'When Google Met WikiLeaks': An Exclusive Excerpt
Editor’s note: WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, who has been in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, was under house arrest at a British estate in 2011 when he received a special visitor: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. Now Assange has a new book out, “When Google Met WikiLeaks,” that in part is about the meeting.
Below is one of the chapters, “Censorship Is Always Cause for Celebration,” reprinted here with the permission of OR Books, publisher of the book, which is available exclusively from OR Books and is copyrighted by Julian Assange. The chapter consists of the transcript of a conversation among Assange, Schmidt and three associates of Schmidt’s — Scott Malcomson, a book editor, writer and onetime member of the U.S. Department of State; Jared Cohen, a Google executive and a former member of the State Department; and Lisa Shields, a vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Click here to see an open letter to Google from Truthdig Publisher Zuade Kaufman concerning censorship.
Readers may purchase the book for 20 percent off if they enter the code TRUTHDIG at checkout. Click here to buy.
SM: I am just wondering, on the human side of this—you have such experience of the world that you described earlier. I had three hours’ sleep, so forgive me if I don’t remember exactly what you said, but the combination of technical and altruistic people, and what amounts to a kind of subculture that you’ve been involved in for some fifteen years now. So you know how that subculture works. And that subculture needs to either stay the same or expand in order to do the work that you are describing. And so, since our book is about ten years away—
JA: It has dramatically expanded.
SM: What are the patterns there in terms of the people part rather than the technical part?
JA: That’s the most optimistic thing that is happening—the radicalization of internet-educated youth. People who are receiving their values from the internet and then, as they find them to be compatible, echoing them back. The echo back is now so strong that it drowns the original statements completely.
The people that I’ve dealt with from the 1960s’ radicals who helped liberate Greece and fight Salazar in Portugal, they say that this moment in time is the most similar there has been to what happened in that period of liberation movements. 219 [See numbered footnotes at the end of the excerpt.]
SM: Do you see it scaling differently than it did in the sixties?
JA: I wasn’t alive in the 1960s, but as far as I can tell, in the West—because there are certain regions of the world I am unaware of—their statement is true. The political education of apolitical technical people is extraordinary. Young people are going from apolitical to political. It is a very, very interesting transition to see.
SM: This is your world. Why do you think that took place?
JA: Fast communication; critical mass of young people; newer generation; and then some catalyzing events. The attack on WikiLeaks was a catalyzing event, and our success in defending against this attack was a catalyzing event. Do you remember the PGP case, the grand jury with Zimmermann?220
ES: He had a lot of fun with that.
JA: I wrote half a book on that. It was never published, because my co-writer went and had children.
[LS spills water all over her note-taking laptop. JA quickly grabs her laptop and turns it upside down.]
LS: Oh no, ha-ha-ha-ha!
JC: Why do I feel that has happened before?
LS: That was really funny.
SM: So much for the historical record!
JA: As I said, multiple copies!
ES: Why don’t you save whatever you were doing?
SM: Get it into the name tree before everything goes wrong.
LS: Did you see how fast he was? It was like an impulse.
JC: Yeah, I almost feel like you were there before the computer even got water on it.
ES: Computers are important in our line of work.
LS: That was sweet, thank you. Go right ahead.
SM: But young people aren’t inherently good. And I say that as a father and with regret.
JA: Oh no, I think that actually . . . Well, I’ve read Lord of the Flies and I went to thirty different schools, so I’ve seen plenty of Lord of the Flies situations.221 But no, I think that the instincts human beings have are actually much better than the societies that we have.
ES: Than the governments, basically.
JA: I am not going to say governments. The whole structure of society. The economic structure. People learn that simple altruistic acts don’t pay off, and they see that some people who act in nonaltruistic ways end up getting Porsches, and it tends to pull them in that direction. I thought about this a while ago when I saw this fantastic video that came out of Stanford in 1971 on nuclear synthesis of DNA.222 Have you seen it?
JA: It’s on YouTube. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s explaining nuclear synthesis through interpretive dance. There are, like, 130 Stanford students out there in the middle of a sports field pretending to be DNA: a whole bunch pretending to be a ribosomal subunit, all wearing the hippy clothes of the day. But they were actually all very bright people. It was a very good bit of education; it is not that it was cool and unusual—rather it was extremely instructive, and before computer animation it was the best representation of how a ribosomal unit behaves. Could you see Stanford doing that now? Absolutely impossible. Stanford is far too conservative to do that now, even though it was extremely effective. You can bet that everyone who was in that dance remembers exactly how nuclear synthesis occurs, because they all had to remember their parts. And I remember it having seen it.
The period of peak earnings for the average wage in the United States was, what, 1977?223 Then certain things happened. Those people who were altruistic and not too concerned about finances and fiscalization simply lost power relative to those people who were more concerned about finances and fiscalization, who worked their way up in the system. Certain behaviors were disincentivized and others were potentiated. That is primarily, I believe, as a result of the technology that enables fiscalization. So, fast bank transfers, the IRS being able to account for lots of people—it sucks people into a very rigid fiscalized structure.224
You can have a lot of political “change” in the United States, but will it really change that much? Will it change the amount of money in someone’s bank account? Will it change contracts? Will it void contracts that already exist? And contracts on contracts? And contracts on contracts on contracts? Not really. So I say that free speech in many Western places is free not as a result of liberal circumstances but rather as a result of such intense fiscalization that it doesn’t matter what you say. The dominant elite doesn’t have to be scared of what people think, because a change in political view is not going to change whether they own their company or not; it is not going to change whether they own a piece of land or not. But China is still a political society, although it is rapidly heading toward a fiscalized society. And other societies, like Egypt, are still heavily politicized. Their rulers really do need to be concerned about what people think, so they expend proportionate efforts on controlling freedom of speech.
But I think young people actually innately have fairly good values. Of course it’s a spectrum, but they have fairly good values most of the time and they want to demonstrate them to other people, and you can see this when people first go to university. They become hardened as a result of certain things having a payoff and other things not having a payoff.SM: But let me tease out some of this. It sounds like you’ve got a view of the globe with certain societies where the impact of technology is relatively slight, certain societies where politically the impact of technology could be quite great, and certain societies where it would be a sort of middling way. And you would put China into, I guess, the middling category. Since our book is all about technology and social transformation ten years down the line, what’s the globe that you see given the structure you are describing?
JA: I am not sure about the impact on China. It is still a political society, so the impact could be very great. I often say that censorship is always cause for celebration. It is always an opportunity because it reveals fear of reform. It means that the power position is so weak that you have got to care what people think.
JC: That’s an interesting argument.
ES: This is a very interesting argument.
SM: It’s like you find the sensitive documents by watching them hunt.
JA: Exactly. So when the Chinese expend all this energy on censoring in novel ways, do we say that it is a complete waste of time and energy, or do they have a whole bunch of experience managing the country and understand that it matters what people think? I say it’s much more reasonable to interpret it as meaning that the different actors within China who are able to control that censorship system understand correctly that their power position is weak and they need to be careful what people think. So they have to censor.
SM: So the state is rational, at least in its repression.
JA: I’m always worried when talking about the state because it’s all individuals acting in their own perceived interest. This group or that group.
SM: Fair enough.
JA: Take the people who work as censors at the Ministry of Public Security in China. Why do they censor, and what do they censor first? I’ll tell you what they censor first—they censor the thing that someone in the Politburo might see! That’s what they censor first. They are not actually concerned about darknets.225
JC: Sorry, about?
JA: They are not concerned about darknets because their bosses can’t see what is on the darknet, and so they can’t be blamed for not censoring it.
We had this fantastic case here in the UK where we published a whole bunch of classified documents from the UK military. Then later on we did a preemptive FOI, which we do occasionally on various governments where we can.226 We did it on the UK Ministry of Defense to see whether they were doing some investigation in response, so we could better protect our sources. At first they did not give us the documents. We appealed, and got back a bunch. They showed that someone in the MoD had spotted that there was a whole lot of UK military documents on our website about their surveillance program, and another two-thousand-page leak from them about how to stop things leaking, which stated that the number one threat to the UK military was investigative journalists.227 So that had gone to some counterintelligence person, and they had said, “Oh my god, there are hundreds of pages, and it is about all sorts of countries and it just keeps going, it’s endless, it’s endless!!!!!” Five exclamation marks. That was the discovery phase; now the “what is to be done” phase. BT has the contracts for the MoD.228 They told BT to censor us from them. So everyone in the UK MoD could no longer read what was on WikiLeaks. Problem solved!
JA: Their generals and their bosses could no longer see that we had MoD stuff on WikiLeaks. Now there are no more complaints, and their problem is solved. Understandings like this might be quite advantageous to use in some of these systems. If you understand that bureaucratic structures always have this sort of thing going on, that means darknets are going to have a pretty easy time of it, until they are so big that they are not darknets anymore.
SM: That’s really, really interesting. You mentioned investigative journalism. You’ve had a lot of experience with journalism by now, in many different respects. How do you see the kind of freeing of information that you were describing earlier, as fitting into journalistic processes, if at all? Or is it replacing it?
JA: No, it is more how these journalistic processes fit into something that is much bigger. The much bigger thing is that we as human beings shepherd and create our intellectual history as a civilization. And it is that intellectual history on the shelf that we can pull off the shelf to do stuff, and to avoid doing the dumb things again, because somebody already did the dumb thing and wrote about their experience and we don’t need to do it again. There are several different processes that are creating that record, and other processes where people are trying to destroy bits of that record, and others that are trying to prevent people from putting things into that record in the first place. We all live off that intellectual record. So what we want to do is get as much into the record, prevent as much as possible being deleted from the record, and then make the record as searchable as possible.
ES: But one consequence of this view is that actors will find the generation of very large amounts of misinformation strategic for them.
JA: Yes. This is another type of censorship that I have thought about but don’t speak so much about, which is censorship through complexity.
ES: Right. Too complicated.JA: And that is basically the offshore financial sector. Censorship through complexity. Censorship of what? Censorship of political outrage. With enough political outrage there is law reform and if there’s law reform you can’t do it anymore. So why is it that all these careful tax-structuring arrangements are so complex? They may be perfectly legal, but why are they so goddamn complex? Well, because the ones that weren’t complex were understood, and the ones that were understood were regulated, so you’re only left with the things that are incredibly complex.
SM: More noise, less signal kind of thing.
JA: Yes, exactly.
ES: But how in the future will people deal with the fact that the incentive to publish information that is misleading, wrong, manipulative, is very high? Furthermore, you can’t figure out who the bad publisher was as well as the good, because there’s anonymity in the system.
JA: First we must understand that the way it is right now is very bad. A journalist for the Nation, Greg Mitchell, who has also written about us, wrote a book about the mainstream media called So Wrong for So Long.229 And that title is basically it. Yes we have these heroic moments with Watergate and so on, but actually, come on, the press has never been very good. It has always been very bad. Fine journalists are an exception to the rule. When you are involved in something yourself, like I am with WikiLeaks, and you know every facet of it, you look to see what is reported about it in the mainstream press and you see naked lie after naked lie. You know that the journalist knows it’s a lie; it is not a simple mistake. Then people repeat lies and so on. The condition of the mainstream press nowadays is so appalling I don’t think it can be reformed. I don’t think that is possible. I think it has to be eliminated, and replaced with something that’s better.
SM: Which does seem to be happening!
JA: Yes, and I have been pushing this idea of scientific journalism—that things must be precisely cited with the original source, and as much of the information as possible should be put in the public domain so that people can look at it, just like in science so that you can test to see whether the conclusion follows from the experimental data.230 Otherwise the journalist probably just made it up. In fact, that is what happens all the time: people just make it up. They make it up to such a degree that we are led to war. Most wars in the twentieth century started as a result of lies amplified and spread by the mainstream press. And you may say, “Well that is a horrible circumstance; it is terrible that all these wars start with lies.” And I say no, this is a tremendous opportunity, because it means that populations basically don’t like wars and they have to be lied into it. That means we can be “truthed” into peace. That is cause for great hope.
But this question of how you distinguish truthful publishers from untruthful publishers is a reputational business. What I would like to see is the introduction to journalism of that part of the reputational business, as in science, that asks, “Where is your data?” If you’re not providing your data why the hell should I take this seriously? Now that we can publish on the internet, now that there is physically room for the data, it should be there. Newspapers don’t have physical room for the primary source; now that there is physical room for the primary source we should create a standard that it should be there. People can deviate from this standard, but if they deviate from the standard and can’t be bothered to provide us with the primary source data then why should we pay any attention to what they are writing? They are not treating the reader with respect.
I guess the issue of reputation is an important issue, actually. How do things have a reputation? Part of the way that they have a reputation is through a series of citations. Something happens, someone else says something about it, someone else says something about that, and so on. This is a series of citations as information flows from one person to another. For that to be strong you need a strong naming system, where what you are relying on is not some startup website that disappears tomorrow, or one that is modifying information because a company doesn’t like it, or one that has been sued out of existence. That, I think, would help with reputation.
Complexity is harder. I think that is a big problem. When things become open they tend to become more complex because people start hiding what they are doing—their bad behavior—through complexity. An example is bureaucratic doublespeak. Things get bureaucratized and everything becomes mealymouthed. That’s a cost of openness. In the offshore sector you see incredible complexity in the layers of things happening so they become impenetrable. Of course cryptography is an intellectual system that has specialized in making things as complex as possible. Those things are hard to attack. On the other hand, complex systems are also hard to use. Bureaucracies and internal communication systems that are full of weasel words and ass covering are inefficient internal communication systems. Similarly, those tremendously complex offshore structuring arrangements are actually inefficient. Maybe you’re ahead when the tax regime is high, but if the tax regime is 3 percent, you’re not going to be ahead at all; you’re going to be choked by the complexity.
SM: Well, if they weren’t inefficient then everybody would have their money offshore, Julian.
JA: Yes, that’s right.SM: I meant that as a joke, but it’s probably true.
JA: No, that’s true. There’s a battle between all of these things going on. I don’t see a difference between government and big corporations and small corporations. This is all one continuum; these are all systems that are trying to get as much power as possible. A general is trying to get as much power for his section of the army, and so on. They advertise, they produce something that they claim is a product, people buy it, people don’t buy it, they complexify in order to hide the flaws in their product, and they spin. So I don’t see a big difference between government and nongovernment actors in that way. There is one theoretical difference concerning the ability to deploy coercive force, but even there we see that well-connected corporations are able to tap into the government or courts and are consequently able to deploy coercive force by sending police to do debt requisition or kick employees out of the office.
* * *
219. Authoritarian conservative António de Oliveira Salazar was the prime minister and de facto dictator of Portugal from 1932 until 1968. His Estado Novo government survived him until 1974, when it was overthrown by a leftist military coup, and democracy was restored.
After a coup d’état in 1967, Greece was ruled by a US-backed military junta known as the “Regime of the Colonels,” which was overthrown by a democratic uprising, also in 1974.
This was a significant time for southern Europe. The Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, died just a year later, in 1975, handing over power to King Juan Carlos I, who facilitated the restoration of Spanish democracy.
The period is covered in depth by WikiLeaks’ Kissinger Cables. See www.wikileaks.org/plusd
220. In 1991, when Phil Zimmermann released PGP, cryptography programs were classified as munitions under US federal law and could not be exported. Because PGP was on the internet, and someone outside the US had downloaded the program, Zimmermann was considered to have exported his program. Consequently, he was under investigation for three years by a US federal grand jury. During the 1990s the NSA and FBI were behind a campaign to stop the spread of cryptography that became known as the “cryptowars” (for more on the cryptowars, see footnote 236, page 135). After the statute of limitations had expired, Zimmermann subsequently admitted to having intentionally uploaded PGP to the internet as an attempt to spread cryptography before it could be banned.
221. Lord of the Flies is a novel by William Golding about a group of school-boys marooned on a desert island, revealing the darker side of human nature as societal restraints break down. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (Faber and Faber, 1954).
222. “Protein synthesis: an epic on the cellular level,” Stanford University Department of Chemistry, 1971. Available on YouTube at youtu.be/u9dhO0iCLww
223. Depending on how you crunch the numbers, the peak male median income was at some point in the mid- to late 1970s. See page 50 of Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012,” US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, US Census Bureau, September 2013, is.gd/xJ9wPV
See also Katie Sanders, “Time’s Rana Foroohar says median male worker hasn’t seen a raise in 30 years,” PolitiFact, 15 January 2014, archive.today/u6q5b
224. “IRS” is the Internal Revenue Service, the US government agency responsible for tax collection.
225. A group of computers connected over the internet where each computer only knows the addresses of a few others participating in the larger darknet network. A darknet is difficult for a government to censor, but on the other hand a darknet is also comparatively difficult to access. I2P is an example of a darknet: www.i2p2.de
226. “FOI” stands for “freedom of information” request, a request for information that is legally available from a public body in countries with a Freedom of Information law.
227. “UK Ministry of Defence continually monitors WikiLeaks: eight reports into classified UK leaks, 29 Sep 2009,” WikiLeaks, 30 September 2009, archive.today/6pMbw
228. BT, formerly British Telecom, is the largest telecommunications company in the UK and one of the largest in the world.
229. Greg Mitchell, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq (Union Square Press, 2008).
230. There is more discussion of this idea in Raffi Khatchadourian, “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency,” New Yorker, 7 June 2010, archive.today/zZYqJ