Julian Assange: The naming of things is very important. The naming of human intellectual work and our entire intellectual record is possibly the most important thing to be done. We all have words for different objects, like “tomato.” We use a simple word, “tomato,” instead of actually describing every little aspect of this goddamn tomato. Because it takes too long to describe this tomato precisely, we use an abstraction so that we can think and talk about it. And we do that also when we use URLs. Those are frequently used as a short name for some human intellectual content. We build all of our civilization, other than on bricks, on human intellectual content. We currently have a system with URLs where the structure we are building our civilization on is the worst kind of melting Plasticine imaginable. That’s a big problem.

Eric Schmidt: And you would argue a different namespace structure should evolve that more properly allows –

JA: I think there is a fundamental confusion, an overloading of the current URL idea.

ES: Yep. Absolutely.

JA: On the one hand you have live dynamic services and organizations that run those services – meaning a hierarchy, a system of control, be it an organization, a government, or some controlling group. And on the other hand you have human intellectual artifacts that can be completely independent from any system of human control. They are out there in the Platonic realm. They should be referred to in a way that is intrinsic to their intellectual content, and not in a way that is dependent on an organization. I think that is an inevitable and very important way forward.

I first saw that this was a problem when dealing with a man by the name of Nadhmi Auchi. A few years ago he was listed by one of the big business magazines as the fifth-richest man in the UK. An Iraqi, he worked for the Iraq Oil Ministry and grew rich before leaving for Britain in the early 1980s. He is alleged by the Italian press to have been involved in a lot of arms trading. He has over a hundred companies run out of his Luxembourg holding unit and several that we discovered under his wife’s name in Panama. He infiltrated the British Labour political establishment to the degree that on his business’s twentieth birthday celebration in London he was given a painting signed by 130 ministers and members of Parliament, including the then prime minister Tony Blair.

Nadhmi Auchi was a financier of Tony Rezko, who in turn was a fundraiser for Rod Blagojevich from Chicago, the former governor of Illinois. Both Rezko and Blagojevich have now been convicted of corruption. Tony Rezko was also an intermediary who helped Barack Obama buy part of his residential home.

This is detail but it will get to a point. During the 2008 presidential primaries a lot of attention was turned to Barack Obama by the US press, unsurprisingly. They started to look into his fundraisers and discovered Tony Rezko, and then they started to turn their eyes toward Nadhmi Auchi. Auchi then hired Carter-Ruck, a rather notorious firm of London libel solicitors, whose founder, Peter Carter-Ruck, has been described as doing for freedom of speech what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen. He started writing letters to all the London newspapers that had records of his 2003 extradition to France and conviction for fraud in the Elf Aquitaine scandal, in which he had been involved in channeling illegal commissions on the sale of Kuwaiti-owned oil refineries while Kuwait was under Iraqi occupation before the first Gulf War.

So the Guardian pulled six articles from 2003 without saying anything. They had been in the Guardian’s archive for five years. If you go to those URLs you will not see “removed due to legal threats,” you will see “page not found.” There is also an article from the Telegraph and a bunch from some American publications and bloggers, and so on. Important bits of recent history that were relevant to an ongoing presidential campaign in the United States were pulled out of the intellectual record. They were also pulled out of the Guardian’s index of articles. So although the Guardian is published in print and you can go to the library and look up those articles, how would you know that they are there to look up, because they are not there in the Guardian’s index? Not only have they ceased to exist, they have ceased to have ever existed. It is the modern implementation of Orwell’s dictum: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past” – because all records of the past are stored physically in the present.

This issue of preserving politically salient intellectual content while it is under attack is central to what WikiLeaks does, because that’s what we are after. We’re after those bits that people are trying to suppress because we suspect, usually rightly, that they’re expending economic work on suppressing those bits because they perceive that those bits are going to induce some change.

SM: So it’s the evidence of the suppression that you look for in order to determine value?

JA: Yes . . . not precisely but that’s a very good –

SM: Well, tell me precisely.

JA: Well, it’s not always right. But it’s very suggestive –

SM [Scott Malcomson whom ES introduces earlier ‘as our editor’]: It’s not perfect!

JA: It’s not perfect but it is a very suggestive signal that the people who know the information best – i.e., the people who wrote it – are expending economic work in preventing it going into the historical record, preventing it getting to the public. Why spend so much work doing that? It’s more efficient to just let everyone have it – you don’t have to spend time guarding it, but also you are more efficient in terms of your organization because of all the positive unintended consequences of the information going around. So we selectively go after that information, and that information is selectively suppressed inside organizations, and very frequently, if it is a powerful group, as soon as someone tries to publish it, we see attempts at post-publication suppression.

ES: I want to know a little more about the technology. So in this structure, you basically can put up a new front very quickly and you have stored replicas that are distributed. One of the questions I have is how do you decide which ISPs?

JA: That’s a very good question.

ES: Yeah, it is a pretty complicated set of questions.

JA: I will give you an example of how not to choose them. We dealt with a case in the Turks and Caicos Islands where there was a great little group called the TCI Journal (Turks and Caicos Islands Journal). They are a bunch of political reformers, ecologically minded people who live there and saw that overseas property developers were coming in and somehow getting Crown land very cheaply and building big high-rises on it and so on. They were campaigning for good governance and trying to expose these people.

It’s a classic best-use case for the internet: cheap publication means that we can have many more types of publishers, including self-subsidizing publishers. People are able to publish purely for ideological reasons or for altruistic reasons, because the costs of altruism in relation to publishing are not so high that you can’t do it.

They were hounded out of the Turks and Caicos Islands pretty quickly. They moved their servers to India. The property developer that they had been busy exposing then hired correspondent lawyers in London, who hired correspondent lawyers in India who hounded them out of their ISP there. They moved to Malaysia; they got hounded out, same deal – they became unprofitable to the ISP as soon as the legal letters started arriving. They went to the US and their US ISP didn’t fold – they picked one that was a bit better. The editors were anonymous because of the threats, although the columnists often weren’t, but the responsible party, in the publishing sense, was anonymous. However, it was noticed that they were using a Gmail address, and so the property developers filed suit in California and as part of that they started issuing subpoenas, including on Gmail. The result was that Google told the TCI Journal that they had to come to California to defend themselves, otherwise everything would be handed over.

These are little guys in the Turks and Caicos Islands trying to stop corruption in their country against a property developer with vast resources. How can they go to California to fight off a subpoena which is part of a bogus libel suit? Well, of course they can’t. But we managed to arrange some lawyers for them, and there just happened to be a great bit of the California statute code that addressed this precise situation, which is when someone publishes something and then you issue a subpoena to try and get their identity. You can’t do it and you have to pay costs. That was a nice little legal hook that someone had introduced. Google didn’t send any lawyers to help them.

That’s an example of what happens if you’re pretty bright guys – they had a good Indian technical guy, they had bright political guys – and you come together to try and fix corruption in your country using the internet as your publishing mechanism. What happens? You are hounded from one end of the earth to the other! These guys were lucky in that they had enough resources to survive this hounding, and they ended up finding some friends and settling into a position where they are all right.

For us this was a matter of looking at which ISPs had survived pressure. Because I have been involved in politics, technology, and anti-censorship for a long time I knew some of the players. We had ISPs that we had already infiltrated ideologically, where we had friends. We knew that they would fight in our corner if a request came in, and we knew there was a decent chance that if subpoenas were served, even with a gag order, we’d soon find out about it.

Could someone do this who is not in that world? Not easily. You can look at ISPs that WikiLeaks is currently using, or that the Pirate Bay has used, or other groups that are tremendously under attack. It is often a little ISP that is like this. There’s a little ISP called PRQ in Sweden that was founded by Gottfrid, whose pseudonym is anakata – he’s one of the technical brains behind the Pirate Bay. They had developed a niche industry, along with Bahnhof, a bigger ISP in Sweden, dealing with refugee publishers – and that is the correct phrase for it; they are publishing refugees.

PRQ had, other than WikiLeaks, the American Homeowners Association, which had to flee from property developers in the United States; the Kavkaz Center, a Caucasus news center which is constantly under attack by the Russians (in fact PRQ was raided several times by the Swedish government after leverage from the Russian government); the Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, an American outfit which had been sued out of America by Scientology.

Another example is Malaysia Today, run by a wonderful guy by the name of Raja Petra who has two arrest warrants out for him in Malaysia. He has fled to London, but his servers can’t survive in London; they are in Singapore and the United States.

ES: But again [indistinct] there are a lot of other sites that participate in this.

JA: Yes, we have some fourteen hundred; we have mirrors that are voluntary.

ES: So those are basically opt-in mirror sites?

JA: They determine their own risks. We don’t know anything about them. We can’t guarantee that they are at all trustworthy, but they do increase the numbers.

ES: You have been quoted in the press as saying that there is a much larger store of information that is encrypted and distributed. Is it distributed in those sorts of places?

JA: No, we openly distribute encrypted backups of materials that we view as highly sensitive, that we are to publish in the coming year.

ES: Got it.

JA: Not, as some people have said, so that we have a “thermonuclear device” to use on our opponents, but rather so that there is very little possibility that that material will be taken from the historical record, even if we are completely wiped out.

ES: And eventually you will reveal the key that is necessary to decrypt it?

JA: No. Ideally, we will never reveal the key.

ES: I see.

JA: Because there are things like redactions that sometimes need to be done on this material.

ES: Sure.

JA: Our view is that the material is so significant that even if we released it as is, with no redactions, the benefits would outweigh the harm. But through redacting things we can get the harm down even more.

Excerpted with permission from When Google Met WikiLeaks by Jullan Asange, published by Navayana.