When US servicemen Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 counts in connection with leaking classified military information, experts mused that bitcoin was instrumental in the continuing operation of WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website that he helped.

In a panel at the Inside Bitcoins conference last week, several free speech and journalism experts debated the role that the virtual currency has in maintaining First Amendment rights.

Michael Terpin, co-founder of bitcoin-friendly venture capital organization BitAngels, drew a correlation between free speech and the right to spend. “These are all related rights,” he said.

The US government engaged in extra-legal activities against WikiLeaks by attempting to throttle its payment system instead of suing the site itself in court, said experts. First Amendment rights to free speech would make it a tough legal battle to prosecute WikiLeaks legally. However, government officials were able to target financial organizations such as Visa and PayPal, getting them to stop processing donations for the site.

“The Pentagon papers case said that the government cannot censor newspapers. If the government decided to go to court to stop WikiLeaks, they’d be laughed out of there by the judge,” said Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “They decided that there are always intermediaries holding an extraordinary amount of power, and began targeting the intermediaries individually.”

95% of the donations available to WikiLeaks were stopped, even as the whistleblowing site was incurring huge costs to fend off DDoS attacks, he said.

Stephanie Murphy, a presenter on the Let’s Talk Bitcoin! radio show, said that bitcoin has been a useful tool for people spooked by FBI surveillance of controversial websites. “A few people have told me that they got into bitcoin because they wanted to donate to WikiLeaks but were scared to do it publicly,” she said. “There’s a climate of fear now, because the government can extra-legally cause you to struggle financially.”

Timm also highlighted the importance that technologies like Bitmessage – the anonymous, encrypted messaging service built on the Bitcoin protocol – have in maintaining a free press. It eliminates the need for a third-party arbitrator when sending messages, enabling a zero-trust messaging system. It also hides the metadata surrounding such conversations, he added. Monitoring of metadata has been a key issue in the recent NSA snooping case, itself uncovered by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“The government often doesn’t have censorship power, but the companies have huge power. They alone have the power to decide what gets posted on their sites, and that really goes to the heart of why bitcoin is so important,” Timm concluded.

“What happened to WikiLeaks happened to other organizations. He added that the spectre of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was a good example of a threat to free speech online. The legislation would have forced ISPs to block websites believed to have infringed on copyright, even if that infringement was based on a single piece of user-generated content. Search engines and other websites would have been forced to erase links to blacklisted addresses.

SOPA was effectively killed in Congress, but there is always a danger that a similar bill could re-emerge, causing widespread disruption in the online publishing business. “Hopefully, bitcoin can act as a backstop against that,” he said.

Bradley Manning was indeed found guilty on various counts of espionage and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act last week. He is now awaiting sentencing, and could face over 130 years in jail.

Here’s the full audio of the talk, provided by Let’s Talk Bitcoin.

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