Crowd Funding the Right to Know

"A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know." -- Judge Murray Gurfein, Pentagon Papers case, June 17, 1971

In December 2010, WikiLeaks started publishing a selection of leaked U.S. State Department cables through the New York Times, the Guardian, and other traditional media, opening a deep crack in the thickening wall of secrecy that has been forming worldwide around the internal processes of democracy since 9/11. They helped catalyze the "Arab Spring." They struck a blow for the right of citizens everywhere to know what is being done in our names. And they thoroughly freaked out the U.S. Government, sending it into a security spasm of Cold War proportions.

It reminded us strongly of another era, when one of us, Daniel Ellsberg, was called "the most dangerous man in America" by the White House and prosecuted for revealing to the American people what was really going on in Vietnam. Efforts to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers ended when the Supreme Court declared that the government cannot censor the media from publishing truthful information in the public interest, even if it's classified.

Thus, had the government tried to stop WikiLeaks in court, they would have failed. But they didn't have to. Instead, two individuals, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Peter King simply took it upon themselves to defund the truth. They successfully pressured Visa, Mastercard, Bank of America, and PayPal to stop processing donations to WikiLeaks, costing it 95 percent of its funding overnight.

When the private financial embargo was imposed on WikiLeaks, it was an act of censorship on them and on everyone who wanted to support their work. But against this extrajudicial sanction, there was no avenue of appeal. Even though Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced that there were no legal grounds to blacklist WikiLeaks, that didn't matter. Amazon, Visa, Mastercard, Bank of America, and PayPal are private corporations. They can do as they please. The closest thing they have to a Bill of Rights is a terms of service agreement no one reads.

While the Internet has broadly enabled those who would increase institutional transparency and accountability, responsible revelation requires more than the ability to dump documents online. Editorial processes are required to separate signal from noise and to expose the guilty without endangering the innocent. It takes actual journalism and actual journalism takes money.

We believe that not only does WikiLeaks need to survive, it must be joined by an array of others like it, edited transparency media that have so far failed to emerge, self-censoring victims of the chilling effects of the WikiLeaks blockade. Moreover, the watchdogs that do exist struggle for backers as brave as they are. The old media fear the fears of their advertisers. The new ones often depend on a few large foundations or donors, who, being from the elite themselves, may hesitate to part its curtains.

The answer, we believe, is to crowd-fund transparency, making it easy and relatively anonymous for the public to support the best watchdogs in one place, setting up a kind of United Way for the Truth.

To that end, a group of us that also includes Glenn Greenwald, Xeni Jardin, John Cusack, and Laura Poitras are launching The Freedom of the Press Foundation. Our goal is to collect deductible donations for a changing suite of scrappy public-interest organizations -- both new and existing -- focused on exposing mismanagement, cruelty, corruption, repression, and criminality in our increasingly opaque institutions.

Our first bundle of beneficiaries -- in addition to the still-beleaguered WikiLeaks -- will include MuckRock News, which streamlines Freedom of Information Act requests so that ordinary people can file them easily, The National Security Archive, which has been prying open the black boxes of classified information for years, and The UpTake, a combative Midwestern collective of citizen journalists focused on bringing transparency to state and local governments.

We hope our financial support and technical assistance will inspire a host of other edited and secure conduits for anonymously-provided documents that the citizens whose lives and liberties they impact have a natural right to see.

These channels are needed more than ever. In 2011, the U.S. Government classified over 92 million documents, four times more than were classified under George Bush in 2008. Moreover, President Obama's Justice Department has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all the previous administrations combined.

When a government becomes invisible, it becomes unaccountable. To expose its lies, errors, and illegal acts is not treason, it is a moral responsibility. Leaks become the lifeblood of the Republic.

Whatever one's opinion of WikiLeaks, every American should be offended that two elected officials, merely by putting pressure on corporations, could financially strangle necessary expression without ever going to court. What happened to WikiLeaks is completely unacceptable in a democracy that values free speech and due process.

We intend to assure that it can't happen again.