The dramatic appearance of Edward Snowden on the world stage has proven only a temporary boost to WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy website. Donations to WikiLeaks surged after it offered financial support to Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who revealed secrets about U.S. surveillance practices. Contributions since have slid, according to the Hamburg-based Wau Holland Foundation, the main collector of funds for WikiLeaks.
Donations surged to €1,000 ($1,285) a day after Snowden stepped forward as the source of June newspaper reports about U.S. phone and Internet surveillance, according to Bernd Fix, a spokesman for Wau Holland. Daily contributions have since dropped to about €100. Although that’s about three times the donation rate before Snowden, it’s unlikely to put WikiLeaks in the black after two years of deficits, Fix said in an e-mail.
The group has slashed expenses as contributions have dropped off, says Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks in Reykjavik: “I’m fairly optimistic we’ll be able to raise enough funds to continue our work.” The group, which published diplomatic and military documents obtained by U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning in 2010, put a chartered airplane on standby after Snowden surfaced in Hong Kong and acknowledged providing sensitive documents to the media.
Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, a WikiLeaks representative who arranged the charter, says it was made possible through outside funds from “friends,” though Snowden eventually made it to Moscow on a regular Aeroflot flight. WikiLeaks “did have a hand in financing” the flight to Moscow, says Hrafnsson, declining to specify the cost. Sigurvinsson says there are currently no plans to transport Snowden from the international transit area of Moscow’s airport, where he’s seeking asylum in other countries. The U.S. government has filed espionage and theft charges against Snowden and suspended his passport.
WikiLeaks has struggled to secure adequate financing and stay relevant since founder Julian Assange holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden. The group also lost more than $50 million of potential donations after Visa Europe (V), MasterCard (MA), and American Express (AXP) stopped payments to WikiLeaks in 2010, according to Assange. Rebecca Kaufman, a spokeswoman at MasterCard, and Jennifer Doidge, a spokeswoman for Visa, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Visa and MasterCard, along with PayPal (EBAY), Bank of America (BAC), and Western Union (WU), had suspended processing payments for WikiLeaks when the site published classified documents leaked by Manning, who’s on trial. The blockade was lifted this year following a court battle by Reykjavik-based DataCell, which processes WikiLeaks donations.
“The most serious aspect of the banking blockade is that it stripped us of the ability to expand and carry out the projects we had in mind,” Hrafnsson says. The group last year spent almost €400,000 after receiving just €69,000 in donations, according to the Wau Holland Foundation’s annual report. WikiLeak’s funding comes “mostly from Wau Holland,” Hrafnsson says.
Wau Holland was set up in memory of Herwart “Wau” Holland-Moritz, who co-founded the Chaos Computer Club, a hackers’ association, in 1981 and died in 2001. The foundation’s aim is to “promote and pursue his unique freethinking in relation to freedom of communication and informational self-determination,” according to its website. In its annual report, Wau Holland said it collected €1.5 million for WikiLeaks from 2010 to 2012. Collections fell to €69,000 in 2012. “Development of donations over the past two years has declined substantially and is no longer able to provide the earlier levels of support for the project,” the report said.
Hrafnsson declines to comment on how much funding WikiLeaks needs to keep up its operations, which require powerful computers and large amounts of data storage. He also says he doesn’t have an immediate overview of incoming cash. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of donors, giving an average of €20 to €30,” he says. “The highest donation was €1,200.”