• This article has been adapted from a conversation that took place during a secret five-hour meeting between WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, under house arrest in rural UK at the time, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The following individuals were also in attendance: Jared Cohen, former member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton; Scott Malcomson, former director of speechwriting for Ambassador Susan Rice at the U.S. State Department and current Communications Director at the International Crisis Group; and Lisa Shields, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Schmidt and Cohen requested the meeting, they said, to discuss ideas for their new book The New Digital Age, published in April of 2013. This is part one of a series that will explore and expose the nature of media, publishing, the internet, political power and the people who are really being protected by government classified materials vs. open communications. These courageous whistleblowers are committed to getting the truth out without either propaganda or spin, by releasing hidden source documents for citizens to read and consider. Much of what WikiLeaks releases is material that has been intentionally denied from public view. The conversation gets more interesting as you follow the threads. Please honour these individuals by visiting their website at wikileaks.org and reading the source material firsthand.
I wanted there to be more just acts and fewer unjust acts. And one can sort of say, well what are your philosophical axioms for this? And I say I do not need to consider them. This is simply my temperament. And it is an axiom because it is that way. And so that avoids, then, getting into further unhelpful discussions about why you want to do something. It is enough that I do. So in considering how unjust acts are caused and what tends to promote them and what promotes just acts I saw that human beings are basically invariant. That is, that their inclinations and biological temperament haven’t changed much over thousands of years and so therefore the only playing field left is what do they have? And what do they know? And “have” is something that is fairly hard to influence so that is what resources do they have at their disposal? And how much energy they can harness and what are the supplies and so on?
But what they know can be affected in a nonlinear way because when one person conveys information to another they can convey on to another and another and so on in a way that [is] nonlinear and so you can affect a lot of people with a small amount of information. And therefore you can change the behaviour of many people with a small amount of information. So the question then arises as to what kinds of information will produce behaviour which is just? And disincentivize behaviour which is unjust? So all around the world there are people observing different parts of what is happening to them locally. And there are other people that are receiving information that they haven’t observed first hand. And in the middle there are people who are involved in moving information from the observers to the people who will act on information. These are three separate problems that are all coupled together. I felt that there was a difficulty in taking observations and putting them in an efficient way into a distribution system which could then get this information to people who could act upon it. And so you can argue that companies like Google are involved, for example, in this “middle” business of taking… of moving information from people who have it to people who want it. The problem I saw was that this first step was crippled. And often the last step as well when it came to information that governments were inclined to censor.
We can look at this whole process as the Fourth Estate. Or just as produced by the Fourth Estate. And so you have some kind of… pipeline… So I have this description which is… partly derived from my experiences in quantum mechanics about looking at the flow of particular types of information which will effect some change in the end. The bottleneck to me appeared to me to be primarily in the acquisition of information that would go on to produce changes that were just. In a Fourth Estate context the people who acquire information are sources. People who work information and distribute it are journalists and publishers. And people who act on it… is everyone. So that’s a high level construct, but of course it then comes down to practically how do you engineer a system that solves that problem? And not just a technical system, but a total system. So WikiLeaks was and is an attempt – although still very young – at a total system.
… Not for all three phases, but for the political component, the philosophical component and the engineering component in pushing out [the] first component… Technically, that means anonymizing and protecting sources in a wide variety of ways. Politically, that also means protecting them politically and incentivizing them in a political manner. Saying that their work is valuable and encouraging people to take it up. And then there is also a legal aspect. What are the best laws that can be created in the best jurisdictions to operate this sort of stuff from? And practical everyday legal defense. On the technical front, our first prototype was engineered for a very adverse situation where publishing would be extremely difficult and our only effective defense in publishing would be anonymity. Where sourcing is difficult. As it still currently is for the national security sector. And where internally we had a very small and completely trusted team.
Making the primary source material public is what I mean by publishing. It was clear to me that all over the world publishing is a problem… Whether that is through self-censorship or overt censorship.
It’s mostly self-censorship. In fact, I would say it’s probably the most significant one, historically, has been economic censorship. Where it is simply not profitable to publish something. There is no market for it. I describe [it] as a censorship pyramid. It’s quite interesting. So on the top of the pyramid there are the murders of journalists and publishers. And the next level there is political attacks on journalists and publishers. So you think, what is a legal attack? A legal attack is simply a delayed use of coercive force.
Which doesn’t necessarily result in murder but may result in incarceration or asset seizure. So the next level down, and remember the volume…of the pyramid! The volume of the pyramid increases significantly as you go down from the peak. And in this example that means that the number of acts of censorship also increases as you go down. So there are very few people who are murdered, there are a few people who suffer legal…there [are] a few…public legal attacks on individuals and corporations and then at the next level there is a tremendous amount of self-censorship and this self-censorship occurs in part because people don’t want to move up into the upper parts of the pyramid. They don’t want to come to legal attacks or uses of coercive force. But they also don’t want to be killed.
So that discourages people… and then there are other forms of self-censorship that are concerned about missing out on business deals, missing out on promotions and those are even more significant because they are lower down the pyramid. At the very bottom – which is the largest volume – is all those people who cannot read, do not have access to print, do not have access to fast communications or where there is no profitable industry in providing that. Okay. So we decided to deal with the top of this censorship pyramid. The top two sections: the threats of violence, and the delayed threats of violence that are represented by the legal system. In some ways, that is the hardest case. In some ways, it is the easiest case. It is the easiest case because it is clearcut when things are being censored there, or not. It is also the easiest because the volume of censorship is relatively small even if the per event significance is very high…
Although of course I had some previous political connections of my own from other activities, we didn’t have that many friends. We didn’t have significant political allies. And we didn’t have a worldwide audience that was looking to see how we were doing. So we took the position that we would need to have a publishing system whose only defense was anonymity. That is, it had no financial defense, it had no legal defense and it had no political defense. Its defenses were purely technical. So that meant a system that was distributed at its front with many domain names and a fast ability to change those domain names. A caching system, and at the back tunnelling through the Tor network to hidden servers…
How WikiLeaks did it
We had sacrificial front nodes that were very fast to set up, very quick to set up, that we nonetheless did place in relatively hospitable jurisdictions like Sweden. And those fast front nodes were fast because there was… very few hops between them and the people reading them. That’s… an important lesson that I had learned from things that I did before, that being a Sherman tank is not always an advantage, because you are not manoeuvrable and you are slow. A lot of the protection for publishers is publishing quickly. You get the information out quickly; it is very well read [and] the incentive for people to go after you in relation to that specific piece of information is actually zero. There may be incentives for them to go after you to teach a lesson to other people who might defy their authority or teach a future lesson to your organization about defiance of authority.
photo © Thomas Dutour