and so are the dangers to traditional journalism and the public interest.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!