Julian Assange: The Web can create revolutions — or jail revolutionaries

The WikiLeaks editor argues that the Internet makes revolution possible, but also massive government surveillance

Topics: Julian Assange, Cypherpunks, Internet Culture, WikiLeaks,

Excerpted from "Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet," a collection of conversations between Julian Assange and three colleagues while under house arrest.

Julian Assange: If we go back to this time in the early 1990s when you had the rise of the cypherpunk movement in response to state bans on cryptography, a lot of people were looking at the power of the Internet to provide free uncensored communications compared to mainstream media. But the cypherpunks always saw that, in fact, combined with this was also the power to surveil all the communications that were occurring. We now have increased communication versus increased surveillance. Increased communication means you have extra freedom relative to the people who are trying to control ideas and manufacture consent, and increased surveillance means just the opposite.

The surveillance is far more evident now than it was when bulk surveillance was just being done by the Americans, the British, the Russians and some other governments like the Swiss and the French. Now it is being done by everyone, and by nearly every state, because of the commercialization of mass surveillance. And it’s totalizing now, because people put all their political ideas, their family communications, and their friendships on to the Internet. So it’s not just that there is increased surveillance of the communication that was already there; it’s that there is so much more communication. And it’s not just an increase in the volume of communication; it’s an increase in the types of communication. All these new types of communication that would previously have been private are now being mass intercepted. There is a battle between the power of this information collected by insiders, these shadow states of information that are starting to develop, swapping with each other, developing connections with each other and with the private sector, versus the increased size of the commons with the internet as a common tool for humanity to speak to itself.

I want to think about how we present our ideas. The big problem I’ve had, as someone who is steeped in state surveillance and understanding how the transnational security industry has developed over the past 20 years, is that I’m too familiar with it and so I don’t understand how to see this from a common perspective. But now our world is everyone’s world, because everyone has thrown the inner core of their lives onto the Internet. We have to somehow communicate what we know while we still can.



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Andy Müller-Maguhn: I suggest not looking at it from a citizen’s point of view but from the point of view of people in power. The other day I was at this strange conference in Washington and I met these guys with a German embassy badge. I approached them and I said, “Oh, you’re from the German embassy,” and they said, “Ah, not exactly from the embassy, we are from near Munich.” It turned out they were from the foreign intelligence and I asked them at the evening buffet, “So, what is the focus of secrecy?” They told me, “Well, it’s about slowing down processes in order to better control them.” That’s the core of this kind of intelligence work, to slow down a process by taking away the ability of people to understand it. To declare things secret means you limit the amount of people who have the knowledge and therefore the ability to affect the process.

If you look at the Internet from the perspective of people in power then the last 20 years have been frightening. They see the Internet like an illness that affects their ability to define reality, to define what is going on, which is then used to define what the people know of what is going on and their ability to interact with it. If you look at, say, Saudi Arabia, where by some historical accident religious leaders and the people owning the majority of the country are the same, their interest in change is in the zeros. Zero to minus five, maybe. They look at the Internet like an illness and ask their consultants, “Do you have some medicine against this thing out there? We need to be immune if this affects our country, if this Internet thingy comes.” And the answer is mass surveillance. It is, “We need to control it totally, we need to filter, we need to know everything that they do.” And that is what has happened in the last 20 years. There was massive investment in surveillance because people in power feared that the Internet would affect their way of governance.

Assange: And yet despite this mass surveillance, mass communication has led to millions of people being able to come to a fast consensus. If you can go from a normal position to a new mass consensus position very quickly, then while the state might be able to see it developing, there’s not enough time to formulate an effective response.

Now that said, there was a Facebook-organized protest in 2008 in Cairo. It did surprise the Mubarak government, and as a result these people were tracked down using Facebook. In 2011, in a manual which was one of the most important documents used in the Egyptian revolution, the first page says “Do not use Twitter or Facebook” to distribute the manual, and the last page says “Do not use Twitter or Facebook” to distribute the manual. Nonetheless, plenty of Egyptians did use Twitter and Facebook. But the reason they survived is because the revolution was successful. If it had not been successful, then those people would have been in a very, very grim position. And let’s not forget that pretty early on President Mubarak cut off the Internet in Egypt. It is actually questionable whether the Internet blackout facilitated the revolution or harmed it. Some people think it facilitated it, because people had to go out on the street to get news about what was happening, and once you’re out on the street you’re out on the street. And people were directly affected because their cell phone and Internet didn’t work anymore.

So if it is going to be successful, there needs to be a critical mass, it needs to happen fast, and it needs to win, because if it doesn’t win then that same infrastructure that allows a fast consensus to develop will be used to track down and marginalize all the people who were involved in seeding the consensus.

So that was Egypt, which, yes, was a U.S. ally, but which is not a part of the English-speaking intelligence alliance of the U.S., the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Now instead let’s try to imagine the Egyptian revolution kicking off in the United States — what would happen to Facebook and Twitter? They would be taken over by the state. And if the revolution was not successful they would be plumbed, as they are now, by the CIA and FBI for details on who were the critical participants.

Jérémie Zimmermann: It’s difficult to disassociate surveillance from control. We need to address both. That’s more my interest—the control of the Internet, whether it is by governments or corporations.

Jacob Appelbaum: I think it’s pretty clear that censorship is a by-product of surveillance generally speaking, whether it’s self-censorship or actually technical censorship, and I think that an important way to convey this to regular people is to do it non-technically. For example, if we built roads the way that we build the Internet, every road would have to have surveillance cameras and microphones that no one except the police could access, or someone who has successfully pretended to be the police.

Assange: They’re getting there, Jake, in the UK.

Appelbaum: When you build a road it is not a requirement that every inch can be monitored with perfect surveillance that is only available to a secret group of people. Explaining to everyday people that that is the way we are building roads on the internet and then requiring people to use those roads — that is something that regular people can connect with when they realize that the original builders of the road will not always be the ones in control.

Andy Müller-Maguhn: But some people don’t even build roads. They put a garden out there and invite everybody to be naked. So now we’re talking Facebook! It’s a business case to make people comfortable with disclosing their data.

Appelbaum: Right. People were compensated for being in the Stasi — the old East German state security — and they are compensated for participating in Facebook. It’s just in Facebook they are compensated with social credits — to get laid by their neighbor — instead of being paid off directly. And it’s important to just relate it to the human aspect, because it’s not about technology, it’s about control through surveillance. It’s the perfect Panopticon in some ways.

Assange: I’m quite interested in the philosophy of technique. Technique means not just a piece of technology but it means, say, majority consensus on a board, or the structure of a parliament — it’s systematized interaction. For example, it seems to me that feudal systems came from the technique of mills. Once you had centralized mills, which required huge investments and which were easily subject to physical control, then it was quite natural that you would end up with feudal relations as a result. As time has gone by we seem to have developed increasingly sophisticated techniques. Some of these techniques can be democratized; they can be spread to everyone. But the majority of them — because of their complexity — are techniques that form as a result of strongly interconnected organizations like Intel Corporation. Perhaps the underlying tendency of technique is to go through these periods of discovering technique, centralizing technique, democratizing technique — when the knowledge about how to do it floods out in the next generation that is educated. But I think that the general tendency for technique is to centralize control in those people who control the physical resources of techniques.

Something like a semi-conductor manufacturer is, I think, the ultimate example of that, where you need such order that the air itself must be pure, where you need a construction plant that has thousands of people in it who have to wear hairnets to keep every little skin flake, every bit of hair away from the semi-conductor manufacturing process, which is a multi-step process that is extremely complicated. And there are literally millions of hours of research knowledge possessed by the semi-conductor manufacturing organization. If those things are popular, which they are, and they underpin the Internet, then coded within Internet liberation is semi-conductor manufacturing. And coded within semi-conductor manufacturing is the ability for whoever has physical control of the semi-conductor manufacturer to extract enormous concessions.

So underpinning the high-tech communications revolution — and the liberty that we have extracted from that — is the whole neoliberal, transnational, globalized modern market economy. It is in fact the peak of that. It is the height, in terms of technological achievement, that the modern globalized neoliberal economy can produce. The Internet is underpinned by extremely complex trade interactions between optical fiber manufacturers, semi-conductor manufacturers, mining companies that dig all this stuff up, and all the financial lubricants to make the trade happen, courts to enforce private property laws and so on. So it really is the top of the pyramid of the whole neoliberal system.

Müller-Maguhn: On the point about technique, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, it was actually forbidden occasionally in parts of Germany and that’s the way it spread all over the country, because when it was forbidden in one area they moved to another jurisdiction. I didn’t study it in all the details but what I know is that they messed up with the Catholic Church because they were breaking the monopoly on printing books, and once they got into legal trouble they moved on to a place where it was not forbidden. In a way this helped to spread it.

The Internet was, I think, slightly different because on the one hand you have machines that can be used as a production facility, which even the Commodore 64 was, in a way, as most people used it for other purposes.

Assange: So, each little machine that you had you could run your own software.

Müller-Maguhn: Yes. And you could also use it to distribute ideas. But on the other hand, philosophically, as John Gilmore — one of the founders of the U.S. based Electronic Frontier Foundation — said at the beginning of the 1990s when the internet attained global reach, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” As we know today, that was a mixture of technical interpretation combined with an optimistic impact view, a kind of wishful thinking and also a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Assange: But it was true for Usenet, which is a many-to-many e-mail system, if you like, that started about thirty years ago. To explain Usenet simply, imagine there is no difference between people and servers and every person is running their own Usenet server. You write something, and you give it to one or two people. They (automatically) check to see if they already have it. If they don’t already have it they take it and give it to everyone they are connected to. And so on. And as a result the message floods through everyone and everyone eventually gets a copy. If any person is engaged in censorship then they are just ignored, it doesn’t make any difference. The message still spreads through all the people who are not censors. Gilmore was speaking about Usenet, he was not speaking about the internet. He was also not speaking about web pages.

Müller-Maguhn: While this is technically correct, the interpretation of his words and their long-term impact was to generate people who understood themselves as the internet. People said, “Ok, there’s censorship, we’ll route around it,” where the politician with no technical understanding thought, “Oh shit, there’s a new technology that limits our control of the information sphere.” So I think Gilmore, who was one of the fore-thinkers of cypherpunk, did a great job of leading things in this direction, which inspired the whole crypto-anarchistic way of having your own form of anonymous communication without fearing that you will be followed up.

Zimmermann: I see a difference with what we describe as the spreading of technology, because in the case of the mill and the printing press you had to look at one to understand how it works, whereas now we are increasingly building control inside the technology. The control is built-in. If you look at a modern computer in most cases you cannot even open it to get to know all the components. And all the components are in small cases—you cannot know what they are doing.

Müller-Maguhn: Because of the complexity?

Zimmermann: Because of the complexity and also because the technology itself is not intended to be understood. That’s the case with proprietary technology. Cory Doctorow describes it in his “The War on General-Purpose Computing.” Where a computer is a generic machine, you can do everything with it. You can process any information as an input; transform it into anything as an output. And more and more we’re building devices that are those general-purpose computers but which are restricted to do just GPS or just telephone or just MP3 player. More and more we are building machines that have built-in control, to forbid the user from doing certain things.

Assange: That’s built-in control to prevent people understanding it and modifying it from the purpose that the manufacturer wanted it for, but we have worse than this now, because it is actually connected up to the network.

Zimmermann: Yes, so it can contain the function to monitor the user and its data. This is why free software is so important for a free society.

Müller-Maguhn: I totally agree that we need the general-purpose machine, but this morning when I was trying to fly here from Berlin the plane actually aborted starting — it’s the first time this has happened to me. The plane drove to the side and the Captain said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we had a failure in the electrical systems so we decided to stop and restart the systems.” I was actually thinking, “Oh shit, sounds like Windows reboot, Control Alt Delete — maybe it works!” So actually, I would not be totally unhappy to have a single-purpose machine on a plane which just does that and does that very well. If I’m sitting in a flying machine I don’t want the pilots to be distracted by playing Tetris or having Stuxnet or whatever.

Zimmermann: The plane by itself doesn’t process your personal data, it doesn’t have control over your life.

Müller-Maguhn: Well, a flying machine does have control over my life for a time.

Appelbaum: Cory’s argument is also, I think, best described by saying that there are no more cars, there are no more airplanes, there are no more hearing aids; there are computers with four wheels, computers with wings, and computers that help you to hear. And part of this is not whether or not they are single-purpose computers; it’s whether or not we can verify that they do the thing that they say that they do, and whether or not we understand how well they do it. Often people try to argue that they have the right to lock that up and to keep it a secret, and they make computers either complex or they make it legally difficult to understand them. That is actually dangerous for society because we know that people don’t always act in everyone’s best interests, and we also know that people make mistakes — not maliciously — and so locking these things up is very dangerous on a number of levels, not the least of which is that we are all imperfect. That’s just a fact. The ability to have access to the blueprints of the systems underlying our lives is part of why free software is important, but it’s also why free hardware is important. It improves our ability to freely make sustainable investments, to improve the systems we use and to determine if these systems work as expected.

But regardless of freedom, it’s also why it is important to understand these systems, because when we don’t understand them there’s a general trend to defer to authority, to people who do understand them or are able to assert control over them, even if they do not understand the essence of the thing itself. Which is why we see so much hype about cyber war — it’s because some people that seem to be in the authority about war start talking about technology as if they understand it. Such people are often talking about cyber war and not one of them, not a single one, is talking about cyber peace-building, or anything related to peace-building. They are always talking about war because that’s their business and they are trying to control technological and legal processes as a means for promoting their own interests. So when we have no control over our technology such people wish to use it for their ends, for war specifically. That’s a recipe for some pretty scary stuff — which is how I think we ended up with Stuxnet — and otherwise reasonable people suggest, while the U.S. wages war, that such tactics will somehow prevent wars. That’s perhaps a reasonable argument for a country that isn’t actively invading other nations, but hardly credible in the context of a nation involved in multiple ongoing concurrent invasions.

Excerpted from “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet” by Julian Assange. Copyright 2012 Julian Assange. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, OR Books.

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