I looked at something that I had seen going on with the world, which is that I thought there were too many unjust acts. And I wanted there to be more just acts, and fewer unjust acts.
And one can ask, “What are your philosophical axioms for this?” And I say, “I do not need to consider them. This is simply my temperament. And it is an axiom because it is that way.” That avoids getting into further unhelpful philosophical discussion about why I want to do something. It is enough that I do.
In considering how unjust acts are caused, and what tends to promote them, and what promotes just acts, I saw that human beings are basically invariant. That is, their inclinations and biological temperament haven’t changed much over thousands of years. Therefore the only playing field left is: what do they have and what do they know?
What they have—that is, what resources they have at their disposal, how much energy they can harness, what food supplies they have and so on—is something that is fairly hard to influence. But what they know can be affected in a nonlinear way because when one person conveys information to another they can convey it on to another, and another, in a way that is nonlinear[i].
So you can affect a lot of people with a small amount of information. Therefore, you can change the behavior of many people with a small amount of information. The question then arises as to what kinds of information will produce behavior which is just and disincentivize behavior which is unjust?
All around the world there are people observing different parts of what is happening to them locally. And there are other people that are receiving information that they haven’t observed firsthand. In the middle there are people who are involved in moving information from the observers to the people who will act on information. These are three separate problems that are all tied together.
I felt that there was a difficulty in taking observations and, in an efficient way, putting them into a distribution system which could then get this information to people who would act upon it. You can argue that companies like Google, for example, are involved in this “middle” business of moving information from people who have it to people who want it.
The problem I saw was that this first step was crippled, and often the last step was as well, when it came to information that governments were inclined to censor.
“People don’t want to be coerced, they don’t want to be killed.”
We can look at this whole process as justice produced by the Fourth Estate[ii]. This description, which is partly derived from my experiences in quantum mechanics, looks at the flow of particular types of information which will effect some change in the end. The bottleneck appeared to me to be primarily in the acquisition of information that would go on to produce changes that were just.
In a Fourth Estate context, the people who acquire information are sources; the people who work on information and distribute it are journalists and publishers; and the people who may act on it includes everyone.
That’s a high-level construct. But it then comes down to how you practically engineer a system that solves that problem, and not just a technical system but a total system. WikiLeaks was, and is, an attempt—although still very young—at a total system.
On the technical front, our first prototype was engineered for a very adverse situation where publishing would be extremely difficult and our only effective defense would be anonymity, where sourcing would be difficult (as it still currently is for the national security sector), and where internally we had a very small and completely trusted team.
I would say that probably the most significant form of censorship, historically, has been economic censorship, where it is simply not profitable to publish something because there is no market for it.
I describe censorship as a pyramid. On the top of the pyramid there are the murders of journalists and publishers. On the next level there are legal attacks on journalists and publishers. A legal attack is simply a delayed use of coercive force, which doesn’t necessarily result in murder but may result in incarceration or asset seizure.
Remember, the volume of the pyramid increases significantly as you go down from the peak, and in this example that means that the number of acts of censorship also increases as one goes down.
“We would need a publishing system where the only defense was anonymity.”
There are very few people who are murdered, there are a few public legal attacks on individuals and corporations and then at the next level down there is a tremendous amount of self-censorship. This self-censorship occurs in part because people don’t want to move up into the upper parts of the pyramid—they don’t want to come under legal attack and coercive force, they don’t want to be killed. That discourages people from behaving in a certain way.
Then there are other forms of self-censorship motivated by concerns over missing out on business deals, missing out on promotions. Those are even more significant because they are lower down the pyramid. At the very bottom—which is the largest volume—is all those people who cannot read, do not have access to print, do not have access to fast communications, or where there is no profitable industry in providing such[iii].
We decided to deal with the top two sections of this censorship pyramid: threats of violence, and the delayed threats of violence that are represented by the legal system. In some ways that is the hardest case; in some ways it is the easiest case.
It is the easiest case because it is clear-cut when things are being censored or not. It is also the easiest case because the volume of censorship is relatively small, even if the per-event significance can be very high.
Initially, WikiLeaks didn’t have that many friends. Although of course I had some previous political connections of my own from other activities, we didn’t have significant political allies and we didn’t have a worldwide audience that was looking to see how we were doing. So we took the position that we would need to have a publishing system where the only defense was anonymity. It had no financial defense; it had no legal defense; and it had no political defense. Its defenses were purely technical.
That meant a system that was distributed at its front[iv] with many domain names, and a fast ability to change those domain names[v], a caching system[vi], and, at the back, tunneling through the Tor network to hidden servers[vii].
Extracted from When Google Met WikiLeaks by Julian Assange published by OR Books. Newsweek readers can obtain a 20 percent discount on the cover price when ordering from the OR Books website and including the offer code word NEWSWEEK.
[i] What is meant by “nonlinear” here is that the rate at which information spreads is not a constant, but instead increases as it spreads throughout a population. For example, if on one day a person spreads an idea to two people, and on the next day the three of them each spread it to two new people, and so on, then after the first day three people know, after the second day nine people know, after the first week 2,187 people know, and after twenty-one days every person on earth knows (given the present human population of 7.1 billion). In literal terms, “nonlinear” means “cannot be graphed as a straight line.”
[ii] The “Fourth Estate” is an informal term referring to any group outside governmental or political organizations that have an influence on politics. It is usually used to denote the press.
[iii] For a visual representation of the censorship pyramid, see Marienna Pope-Weidemann, “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet” (review), Counterfire, 13 September 2013, archive.today/Oyczc
For further discussion of this idea, see Julian Assange with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, and Jérémie Zimmermann, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (OR Books, 2012), pp. 123–124.
[iv] “Distributed at its front” is a technical description. The “front” of a website is the part that is visible when you visit it with your browser. On most news websites, the front and the back of the website are at the same physical location. This means that it is easier to censor, because there is just one point of weakness. WikiLeaks was built to deal with censorship, so it used a different model, where the back ends of the site are hidden and secret, and where the front end of the website is copied across lots of different computers. This means that even if one of the computers that hosts the “front” of the website is attacked, there will be other copies, and the site will still be available to the public. Furthermore, the “back” of the website remains secret, and new “front” nodes can be created at will.
[v] A “domain name” is a human-readable name for an internet site, like “wikileaks.org” or “whitehouse.gov” All devices connected to the internet are assigned numerical addresses, known as IP addresses. All internet sites on the web are hosted on computers, and can be accessed with an IP address. For example, “18.104.22.168” is an IP address for the WikiLeaks website (just one of many front nodes). IP addresses are difficult to remember. To solve this problem, the “domain name system” (DNS) was invented: the system for linking “domain names” to IP addresses.
Unlike IP addresses, which are automatically assigned whenever you connect a device to the network, you can own a domain name of your choice by registering it with a “domain name registrar” for a small fee. All domain names are entered into a global directory—like a telephone directory—that links each domain name to the real IP address of an actual website. When “wikileaks.org” is typed into a browser, the browser first does a “lookup”—it contacts a DNS server, which contains a copy of the global directory, and looks up the domain name “wikileaks.org” to find the corresponding IP. It then loads the website from that IP. When a domain name is successfully translated into an IP address, it is said to have “resolved.”
A “DNS attack” is an attempt to cut off an internet site by interfering with the directory that links the domain name to the IP address, so that it will no longer resolve. But just as there are many different telephone directories, there are many different DNS servers. By being able to switch DNS servers quickly, it is possible to defend against the effects of a DNS attack, and ensure that the website is accessible.
[vi] “A caching system,” in the abstract, is a fast system that holds no information to begin with but is connected to a slow system that does. When the cache is asked for information, it initially relays the request to the slow system, forwards the reply, and keeps a copy. When the cache is asked again, it quickly sends the copy it has previously made.
WikiLeaks uses many location-shielding and encryption technologies that can slow down the path to the “back end,” where the content is generated. In this context, a caching system is designed to help speed up the overall system, to make it more usable, by speeding up any repeated requests, which the majority of requests are.
[vii] A “hidden server,” in this context, is a server that is not accessible using the conventional internet. WikiLeaks was using custom software to hide some of its websites in a way that was inaccessible to most of the internet.
The “back end” of WikiLeaks—that is, the software that produces the WikiLeaks website—was hidden. From the hidden “back end” the content was pushed to the front nodes by “tunneling through the Tor network,” that is, using the location-hiding and encrypted Tor network to push content to the servers where people could read it.
The concept is similar to that of the “Tor hidden service.” See the Tor Project website: archive.today/tmQ5y