Monthly Archives: July 2011

Barefoot into the big, bad world

I woke up at five am this morning, went down to my office in my dressing gown, and hit the launch button. Barefoot Into Cyberspace is now officially out in the world. What are you doing reading this blog post? Go read the book.

I first got the idea for Barefoot into Cyberspace at the Folk on the Pier festival on Cromer pier in June 2009. CJ Stone, whom I’ve never met but who I knew lived near Cromer (well, somewhere in Norfolk, at any rate), wrote a book called Fierce Dancing that had a huge influence on me when I was in my teens. Fierce Dancing was about hippies, crusties the free party scene and the road protest movement, a world I was fascinated by but to which I had very little access. I decided to write a book that did the same thing for its readers, but with the geek and hacker scene.

From December 2009 through to June the following year, I interviewed the people I thought would have the most interesting stories to tell. I had a lot of luck along the way. One of the first interviews I did was with a then relatively-unknown Julian Assange (in case you didn’t notice, I released the transcript of that interview yesterday). The next month, Stewart Brand, author of the famous quote “information wants to free” happened to be in town. I also got some killer material from Cory Doctorow, and had some very enlightening conversations with Phil Booth (then still at No2ID) and Ethan Zuckerman.

In Rop Gonggrijp, my very first interlocutor, I found a narrative that carried the whole book along, right to the end or, as he puts it, “the middle of the start of it”. Christopher Scally, the artist who kindly developed the illustrations for the book, struck gold when he decided we should re-use Sir John Tenniel’s now public domain illustrations that accompanied Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass (somewhat inspired by an argument we had about copyright reform during the meeting to get him on board, but that’s another story). If Julian Assange is the Mad Hatter, Rop is my White Rabbit.

The book was in its first draft, minus the last chapter and epilogue, by November 2010, at which point I sent it out to a group of beta readers. Some of them were hardcore geeks, others couldn’t have been less so, and all gave really useful feedback without which I don’t think I would have found my way to the end. At about this time, the book deals started appearing – books about WikiLeaks were being sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, and in one case a million. I started wondering if I might be able to strike gold, too.

But it wasn’t to be. Barefoot into Cyberspace wasn’t the sort of book the publishers wanted. It’s not a polemic, it’s intentionally pulpy and open-ended, and I liked it that way. So in March, I approached Felix Cohen, who had just helped get their book Fight Back! out the door, if he’d like to lend me a hand publishing Barefoot.

Kathryn Corrick volunteered to help with marketing in early May (well, I might have prompted here a little bit), Damien Morris came on board to edit the book in mid-May, and the final copy was submitted to Felix on 17 June. On Felix’s advice, we used Lightning Source, a specialist print-on-demand company. So far, that’s working out pretty well.

It was about this time that I committed us to a 28 July launch date. That upped the pressure, and we nearly didn’t make it. I only received the proof copy 8 days ago, and the first print run at the beginning of this week. was only in a position to list the book yesterday. What can I say? It’s been character building.

But we did it. The book is out in the world and ready for you to read, as of today. There are a couple of sterling typos in the print edition, which we didn’t spot in time to correct. The first person who can tell me in the comments to this post why we’ve come to refer to the initial print run as “the atomic Clinton edition” wins a prize.

Over the next few weeks, I’m hoping to post more details about the flash-publishing process, as well as share some of the raw material that went into making the book. But for today, I’m going to kick back and let you get on with reading my book.

News of the World, media cartels and the fiscalisation of power: 2009 interview with Julian Assange

I first met Julian Assange at the 2009 Chaos Communications Congress in Berlin. I was there on my very first research trip for my book, Barefoot Into Cyberspace. Back then, I thought that the book would be one part cultural anthropology, two parts eulogy. I was less than a year out of working for the Open Rights Group, and still nursing the bruises from where my ideological zeal had banged up against the cold, hard surfaces that cocoon the institutions of the old world. I feared that the hackers at Chaos were a dying tribe, that the beautiful virtual landscapes they had lovingly sown and tended since the CCC’s founding in 1984 would soon be bulldozed entirely, replaced overnight by the concrete uniformity of sanitized corporate pseudo-public spaces owned by Google, Facebook and Apple.

In short, I had no idea what was about to happen.

Even though I’d come to the conference to meet hackers, not journalists, by the time I’d finished listening to Julian Assange and Daniel “Schmitt” Domscheit-Berg’s talk about the year ahead for WikiLeaks (that’s me 2:24 minutes in to this video of their talk, trying to be clever), I knew I wanted to know more. At first Julian wasn’t sure he wanted to speak to me. But I managed to present him with glowing references from enough mutual friends for him to relax a little.

The result is this interview. It certainly isn’t the best interview I’ve ever done and with hindsight, there are a lot of things I would have liked to have picked him up on, or to have understood more. It’s also a very strange thing to read back now the next 18 months of his and WikiLeaks’ story are behind us. Intentionally or otherwise, some of it is very prescient indeed.

Why am I publishing it now? To draw attention to my book, of course, which is published tomorrow. If you think that makes me unscrupulous, that’s fine, and I’d agree with you up to a point. But I’d also note that I didn’t publish it or try and sell it to anyone the day Julian was arrested and thrown in gaol in December last year, when every news organisation on the planet wanted something – anything – that was fresh on him. That’s not just because I’m incompetent at being unscrupulous. I also didn’t want to contribute to that kind of rabid, voyeuristic public “discourse”, because I don’t think it’s helpful in the long term (a pussy liberal view I’ve no doubt Julian would scorn). As it happens, I was interviewing another one of the folk who helped release the Collateral Murder video that day about everything that was going on, someone who had basically switched off their phone because of the harassment they were undergoing from the international news media. And I didn’t sell that interview to anyone that day either.

In this and subsequent interviews, Julian has talked a lot about the historic record, and it’s to that thing – posterity – I’m offering this now. To reiterate, this interview was conducted 18 months ago: I make no claim, and nor should anyone else, that the opinions expressed in it (for example, around the News of the World phone hacking scandal) are opinions he holds today. The facts have changed and, who knows, the man might have changed too. This is about understanding who he was and what was motivating him before he set out on what was probably the most eventful and scary year of his life.

A few more random notes:

  • This transcript is basically word for word – apologies if it’s hard to read as text
  • I use ellipses (“…”) to denote pauses in conversation, or changes of tack mid-sentence, and not elided speech.
  • Julian had a horrible cough during the whole interview, so if I sound maternal in places, that’s probably why.
  • Given the significance of Julian’s opinion on the Iraq War Inquiry at the time he was giving the interview, I can’t believe I turned off the recorder when I did, but that honestly is when I switched it off and I honestly can’t remember what he went on to say.
  • If there’s enough interest, I might find a way to share the audio of this interview as well.
  • A couple of times, we refer back to a question I asked and he answered the previous day after his talk, about the Climactic Research Centre’s email dump WikiLeaks had released the previous month.

Here goes…

Interview recorded 28 December 2009 at the 26th Chaos Communications Congress, held at the bcc Berliner Conference Centre in Berlin, Germany. “Interviewer” is Becky Hogge, “Respondent” is Julian Assange, founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

[Start of recorded material]

Interviewer: Julian, I’ve got a few questions to ask you. First off, on the face of it WikiLeaks looks like it espouses radical transparency, as in “publish everything”. But, since I asked you the question yesterday I’ve been thinking about it and, actually, there are still thresholds that people have to meet before information gets published. So, is it about “publish everything”? Or is it more subtle than that, more complex than that?

Respondent: There’s two answers to this question. So actually I believe as a general stance that publishing should not be interfered with. Not because in some cases it wouldn’t be beneficial for publishing to be interfered with – there’s some cases where it’s clear that freedom of the press is abused. But rather because to have an organisation that censors requires an apparatus of censorship. And that apparatus of censorship is some kind of probably human organisation and it is then vulnerable to corruption. So this is similar to the traditional problem with Communism which is, if you say “From each according to his ability and to each according to her needs”, someone actually has to do that calculation. We can all see that on the surface this is a right and just thing. But behind it lies an organisation which does that transfer and that organisation, through its power, becomes corrupt or vulnerable to influence. So, as a general stance, I believe that publishing should not be interfered with because the organisation, that would do that monitoring, itself would be corrupted by that process. And all the other cases where publishing is… most of the other cases where publishing is free you can see in practice lead to sustainable, democratic government.

Interviewer: And the second answer…

Respondent: The second answer is that we are a limited number of people with a limited number of resources. And our interest in this project is achieving a just reform and improving the quality of civilisation: making civilisation more civil. And therefore we have to spend our limited resources wisely. So we choose to spend those limited resources on the cases that are most likely to achieve just reform. And not on every case, because that would take time away from those most beneficial cases. That said, our criteria is very narrow, as to what we exclude, and clearly defined. That is, provided it has been withheld from the public and is of diplomatic, ethical or historical significance, we will release it, we promise to release it. We may engage in some harm minimisation before we release it – there’s been a few incidences where we contact people before we release something to minimise harm. Otherwise, like a lawyer who promises to represent a client to the court, we promise to represent forces to the court of public opinion.

Interviewer: Am I being lazy or are those narrow criteria clearly stated publicly on your website?

Respondent: They’re clearly stated if you go to make a submission. If you look in the About section, you won’t see it. But if you actually go to make a submission you’ll see it.

Interviewer: OK. What about material that was never meant for publication? Would it always have to have been withheld. So, for example …

Respondent: It has to be material that never was meant for publication.

Interviewer: Of course.

Respondent: Because material that was meant for publication we’re not interested in.

Interviewer: Right. OK. Sure. So I suppose I was confused by your first answer because you spoke about authorities that exist to censor material that was intended for publication and I started thinking about Chinese State censorship where someone would want to …

Respondent: Oh I see what you mean. Right. There are cases that we deal with where something was going through a publishing process and then was censored.

Interviewer: But all sorts of private data is withheld from the public, so I guess that’s where your two qualifiers come in. It has to have been withheld from the public and been of diplomatic or other …

Respondent: Historical, political …

Interviewer: Historical, political significance. And so when you answered my question about the climate change emails the judge of whether that was historically, politically or diplomatically significant …

Respondent: I think it was probably all of those, in this case.

Interviewer: Yeah, OK, OK.

Respondent: So, in other words, we’re not interested in the private emails of private people. Simply because they have no chance for reform effect.

Interviewer: Sure.

Respondent: So it’s not that we are philosophically opposed to necessarily… We are not philosophically opposed to other people publishing those materials, on a case by case basis. Of course, we may think that’s not a wise idea. But it would simply be a waste of our resources to deal with those cases.

Interviewer: Sure. Sure. Why do you think that WikiLeaks has scored so many scoops in its short history compared to the mainstream press? You quoted a really great line yesterday about having scored more scoops than the [Washington Post] in 30 years. Why has that happened?

Respondent: Good question, isn’t it?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Respondent: So one part of me says it’s because no-one else is doing their job, I guess.

Interviewer: And why is no-one doing their job?

Respondent: Another symptom seems to be, for the West, that… I know many, many courageous developing world journalists. I know a guy in Malaysia, Raja Petra, who has four arrest warrants out for him for publishing Malaysia Today from in hiding. Do you see any journalists doing that in the UK? No, of course not. Why aren’t there more journalists in the West being killed?

Interviewer: Because there aren’t so many journalists in the West breaking rules.

Respondent: Well, I mean, journalism is a serious job. It has a serious policing function. Why aren’t there journalists being killed? There’s policemen being killed. It’s a serious job, it has a serious policing function, and police are expected to engage in dangerous situations as part of doing their job. Why aren’t journalists doing their job?

Interviewer: Why aren’t journalists doing their job?

Respondent: I think they have been fiscalised, and the nature of their relationships and the nature of relationships in the West in general is one underpinned by fiscalisation as opposed to politics. In the developing world it’s still mainly politics, not fiscalisation. And I guess they start to become comfortable once they have some influence. They start to become comfortable and they don’t want to lose it… by taking risks. They can still have access to high levels of political power without taking risks and they can still go to all the right cocktail parties without taking risks. There are some exceptions to this but there’s not many.

Interviewer: When you talk about this fiscalisation, I understand that to mean politicians turn into managers, there’s no more ideology any more. Politics is no longer interesting. Is that what you mean? Or are you talking more about …

Respondent: It’s much, much, much broader. The power relationships are done through contracts and bank transfers, and options and shares. And so if there’s a change in political mood it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t change the values on contracts, it doesn’t change the numbers in banks. I also see this: that in the West perhaps speech is free because it actually has very little ability to change underlying power dynamics, because of the fiscalisation. That is, power interests have put their wealth into a structure which is immune, not totally but mostly immune from political sanctions. Whereas in developing world countries, the basic structure of society is political. And so when the political mood changes, who has power and who has assets can completely change.

Interviewer: But do you see yourself, not yourself but the WikiLeaks project, as something that can mitigate against that or something that can turn that around or both? Or neither?

Respondent: Well, it does a bit but we also face the same problems in dealing with the fiscalisation of power in the West that other mainstream press journalists do. That is, if we release a report on a bank and people who are using that bank, that it may be very complex, extremely complex and as a result may have no political impact. And even if it does have political impact that may not take the money away. Maybe it will introduce some laws down the track, but it’s not actually going to empty those accounts. So that’s not something that we can easily deal with either. We have had a lot of success, I don’t want to suggest we haven’t had a lot of successes in Western countries because we have. But it is really very hard to deal with this evasion of political sanction by placing assets and power relationships into complex fiscal arrangements. We have… I’m not sure that we have a way past that. That’s still a big problem. There are some times we do see a way around that. That is that when we release a leaked document it can be picked up by one of three different groups. It can be picked up by the general public, then it becomes a matter of political will. But if the power relationships have been fiscalised then the political will can’t do much.

Interviewer: It dissipates.

Respondent: And the money can move faster than politics can move as well. Or, it can be picked up by organisations that specialise in understanding the complexity. That can be the police, or it can be opposing intelligence agencies, or it can be opposing banks or sometimes… some type of opposing competition. And they are positioned in such a way that they can understand these complex fiscal relationships, or not even necessarily fiscal but, say, complex military terminology, which also is good at hiding moral travesties… They are specialists and they can deal with it but it’s all done out of the public eye. But nonetheless that reaction provides a disincentive for engaging in the behaviour that led to us receiving that document in the first place.

Interviewer: Sure. And the third …

Respondent: And the third is that the audience also includes the organisation the document came from. So when we receive documents from inside an organisation, it creates disharmony and suspicion and distrust inside the organisation. And that makes it much harder for that organisation to operate in its secret way because, to engage in broadly conspiratorial behaviours, i.e. behaviours they don’t want to let the public know about, you have to have trust inside your own organisation. And by making those organisations distrust each other they are not able to internally communicate quickly and efficiently.

Interviewer: So I’m surprised by how absent the mainstream media has been from any of our discussions so far. When I wrote these questions down I thought, ‘Oh, this will be a discussion about the failure of the mainstream media’ and, you know, either some kind of ameliorative action that you feel you’re taking or some kind of revolutionary action to take beyond what the media can achieve…

Respondent: Well no, the mainstream media is number one, that is, when it becomes of political, of general public interest.

Interviewer: So they come in under public.

Respondent: But the other two cases there’s no press at all. But in the first case, you know, insofar as the politics is important, those cases are really important.

Interviewer: But from some of the ideas you were putting forward yesterday you’ve recognised the mainstream media can still perform a positive function and now you’ve gone into that, but I’m surprised again that you’ve lumped them with the public I suppose because actually there’s a lot of skills specific to journalists which WikiLeaks not needs, needs is the wrong word, but can benefit them, like editorialisation, like the mass audience which is still …

Respondent: Contextualisation and adapting something to a local community and a political mood at that particular moment and making it emotional and hyping it up. You know, very important. And also what a lot of journalists do is, because conflict sells, if you have a relatively abstract document how the hell can you get somebody interested in it? Well, you have to start a fight. So, you ring up one power group and you say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this document? Doesn’t this imply that you’re a pack of bastards?’ And they say, ‘No, no, no. actually it’s not like that.’ And then you call up another power group and you say, ‘Hey, doesn’t this document imply that these other guys are a pack of bastards?’ And they say, ‘Yes, absolutely. They are a pack of bastards.’ Then you go back to the first group and you say, ‘Hey, the second group says you’re a pack of bastards.’ And so now you’ve got a fight that has just happened that day and that’s a conflict between major power groups. And human beings are naturally and rightfully interested in fights between power.

Interviewer: When does WikiLeaks… WikiLeaks must become one of the opponents in some of those stories, like the UEA climate email for example. Is that something you’re prepared for?

Respondent: Well, we weren’t really in that case. But in other cases, sure, we become part of the fight and we have actually, of course, used our entry into one of those fights in order to draw attention to the material itself. In some cases, many cases, no-one’s interested in the material until people try and sue us about it.

Interviewer: How many people involved in WikiLeaks come from the media world, the world of journalism?

Respondent: It’s hard to know because our borders between inside and outside are not clear. So, I mean I deal with former colleagues and new people I know in the press all the time. Are they part of WikiLeaks or not? It’s kind of hard to know. Some… What about a journalist that I have never, or none of us who do this 24 hours a day, have ever met or spoken to but actually they’ve written five or six Wikileaks related stories? They are sort of economically bound up with our destiny. So are they part of Wikileaks or not?

Interviewer: I suppose, yeah that’s a very good point and worth making. But someone started WikiLeaks, some bunch of people had the idea, I guess… saw the opportunity? Because WikiLeaks couldn’t work in any age but this. Or am I wrong there? I mean, WikiLeaks is in a sense a child of the internet, right? I mean, you said, ‘We’re not hackers.’ You look like hackers to me.

Respondent: Yeah. I registered in 1999. So actually the ideas for things like that have been floating around a while. But there’s been a particular intersection of economic forces and understanding that has made this moment… economical.

Interviewer: So you’re part, OK now I need to work out what you mean by economics and how that is different from the fiscal power structures you spoke about before.

Respondent: I just mean that if you want to blow up a balloon, more air has to go into the balloon than comes out. So any organisation that grows in its influence has to have more energy going in than out. And you can talk about that in economic terms. That is, that it’s cheap for it to do its work and people appreciate its work so that means more going into the balloon than coming out, so the balloon gets bigger. So that’s been true for us these past couple of years. But back in 1999 when I and some other people were thinking about the very embryonic forms of these ideas, that wasn’t true.

Interviewer: You, yourself – do you have a technical background, a background in media?

Respondent: Both. Background in activism, media, technical, human rights.

Interviewer: Were you running Tor nodes before… I mean, I don’t know, how technical are you? If you had to give yourself one label …

Respondent: I started one of the first three ISPs in Australia in 1993.

Interviewer: By which you mean: I have a Wikipedia entry, go and look it up and stop asking me these basic questions.

Respondent: No, I don’t have a Wikipedia entry.

Interviewer: Why don’t you have a Wikipedia entry?

Respondent: I’m not into that kind of stuff.

Interviewer: Well, you wouldn’t have written it yourself.

Respondent: Most people encourage their Wikipedia entries. But I also don’t have a website. I don’t have a blog.

Interviewer: So this is my one and only opportunity in the nine minutes I have left to find out about you, or are you going to not disclose very much about your personal background…

Respondent: I can understand why people like to build personal profiles. It can be actually very helpful in pushing your ideas. But it’s not my character to do that.

Interviewer: So let’s talk about ideology versus information instead, for the next eight minutes. Which is… information is not a neutral force. I mean, you can put a bunch of information out in the public domain and it won’t necessarily have the effects that you think it’s going to have or that you think it should have because you can look at it, your biases will always come through. Is that something you knew, is that something you’re learning, is that something that there is any answer to? Is that something that interests you at all?

Respondent: I have an answer to this, or maybe not an answer but a perspective. There is a universe of bits, all the possible… all the information that human beings individually have access to, that have not necessarily turned public yet. Some of those bits are… have a civilising effect on our life on earth. That is, they have a reform effect. And the one that we’re particularly interested in is, that they contribute to a more just civilisation. So the question becomes: How do you find those bits? So we can imagine, say it’s like highlighting them with a colour highlighter. We want to see some highlight on some of these bits because then we can preferentially spend our labours on those bits and not on other bits. And if you’re interested in producing justice then that’s what you want to do. So how do you see this colour highlight? So I say a very good economic signal for this highlight is that certain organisations spend economic effort in suppressing those bits and making sure those bits are not public. And the degree of reform effect that those bits may have is broadly in proportion to the degree of economic effort that is spent on suppressing that material. Because, why do you want to suppress it? Do you want to suppress it because you’re… an organisation wants to suppress something because it’s concerned about the reform effect that the release of that information will have. It’s concerned that that information will have an effect on the world if it is released. Now that organisation or… the authors of the material, ie this suppressive organisation we’re talking about, they know the material best because they wrote it. So without having to understand the material, me as a journalist, can go, ‘I believe that’s interesting material’ because the authors believe it’s interesting material, and they are exposing their interest to the degree that they are suppressing the material.

Interviewer: That’s a very… that’s a sort of public interest argument that’s also used to do long-shot paparazzi shots of celebrities’ children, or stand outside, you know, the houses of starlets to see which man leaves the door. Does that make you uncomfortable at all? Because that’s not about justice.

Respondent: I’ve never heard that argument used in relation to paparazzi but I can see that maybe that’s true. However, I’m a great supporter of the paparazzi, usually. In fact I believe they have a very important role in society and I would actually like to see a public policy paparazzi. I would like to see people taking long-shots of public policy documents and I would like to see a great competition to get hold of documents that might affect public policy, not just celebrities. I think it’s… the concern with paparazzi is a fairly disgusting, liberal, middle class preoccupation with saying that all the interests of the proletariat are debased.

Interviewer: But doesn’t the fact that …

Respondent: But I disagree that they’re debased. I say, in fact, if Berlusconi is fucking eighteen year olds …

Interviewer: Oh, Berlusconi fucking eighteen year olds is news. But what about, you know, someone who isn’t in political life but say in cultural life …

Respondent: Let’s say an opera singer. Let’s take one more remove. Some opera singer in Italy is fucking eighteen year olds. Does that opera singer publicly support Berlusconi?

Interviewer: I see.

Respondent: Yes or no. Because they will have some position. In fact celebrities use their position all the time and are paid even to use their celebrity power to influence companies and politics and the general political mood. So actually they are political animals, and they try and build themselves up and build a profile and then spend that profile by doing favours for people in politics or in business. And sometimes they’re well paid for doing those favours. So, that other people spend effort trying to tear them down and exposing them for who they actually are in their lives, is great. It’s fantastic. And if they, if they’re unhappy with that, well they can stop trying to live different private lives to public lives. Or get out of the game. But that’s the game that they’re in and it’s… the market has, I think correctly, determined that they are of interest… that their true nature is of interest to the people. And it is of interest to the people because they have influence with the people.

Interviewer: So I might throw some more pussy liberal views your way and see how you bat them aside.

Respondent: It’s like this: you see this News… Perhaps I shouldn’t… This is for the book, right? So this News of the World thing, with this using a default password on a couple of, or maybe it was many, but anyway there’s only proof of a couple, of celebrities’ voicemail boxes to listen to some of the voicemails that they were receiving. So was this a terrible, terrible thing? Of course it wasn’t a terrible, terrible thing. This is possibly a wrong thing for those particular people to do. There’s a law of the land and if the land says you shouldn’t listen to people’s voicemails, then of course the people who did listen to this directly should be treated equally under the law like everyone else. But is it a terrible, terrible thing that a newspaper took that end product and maybe turned a little bit of a blind… didn’t look too hard into how private investigators were acquiring this material? Not at all. These celebrities were wielding their influence on the public and that’s why the public were interested in them. In Peru we released 68… maybe 78… over 60 telephone intercepts of politicians speaking to businessmen. And that was the biggest political event in Peru this year according to one of the Peruvian newspapers, and it was on all five major daily front… in all five major dailies’ front pages. These were actual telephone intercepts. These weren’t voicemail boxes, in fact. So I feel that it was just disgraceful that the Guardian wasted its time on that issue, just disgraceful and all they ended up doing was producing a climate that increased the amount of regulation of actually even more important investigative journalism. I mean, the jumping up and down about the fact that News of the World had not actually just reprinted an AP newswire or stolen something from somewhere else or reprinted a press release, but they’d actually done original investigative work about people in this society that its readers were genuinely interested in.

Interviewer: Sure.

Respondent: To my mind it was actually an excuse by the Guardian to mention all these celebrities, to actually talk about… to get tabloid stories into the Guardian. That’s what was really going on. And then this middle class, holier than thou, ‘Oh my god, look at the proletariat and what they’re interested in, aren’t they so debased? Well, it’s a good thing we’re not like that.’ But at the same time sucking in all these tabloid stories into the Guardian. ‘Well we had to do that just to talk about it.’

Interviewer: Well, it’s the oldest trick in the book for them.

Respondent: Yeah, ‘Look what the tabloids are reporting on today. Isn’t it a disgrace?’

Interviewer: ‘Aren’t they sordid? And here’s a lovely front page image of a buxom young starlet.’ Indeed.
Would you, would WikiLeaks ever pay for leaked information?

Respondent: We haven’t, but I have no general philosophical position on that and I think it’s one of the strengths of the UK press versus the US press that it does actually pay for leaks occasionally. The US quality press has generated a cartel to not pay sources. It’s a disgrace. What if the real… What are they saying? If they get a leaked document and it is the real… it should be on the front page. If that’s the real story of the day that the public should know about. But because they have decided to have the cartel, they’re not going to pay for the news that is actually the real news of civilisation on that day. So they have instead swapped that out for something that is not the top story of the day…

Interviewer: Would you have taken the MPs expenses?

Respondent: ..based upon their desire to engage in a cartel, to keep their input costs down. And then the sort of… there’s the moral stance, that journalists get a job out of reporting stories. They have their living expenses paid and they get free lawyers if they’re prosecuted, from the newspaper. The newspaper proprietors get stuff out of it, the delivery men get stuff out of it, the newsagents earn their living etc. And the reader becomes informed. And… But what about the source? Isn’t it actually right that if this is a big story, that the source who is the one who is undergoing the really difficult stuff – this is the person who is actually taking a risk – isn’t it morally right that this person should be compensated for their work to the public?

Interviewer: It’s like… well it could be two ways: You know, they don’t pay women to give their eggs for in vitro fertilisation because you don’t want to incentivise people to become sources, or you know, egg donors…

Respondent: Of course you want to… you do want to… you absolutely… I mean, if you believe in the press, you believe that the public has – sometimes its desires are incorrect – but, that the public is interested in particular things, mostly interested in people who are perceived to have power, and what they’re doing. So if the public is interested in that, and you believe in the fourth estate, then why wouldn’t you want to get as much politically, or… information about power as possible into the hands of the public where they can use it? Why wouldn’t you want to incentivise that path?

Interviewer: I suppose because you would be increasing the risk of them giving you false information for personal gain. Or is that risk already there?

Respondent: That is absolute bullshit.

Interviewer: OK. Tell me why.

Respondent: Absolute, that is the worst, most disgusting abuse of a moral line for cartel behaviour. OK.

Interviewer: Oh, I’m not suggesting that I approve of it.

Respondent: No, I’m just saying I disapprove of it, OK. All right. If you’re a good journalist you can tell the difference between bullshit and non-bullshit. It doesn’t matter whether you paid for it or not. In fact, if you paid for it you might have an idea what motivated the source. It was the money. If you haven’t paid for it, something else has motivated them. And that may be a bit dodgy, OK. If it’s the money at least it’s relatively pure. And then if you’re a good journalist actually you check your facts before you publish. It doesn’t matter whether you paid the source or not. If it’s a leaked document it’s actually really easy to check because you don’t have to check every fucking fact in the document, you just need to make sure that the document itself is a bona fide document…

Interviewer: How can you do that?

Respondent: …Then, you can structure these arrangements in a really easy way. You say, I’m not going to pay the source… We’ll pay the source $500 now and $50,000 in three months’ time if it all turns out to be true. I mean what’s, it’s just so easy. All, everything you hear about ….

Interviewer: Sure, yeah that sounds easy.

Respondent: …Everything you hear about this is just a goddamn lie to justify cartel behaviour of not paying for your input costs. I mean, what are the newspaper… if newspapers said, ‘If we pay for ink, that will buy us the ink producers. And it’s not right that we pay for ink, so we’re going to engage in a cartel and we’re going to either pay nothing or as little as possible for the ink.’ Well, you know what would happen. You would end up with no ink, OK? In the case of ink. But because sources have other motivations than earning a living, they will sometimes give stuff to the newspaper, just like if you had some religious cult that was really into ink, maybe newspapers would still get ink. But it’s clearly going to reduce the quality of your ink. And I say this cartel behaviour in the United States has reduced the quality of the political information that is flowing through it.

Interviewer: And similarly in the UK you’ve seen a lot of cartelisation as well, you’ve seen a lot of concentrated media ownership. I suppose what I worry about, and this will be my last question – I’m sorry, we’ve already gone over half an hour but if you’d answer another one – which is misinformation and disinformation. And I’m interested to know… well, I’m interested to know how you protect yourself against being used as a tool for both. So either getting a whack… I mean the UEA case may be kind of disinformation, the true information is out there but it acts as – or maybe I mean misinformation, or maybe either – but you know… How do you prevent yourself from giving… from publishing false information? And how do you prevent yourself from publishing information that is then taken in the wrong way? Or do you?

Respondent: We make sure that the documents we’re publishing, or videos or other materials, are bona fide documents. Their contents is another matter. What the contents say is up to the public, and to history and to other journalists. Sometimes we will spend attention on the content as well, if we think that no-one else will.

Interviewer: Right. Could you give me an example? [LOTS OF COUGHING FROM JULIAN] I’m so sorry. Are you OK?

Respondent: I just had the flu. Otherwise fine. So, last example. There are so many.

Interviewer: Would the 9/11 one be an example of that? Was that the strategy to avoid 9/11 conspiracy theorists…?

Respondent: No, the 9/11 material I didn’t write any analysis about at all, because I knew that people would pick it up anyway, because the story had already been made by events in the past. And so I knew just by making it available in a sort of exciting way, that was enough for people to analyse it. But there’s frequently material we get, an example is the 2002 US Special Forces Manual on… not this one that I mentioned in the talk, but… on foreign internal defence. So that’s the suppressing insurgencies, sometimes secretly. I knew from past experience that most journalists are diplomatically and militarily ignorant and that, without exclusivity mechanisms as well, have very little motivation to write about that material. So because I know more about this field and I guess I have self-exclusivity. WikiLeaks has …

Interviewer: Yeah, you can be the exclusive if you want.

Respondent: Right, so we have self-exclusivity. So I wrote about that material. And so yeah, we’ve done this quite a few times when we feel material won’t get picked up. But we have so much material we can’t do that enough. So there’s lots of material we release just has no public political effect. It still fits into these two private categories that I spoke about and the third one… a fourth one, which is when people Google for some name, they’ll hit the material directly and they don’t write about it in public but maybe their cousin’s just about to marry someone and they’re searching for them or they’re about to invest in some company and they’re searching for some detail or someone’s about to engage in some military mission to a particular place and they’re searching for information about that. Yes.

Interviewer: But there’s nothing that you’ve taken from the UEA…

Respondent: The UEA? You mean the CRU…

Interviewer: Yeah, sorry. I live next door to it so I think of it differently… But would you have done that differently now, looking back?

Respondent: I have wanted to write an article about that but I haven’t had time. Other people are writing broadly around the issue so I don’t need to. Would I have? Yes, if I knew how big that was going to be I guess we would have. We were very busy then, but we would have spent a little bit of time to maybe write a broad overview. But our source was also very… our source didn’t give us much time either, for that material. So we didn’t… we actually didn’t have that option to slowly write and understand it. There’s a lot of material. I mean, there’s over 1,000 emails and 3,000 other files.

Interviewer: I have it all on my computer now. But I’m waiting for the independent review to find out what all of it says. Maybe that’s something …

Respondent: The independent review may not be as independent as you think it is either.

Interviewer: No, well it’s a former of civil servant …

Respondent: You know, no-one, I’m not sure I know of any case where I’ve ever seen independent commission of anything.

Interviewer: Yeah, no of course. You’re right, that’s naïve. I was just saying I haven’t got the motivation to read everything.

Respondent: Why, who the hell would want to appoint an independent commission? You don’t know the result. It’s extremely dangerous, politically. People only appoint commissions when they believe the result will be in a particular direction, or spun in a particular direction.

Interviewer: Do you think that’s even the case for the Iraq war enquiry now? I’ll switch this off…

[End of recorded material]

Special sneak preview ahead of launch tomorrow…

My book launches tomorrow, and I’m truly very excited indeed. By way of a sneak preview, I’m publishing the full transcript of my interview with Julian Assange from the 2009 Chaos Communications Congress. Enjoy.

Too much information: week ending 22 July 2011

US: Activist charged for downloading millions of academic articles
Aaron Swartz, a well-known programmer and internet activist, was arrested this week and charged with violating US hacking laws for downloading millions of copyrighted academic articles from JSTOR. The criminal charges are being driven by the United States Attorney’s Office: the New York Times reports that subsequent to Swartz returning hard drives containing the articles to JSTOR and not to disseminate the material, JSTOR will take no further action. In a separate development, GigaOm reports that a user calling himself Greg Maxwell has uploaded a torrent containing over 18,500 scientific articles to filesharing site The Pirate Bay. The move was accompanied by a message confirming it was a reaction to Swartz’s arrest, and arguing that “the liberal dissemination of knowledge is essential to scientific
New York Times | GigaOm

OSCE declares access to the internet a human right
European Digital Rights (EDRi) highlight a report published by the OSCE earlier this month which expresses concern over the general trend in Europe towards regulation, censorship and control of the internet, and sets out access to the internet as a fundamental human right.

Major website in Turkmenistan hacked
New Eurasia report that, a website belonging to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, was taken offline this week. The website was one of few reporting on suspected explosions at an arms depot in Abadan.

Consultation on open access to scientific information launched
The European Commission launched a consultation on open access to scientific information last week. The Commission is seeking the views of scientists, research funders, universities and other interested parties on how best to use modern digital infrastructure to facilitate access, and on how to meet challenges “such as high and rising subscription prices to scientific publications, an ever-growing volume of scientific data, and the need to select, curate and preserve research outputs”. Deadline for responses is 9 September 2011.

Omidyar Network and Indigo Trust to support “co-creation” hub in Nigeria
Omidyar Network and The Indigo Trust have this week announced their joint support for the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria, a non-profit venture that will provide shared work space for people collaborating on technology that addresses social challenges.

Phone hacking, technology and policy
Professor Ross Anderson of the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory links the UK phone hacking scandal with longstanding concerns he and colleagues have been airing around the UK government’s proclivity towards collecting and storing data on its citizens in centralised databases.

The Measured Life
This feature from Technology Review examines how “a rapidly growing movement of fitness buffs, techno-geeks, and patients with chronic conditions who obsessively monitor various personal metrics” are driving the market in consumer-oriented versions of monitoring equipment used in healthcare, medical research and the military. It argues that what might seem like a narcissistic pursuit at first glance could lead to real medical breakthroughs.

Book Review: Don’t be evil
Evgeny Morozov takes on two recent big-name books about Google, “In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives”, by Steven Levy and “The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)” by Siva Vaidhyanathan, in this long-form book review for the New Republic.

Visualisation: Webs of deceit
Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic points to research by organisational theorist Brandy Aven, who analysed Enron’s internal emails to reveal the contrasting patterns formed by communications pertaining to legal and illicit projects.

Video: Seven ways to ruin a technology revolution
James Boyle, Professor of Law at Duke Law School, warns of the dangers ahead for the open internet, in this engaging Google Tech Talk.

First sighting of finished book today…

Like a disgraced media mogul, the proof copy of Barefoot into Cyberspace was waiting for me at my back door when I got up this morning.

I’m pretty excited.

Proof copy of Barefoot into Cyberspace

Proof copy of Barefoot into Cyberspace

Proof copy of Barefoot into Cyberspace

Hot press shots ahoy

Massive props to the amazing Kathryn Corrick, for a wonderful Saturday morning spent in her company as she turned so-so weather and a less-than photogenic subject into this wonderful set of press shots ahead of the media storm that we anticipate attending on the launch of my book next week (after all, news is quite slow these days, no?).

Photo of Becky Hogge, taken by Kathryn Corrick

Full set available for download licensed CC-BY here.

Tomorrow night: technology and resistance at Dingwalls, Camden Market

I’ve no idea what to expect from this event tomorrow night, entitled “Technology and Resistance”, and taking place at Dingwalls in Camden Market thanks to the industriousness of an outfit, real or imagined, called the Camden Players. All I know is that I’m speaking at it, alongside James Ball (ex-WikiLeaks, now a Guardian data journalist, presumably because they their NDA had better terms), Sarah Morrison of the Indie, and a man I’m sure I’ve met before called Mark Simpkins. The event starts at 7:30pm, and I’ll be talking about some of the ideas in my new book.

Just Do It film screenings across the UK from today

Just Do It logoLast Saturday, I donned my highest heels and headed to Shaftesbury Avenue for the premiere of Just Do It, the crowd-funded documentary film about direct action in the envrinomental movement directed by wonderwoman Emily James.

I loved it. Not just for the honest yet loving portrayal of the young, and not so young, activists whose story it follows. Not just for the biting sense it leaves you with that you could, right now, be doing so much more to safeguard the planet for your children and grandchildren. Not even just for the close examination of the appalling way we often treat dissent in this country, a subject very close to my heart. I loved it for its joy. It is a truly joyful film, a film that lifts you up and makes you feel better about the world and your place in it. That is a serious achievement, and one about which I hope Emily feels very proud.

It’s a serious achievement when you think that this film was made for the most part outside of the traditional film-making industry. The sheer confidence and drive that Emily and her team must have had to keep going over the last two years is an inspiration to me as I continue my own modest project in heterodox media. In exchange for their troubles, they’ve maintained the trust and support of the activists who star in the film (many of whom were at the premiere last weekend), and it is the total access to this community that was granted to the film-makers that is what makes this film so unique.

Tonight is the film’s opening night (at the Ritzy in Brixton – I’ve just checked and it looks like there are about a dozen tickets left, so act fast). I urge you to go and see this film, and I promise you won’t regret it. Here’s the trailer:

The film will be coming to Cambridge at the start of next week for a four day run, and is also showing at Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Henley, Kendal, Liverpool, Nottingham, Oxford, Poole, Stratford, York and many more independent cinemas and festivals across the UK over the Summer. For full details, visit the Just Do It website.

I blogged about Just Do It, and the reasons I was supporting them with advice and cash, last year. One of the great things about this project is that from early on, Emily saw the value that releasing the film under a Creative Commons licence would offer her in terms of getting her message out. The Creative Commons release is not out yet, but is expected in Autumn this year. As Emily explains:

The Just Do It team are very much committed to a Creative Commons release of the film. In order to balance the demands of the traditional capitalist distribution system (which still holds many of the cards in getting a film out) with our desire to participate in a more progressive movement which re-envisions the relationship between creative work and capital, we have had to agree to hold back the Creative Commons release to give a window to the cinema, TV, and dvd releases.

Once these are out of the way (we hope Autumn 2011), then we shall be releasing the full theatrical version of the film for peer-to-peer sharing, via a range of bit-torrent sites, which we shall actively seed and promote.

Purists might groan at this, but I think it is a pragmatic and thoughtful approach from a film-maker keen to do her film and its subjects justice by getting it through as many different channels and in front of as many different viewers as possible. Mixing the best of the progressive and the traditional has been an approach I’ve seen the Just Do It team adopt in everything from sourcing people to translate the film’s subtitles, to persuading local cinemas to show it. One current project is co-ordinating a massive day of free screenings across university campuses, pencilled in for 18 October.

A final thought. It’s interesting that Emily uses the word “capitalist” to describe traditional film distribution channels. Without spoiling the film for you too much, that’s a word that many of the young activists use to describe themselves by the end of the story, prefixed, of course, by “anti-“. But I left the screening wondering if these people were really anti-capitalists, or if it was something else they were “anti-“. Back when I was a full-time digital rights activist, I baulked at the close quarters the political class kept with global corporations like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! (not to mention the BPI and the MPA) The relationship between government and big business is being thrown into some relief by the current scandal around Murdoch and his media empire. What shocks most is not that companies pursue profit, but that government seems so happy to collude and fast-track that profit-seeking, above and beyond the interests of the people who they are meant to represent. Chris Marsden calls this rotten corporate-state nexus “regulatory capitalism” I’ve also heard it called “corporate mercantilism” and, occasionally, “fascism”. Identifying as “anti-capitalist” might be the wrong thing to do if your aim is to prize apart the state and corporations from their current huddle for safety.

Thinking a little more about this is something I’d like to do once I’ve got this book launch out of the way. That and scaling the fences of a few coal-fired power stations.

Too much information: week ending 15 July

Open Government Partnership launched
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota this week announced the launch of an international partnership to promote more open government. The initiative, called the Open Government Partnership, seeks to use innovative technologies to promote government transparency and public engagement. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a donor collaborative, welcomed the news, which was met by scepticism in other quarters.
News | Scepticism

Fifty years of Kenyan Parliamentary debates published
The Kenyan National Council for Law Reporting, in partnership with Google Kenya, has published parliamentary records dating back to the 1960s, giving Kenyans free, electronic access to the records for the first time. The project uses the Google Books platform to display the data.

Graduated response-style copyright enforcement comes to the US
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) digests the news that a coalition of internet service providers (ISPs) and rightsholder bodies have announced a collaborative effort to curb copyright infringement on peer-to-peer networks. The scheme involves ISPs alerting their customers based on notifications received from rightsholders that infringing activity is taking place. ISPs will be expected to take mitigating action, such as reducing internet speeds, against persistent offenders.

Turkmenet shines during Abadan explosion
Following the suppression of news about a still-mysterious explosion in the Abadan region of Turkmenistan reported to have resulted in high numbers of deaths, New Eurasia examines “both the struggles and discoveries of the Turkmenet during the crisis”.

EFF urges Microsoft to reconsider censored China service
The EFF publishes a short note condemning Microsoft over recent news that it has struck a deal with Chinese search market leader Baidu to offer its Bing web search results in English.

What’s Wrong with Government 2.0?
Using the profit-seeking privatisation of micro-credit as an analogy, Tom Slee sounds a warning about the limitations and risks around the open government data agenda, in this series of blog posts.
Post 1 | Post 2

The most menacing malware in history
This accomplished and compelling long-form feature from Kim Zetter at Wired charts the rise of the Stuxnet worm, its origins and target, and the security researchers who found themselves caught up in what emerged to be a story of truly international proportions.

Report: Threats in internet freedom in Russia, 2008-2011
The Agora Association have released the first of a new series of reports documenting threats to internet freedom in Russia. Types of threats enumerated in the report range from proposals to regulate the internet to defamation suits and cyber-attacks, as well as harassment, assault and murder of internet activists.

Special Feature: The World Bank and open data
This New York Times feature examines the strategic thinking behind the World Bank’s decision to open up its data.

Video: Enduring Voices
Enduring Voices, a joint project of National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, documents endangered languages across the world: “By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth — many of them not yet recorded — may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.”

Google+ for journalists at risk
Danny O’Brien of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists gives his initial review of new social networking platform Google+ and its utility for at-risk journalists.

Audio: Joi Ito on how to save the internet from its own success
An interview with Joi Ito that hints at some possible coming changes at the MIT Media Lab under his leadership including greater adoption of Creative Commons licences and more participation in Open Courseware.

Tonight! Interview with Angela Saini on Little Atoms

Update: This ended up being a really good interview, and I urge you to listen to it on the Little Atoms website.

Cover of Geek Nation by Angela SainiI’m just about to head into London to interview Angela Saini, author of Geek Nation, for tonight’s episode of Little Atoms. If you’re in London you can tune in from 7pm to Resonance 104.4 FM to hear the interview, or you can listen live online here. A podcast of the interview will be made available on the Little Atoms website in the fullness of time. You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

I used to work with Angela at, and it’s been fantastic to watch her journalism career go from strength to strength since she left that esteemed organ. I caught up with her at the recent Little Atoms event “Which Way to techno-Utopia?”, where I was impressed by the engaging way she spoke about the work she did for the book travelling around India to discern whether, as a nation, it has what it takes to be the world’s next scientific super power. The book addresses a number of issues I find fascinating, like the way science and spiritualism mix more readily in India than they do in the West, the ideological/nationalistic nature of the debate around GMOs, and the potential of e-government to transform India’s notorious bureaucracy. I’m looking forward to talking about these issue in more depth with Angela, and Little Atoms godfather and co-host Neil Denny, tonight.