Chaos, information abundance and the Kardashev scale of civilisations: 2009 interview with Daniel Domscheit-Berg

Just over a month ago, I published the full transcript of my interview with Julian Assange at the 2009 Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin. If you’ve read my new book Barefoot into Cyberspace, you’ll know from Chapter 2 (“Courage is contagious”) that I also interviewed Daniel Domscheit-Berg – then known as Daniel Schmitt – at around the same time. Today I’m publishing the full transcript of that interview.

Daniel’s been in the news last week, after the Chaos Computer Club, the renowned German hacker organisation who put on the Congress each year in the days between Christmas and New Year, expelled him from their number. OpenLeaks – the spin-off whistle-blowing website Daniel has been developing since his split with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange midway through 2010 – was felt by Club members to be exploiting the collective’s reputation when it used the once-every-four-years Chaos Communications Camp as a platform to announce an initial round of security testing to the world’s media. The following week, news began to emerge that Domscheit-Berg destroyed data leaked to WikiLeaks (motivated, he says, by fears about lax security), for example by whistle-blowers associated with the Bank of America. Just yesterday, he was in the news again thanks to new revelations about a possible data breach at WikiLeaks. Enemies of transparency and free expression must be mighty glad of the respite this in-fighting is affording them.

2009 was a simpler time. Julian and Daniel were still working together, and that work was not yet the focus of the world’s attention. In this interview, Daniel talks about his philosophical motivations for being involved in WikiLeaks, and the strong ideological connections between WikiLeaks and the Chaos Computer Club. As with the Assange interview, I am publishing this now for the cheap thrills of hindsight and the benefit of posterity. I make no claim, and nor should anyone else, that the opinions expressed in this interview conducted more than 18 months ago are opinions Daniel holds today.

A few more random notes:

  • This transcript is basically word for word, except for explanatory notes I have added in italics. It is, moreover, the words of a non-native English speaker. So apologies if it’s hard to read as text. If you want something easier to read, consider reading my book.
  • I use ellipses (“…”) to denote pauses in conversation, or changes of tack mid-sentence, and not elided speech.
  • As with the Assange interview, if there’s enough interest, I might find a way to share the audio of this interview as well, so please indicate interest in the comments.

Here goes…

Interview recorded 29 December 2009 at the 26th Chaos Communications Congress, held at the bcc Berliner Conference Centre in Berlin, Germany. “Interviewer” is Becky Hogge, “Respondent” is Daniel Domscheit-Berg (then known as Daniel Schmitt), spokesperson of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

[Start of recorded material]

Interviewer:   So this is Daniel Schmitt and first of all your role within WikiLeaks, are there defined roles? What’s your role?

Respondent:  I’m sort of a spokesperson.

Interviewer:   You’re the spokesperson.

Respondent:  No, there are different spokespeople obviously, so I’m one of them.

Interviewer:   So my first question is, I was really struck by…ummm.. when you gave in your presentation, you said you’ve provided more scoops around the world in one year than the WSJ have in 30 years. Why do you think that WikiLeaks is so successful at delivering scoops compared to the people whose real job it is?

Respondent:  So first of all it was the Washington Post.

Interviewer:   Oh, sorry.

Respondent:  That’s all right. Then, it’s since we are in existence, so that means like in the last 2½ years or so. And that was not something we said but rather something that The National quoted, so …

Interviewer:   But nonetheless it does seem that you are never out of the news these days.

Respondent:  Yes, that’s… OK, so there… I think there is various explanations for this. One is that obviously a lot of people are starting to use the internet and they start to see that there are possibilities maybe outside of what they perceived before as, let’s say, the opportunities they have within the social framework that they know, or other possibilities where they can interact. So there are a lot of people that obviously have knowledge about things that are going on, but that don’t have any close reporter to them in their life where they feel they would want to talk to a journalist because they can trust them. So that is something where we help, just because we are… we have a certain reputation by now, that helps. And we offer these services to anyone that feels motivated in this right moment in time, where this person feels motivated. In the sense that you can go online and just do it, when you have this peak of motivation of doing it. You have reasons to believe that this is anonymous. You don’t have to worry about who could you contact, what newspaper could you call? I don’t know, about these sorts of things. And that I think leads to us receiving a lot of, more and more, high quality material.

Interviewer:   That’s not simple though, because making people trust an architecture or a system, that it’s secure, must be a big job. I mean, when you first launched a lot of people… one of the big worries was that the system wouldn’t be secure, you know. So how have you built that reputation? I must myself try and submit something to find out.

Respondent:  No, that’s all right. The thing is it’s built by success…

Interviewer:   So you’ve had one success…

Respondent:  …People see – yes – and people see that somebody else entrusted us with confidence and with… entrusted us with something that might have screwed him over if it went wrong; and it worked out. And the more good examples there are where this works out for people I guess the more people will rely on you and they hear about you and then maybe they see that there’s been other information that has been much more confidential or where you think, “Oh wow this has been more risky than what I’m doing here”. I mean, most of the things, it’s not like lives are at stake for people that provide most of the information. So I mean there are certainly lives at stake for some people. For these we need to take special care. But generally that’s what we’re trying to say with “courage is contagious” because one of these things that we try to advocate is that people are… if people perceive that you are doing something courageous and you’re not suffering from it because you’re doing it wrong, then they see that as a good example.

Interviewer:   So, in saying that, are you implicitly saying that the mainstream media, who were… before WikiLeaks were the place where leaks would go to, have failed to establish that trust?

Respondent:  OK, so as I said initially, there are many, many reasons to this. This trust thing I think is one part. You just don’t have to deal with newspapers, especially single reporters or whatever, because for that single purpose of leaking a document there is a service. Compared to, I don’t know, finding the right newspaper that has the interest in that specific topic that you could provide information of, about. And then finding the right journalist in that paper that you will trust, that [has integrity], that writes good stories, I don’t know. And in the end what do you get? You don’t get anything but a journalist sitting on your document, in most cases.

Interviewer:   Right, because you have promised to publish.

Respondent:  Yes, and that is the next thing why people come to us and not newspapers is… Newspapers do not provide all the information, from my point of view at least, that is necessary to… in order to provoke the change that is possible with the information. Or that actually the source, in many cases, I guess, wants to see. So the source has an objective. They want that what they expose becomes known to people so that something changes. That is in most cases their motivation. If this is because they are pissed off by people, whoever they work for or if it’s because they feel that something morally is going on, but anyway they want something to change and that is why they are leaking the document. So they want that people know about it in as much detail as possible and that’s why they are giving us stuff so that not just one journalist that they give it to makes a story about it but actually everyone can do a story about it. So that is the next, maybe the next component what motivates people to come to us instead of going to the regular press.

Interviewer:   It strikes me… I had the wrong impression of you guys before I met you and Julian here because I’d thought that what you were engaged in was very much more directly related to failures inside the mainstream media but the more I speak to you and the more I think actually that’s only just a small side effect of, you know… Actually what you’re doing is getting truth out there and working towards transparency and it sounds like you’re learning to work with mainstream journalists. Your next steps are to use the… to take your practice and work with journalists to make the leaks more effective, is that right?

Respondent:  Yes, absolutely. This is, we’re sort of a more complementary effort, or we’re filling a gap that was opened up for various reasons.

Interviewer:   What reasons do you think that gap opened up?

Respondent:  Ah, that’s complicated. I think there are a lot of different aspects. So it’s a general funding situation with all of the media. The whole idea that, or the whole topic that no-one has a real idea of where it’s going to with print versus digital media and there’s a lot of liability issues with, let’s say, hot stories that are being covered in investigative journalism that is being conducted. So it’s not very attractive any more to invest in investigative journalism. It’s very expensive, it’s very unlikely that you… or it’s becoming more and more unlikely that you get material just because maybe, I don’t know, journalists are not, they can’t always protect their sources anymore. That leads to sources not being maybe so open to giving out material in the first place, which is where we come in again. That might be another angle. But… so the whole legal aspect. But there are so many reasons why this whole industry is suffering from these developments and we are sort of a complementary effort to try to make this cheap again. I’m sure that Julian has mentioned something about this economic side of ..? [I guess I nod here] OK. And to encourage all, I don’t know, single reporters, every investigative journalist, every journalist actually that feels he wants to investigate, to have access to this…

Interviewer:   Who funds the WikiLeaks? Do you disclose that?

Respondent:  Well… WikiLeaks was initially funded and is up to now still funded by people that are believing in what this project is doing.

Interviewer:   Individuals?

Respondent:  Yes. So it’s individual people that are investing money into keeping this thing running. That is how it was kick-started and we’re still sort of in the kick-start phase that is now going over, let’s hope, into some more regular operational model.

Interviewer:   And the operational model will be, do you think, based on donations or will you start to look at commercial models? Or are you not there yet?

Respondent:  There are ideas for commercial models. I mean, we’re always trying to figure out how to make best use of whatever we’re doing. Ironically, if you provide things for free they are not worth anything. Which is, by creating scarcity you somehow create value that’s objectively there before, but no-one cared about it.

Interviewer:   But that’s a problem everybody is facing now, not just …

Respondent:  Yeah, this is, yeah that is just interesting to perceive for us. And there are some commercial models that we could think of. On the other hand the general idea that information will be public and it will be free for everyone to use, that will never change. So we are… for the funding part, I guess we have to rely on getting partnerships with organisations that fund these kind of things, like investigative journalism foundations, human rights foundations, all sorts of anti-corruption people maybe, depending on, I mean we’re working for very different groups of people that can benefit from what we are doing. So all these people hopefully will be supporting what we are doing at some point in time and from that there will be a pool of resources that can sustain this, let’s say, on a regular basis. And then there is the second part of people, independent people that are still contributing individual contributions and that, I guess, will always, let’s say, guarantee the independence from single points of interest. So that’s why we also rely on people donating servers for infrastructure. Just because the infrastructure as an operational part as, let’s say, the project existing with its mechanisms is something that should be carried by individuals, rather by any foundation for example.

Interviewer:   Sure. Good. I just want to shift the conversation now and talk about transparency and information. Obviously there are lots of traditions around freedom of expression. There’s an American tradition, which is a very radical free speech tradition. There’s a European tradition which is freedom of expression, which is… there are contingencies on free speech based around what either the state or society would see as societal goods, so illegal content, blah blah blah. But I think there’s also this kind of establishment view that people shouldn’t know everything. There’s kind of a very – [reacting to growing noise levels in the CCC press room] we’re going to have to speak a bit louder, sorry – but a kind of paternalistic view that it’s right to cover the eyes of society to promote, I don’t know, integration or harmony.

Respondent:  Yes, no absolutely, absolutely.

Interviewer:   It strikes me that WikiLeaks sits right at the end of the spectrum of ideas about free speech. Are you for radical transparency? What’s your philosophy as an organisation?

Respondent:  OK, so if that is a matter, OK so you want, just to be clear: as an organisation, that is a different question from …

Interviewer:   All right, as a personal view I’ll ask you.

Respondent:  OK. I mean, I’m absolutely for any kind of radical transparency that you would want to think about, I guess. I mean, in the end, so what I believe is that, and I think, I mean in parts this fits with what the whole project is about and that’s basically, I think, why I’m involved with this as well because I believe in these things personally and they fit into what this project accomplishes. So in order to get to, let’s say, the next step of civilisational model that we need for this world to live in, I mean in the next few hundred years or whatever. I’m not sure if you heard about the Kardashev Scheme for example, if that is something  you …

Interviewer:   The Carter ..?

Respondent:  Kardashev Scheme.

Interviewer:   No.

Respondent:  It’s done by some Russian astronomer from the 1960s and it’s a civilisational model to measure …

Interviewer:   Like that? [I’m spelling it out on a bit of paper, Daniel reaches over and corrects the spelling]

Respondent:  Like that, Kardashev.  I mean, it depends a bit on how it gets translated from Russian to… but you should find something like this.

Interviewer:   And he talks about the next step for civilisation?

Respondent:  No, he talks about how can you measure the progress of civilisational advancement. So how can you measure at what stage in its development, in its evolution is this civilisation. And he proposed this model that said that he’s going to measure it just by the energy production of a civilisation. So it’s purely related to, let’s say, your technological advancement of society that will happen basically in whatever society you are. You have pure technological evolution, that represents how advanced you are as a society and it’s independent from your political views, social, religious views, whatever. So it’s a pretty factual view. So right now we are some way in between Type 0 which is like the start of this whole scheme and Type 1, which is the first step. So we’re at point 0.8 I think. [I’m probably looking a bit baffled at this point] It’ll make sense in a second, OK? So a Type 1 civilisation, from an energy production perspective, means that we are harvesting all the energy that we can produce with what is on this planet. So this encompasses like all natural resources like wind, solar, all of that. And if we are, if we have the means to harvest this all as efficiently as possible we are, from an energy production perspective, in a Type 1 civilisation. So if you now abstract the requirements you have for this next kind of world to live in, or civilisational model, then you realise that the whole idea behind Type 1 is that we are living in a global world and that we today realise that whatever we do is happening on a global level, that I need to know if I’m buying certain things in a shop today, from a certain brand, that this has an implication on whatever’s happening on the remote end of the world. So that… this information that is underlying my decisions that I’m taking and basically anyhow that I’m behaving in this whole world is very crucial to make sure that the, let’s say, the holistic development of our global society in some way is, let’s say, at least tending to go into a good direction. So the more people that have access and easy access and full access and detailed access and unfiltered access to all of this information that we have, that is out there, and that in many cases unfortunately people are trying to hide because they know it would change things, so this information becomes really important. Just because we need to be able to take these decisions. So for me it’s basically a matter of being able to sustain society to a point where we, as a species, can actually, I don’t know, survive in the long run just because we had the right information to take decisions. I’m not sure if we got away too far from the question.

Interviewer:   No, actually I think that’s a really interesting way of putting it. I suppose the fear that the paternalistic approach has when they shield people from information is that people can’t cope with all the information that they will use maybe primitive instinctual tools to interpret the information, like ideology or this… and you’ll get the wrong… so an example would be with the corpus of emails that you published from UEA. Unfortunately because there was a very strong ideological barrier, then it didn’t have this effect that maybe it could have done if people were open and ready for information.

Respondent:  Yes, but the main thing is I believe that it’s like Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Prize speech that the only solution to, what is the exact translation?

Interviewer:   The only solution to speech is more speech? No.

Respondent:  No, it’s similar to it. The only solution to the problems we have in society is that everything is everyone’s business. And that, I think, is the key to the information society, is that we have to actually care about what is, what information is, and about the information we have. So that we go from a world that we live in right now where we rely on others taking responsibility for knowing about things but we don’t actually want to know about things, that we are in a society where we expect politicians and the media to filter things for us because we don’t want to know all about it. That we go from this society to a society where we actually want to know. So on a philosophical perspective you could now argue maybe that, let’s say, one of the proofs of being global enough to survive in the long run is that you actually care. And that you’re not just deciding to offshore the responsibility – to offshore? Not offshore but – outsource the responsibility, the knowledge and everything to someone who is taking the decision for you and you’re just like some sheep in a herd running after it. But that actually you participate again. It’s going from spectator sports again to participating in the game, somehow. And if you don’t, you’ll just be sitting there watching it until it’s over and that’s it, basically.

Interviewer:   Yeah. This is a big question. I feel bad about throwing it in, but what happens to privacy in this world?

Respondent:  That’s a good question. In a world where you think that …

Interviewer:   …If everything is everybody’s business …

Respondent:  …Where does the privacy belong?

Interviewer:   Yeah. Because the traditional understanding is that privacy underpins human dignity, which is the foundation of every human right going. But again, I heard Julian say privacy is like terrorism, you know. People invoke it as a fear mechanism when actually… so what happens to privacy?

Respondent:  Yes, the question is where do you draw that barrier? It’s like, I don’t know, hearing of, I don’t know, child abuse cases where people had, I don’t know, their children locked into cellars for years…

Interviewer:   …And nobody knew…

Respondent:  …And nobody knew. Or people… or you find out even worse that people could easily have known if they just had cared about it. Or had just not been this ignorant around… of everyone else, which is sort of a misunderstood privacy again. It’s, I think the question …

Interviewer:   That’s great. “I’ll see your privacy and I’ll raise you paedophilia”. That’s a really good answer.

Respondent:  No [laughs]… you know… it’s… the question is not, I think, about privacy. It’s more a redefinition of something like, not sentiment, but maybe emotional capacity towards others as well. It’s… the question is: Where does privacy begin, and where does your emotional attachment or your emotional binding to another human being begin as well? It’s not so much about… I mean sure there are facts, I mean we’re publishing documents and in many cases this pertains to private information but then where’s the trade-off between the public benefit out of spoiling someone’s privacy because he was doing something bad, and the benefit that the public has? Where’s this trade-off protecting that privacy again? Where’s the trade-off between not being too interested in what your neighbour is doing and maybe understanding that something terrible is happening? So, this is all part of what I think can only be solved by having people that are of a good nature and that have a good horizon, good perspectives in life and emotional… good emotional character somehow. So it all, again, boils down to all of us having access to more information, to understand how complex this world is, how complex human beings are, how complex human emotion is and how all of this affects how people are behaving. It’s similar to this BNP membership list, for example. The question is what do you do? What do you make out of it? So do you torch your neighbour’s car because you understand that he’s a BNP member and you don’t agree with his radical political view? Or do you maybe start, I don’t know, talking to him when you meet him on the street and you start questioning why he has these motives and you understand that he wasn’t born like this or it’s not a genetic issue that he has, but it’s rather that he as a person has been treated in a certain way all over his life, that he has developed these political views. So I totally agree, from my perspective everyone is entitled to his political views, whether left or right, it doesn’t matter, he’s a person and that is his private business. But if that means that for me as a person in this society this has implications because these people are interacting with me then I need to understand their motives and I need to understand why… what maybe we have to change in this world in order to not grow people that are hateful towards others, that have these radical views. But rather to grow people that are happy and that live in a world that they are comfortable with.

Interviewer:   I have one last question, which is going to a different… shifting again. And that is: What is the link between WikiLeaks and CCC [the Chaos Computer Club]? You did a great talk here. Why is this a good audience for you?

Respondent:  So I think one of the main reasons is that, let’s say, we are on the internet, this is how, I mean we’re publishing on the internet and all of these things and we are defending a lot of the freedoms on the internet just because we are engaged in keeping the internet a place for free speech and for publication of information. So this is where there’s a mutual interest in what we do and what the CCC does and what a lot of other technology, computer-oriented cultures do. So this is, let’s say, one part. Then Germany generally, the German computer scene is pretty political as well, which is a good thing – at least compared to, let’s say, from my perspective at least, to the United States for example. They are very more technology-focused here, it’s, I think, traditionally more political, in some way. So this is how I think that fits on a very basic level. And these people know what we are doing, they know… they are… maybe there are a few people in our society that understand the real value of the technology we’re using. So they understand what is at stake that we are trying to defend and what the implications would be if no-one was defending it. And that is, I think, why they know they can value what we are doing maybe much better than my grandfather, for example, who understands why suppression of free speech is an issue, why it’s important that no-one can censor the press, but he does not maybe understand why defending this medium that is just transporting information from A to B and not doing anything else, why defending this medium is so important for future generations to come. Because no-one wants to revert what we’ve done wrong, it’s better to just prevent before something has gone wrong.

Interviewer:   Did you come to conferences like this before you were involved in WikiLeaks?

Respondent:  Yes, sure.

Interviewer:   What’s your background? Journalist, hacker?

Respondent:  No, I’ve had some… I’ve worked in the computer network security industry for quite a while so that’s basically my background and I have a large interest in… I mean as everyone here, as I said… I have some political interests and a big interest in the freedom of speech and freedom of the press and the media and just to preserve the ways of communication for the future. I mean, I understand why that is important, so…

Interviewer:   Excellent. That’s it. Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything more?

Respondent:  That’s all right. I guess we had some good questions. I just hope I was not still too tired.

[End of recorded material]

Comments are closed.