Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Google's Eric Schmidt and WikiLeaks' Julian Assange Get One Another's Jokes

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, April 23 2013

Eric Schmidt. Photo: LeWeb12

Jared Cohen, the former State Department advisor, wondered aloud if the Rwandan genocide might have gone differently if WikiLeaks was around in 1994.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, interrupted him — he wondered if the famously temperamental British weather might ruin their conversation. After a little banter they returned to the topic at hand, and Assange suggested that things may have been "a bit different" — "if they had Internet and a number of phones in Rwanda, I think the message would have come out more, although maybe not that much."

Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, jumped in.

"Okay, let us just ask the question bluntly," Schmidt asked, as the three — joined by Scott Malcomson, who would later go on to become speechwriter for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and Lisa Shields, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations — walked through the grounds of Ellingham Hall, the expansive estate in Northumberland where Assange was under house arrest.

"Why are you not getting enormous numbers of anonymous USB drives," Schmidt asked, "about the bad documents in African countries that are run by these evil dictator types?"

WikiLeaks announced on Friday that Schmidt and Cohen met with Assange in April 2011 while working on their book, The New Digital Age. (Quite by accident, I'm sure, it just so happens to be going on sale Tuesday.) Cohen had been at Google Ideas, the "think tank/do-tank," for just a few months. They agreed to give Assange a copy of the transcript, and say, during the recorded conversation — which WikiLeaks has posted online — that they had to avail themselves of one of Assange's own recorders to document the event in the first place.

The full conversation, according to a transcript and recording WikiLeaks has published online, ranged from the technical details of WikiLeaks' methods for avoiding censorship in China to Assange's political theories about control of, and access to, information. The mention of Rwanda was one brief conceptual stop among many.

In a Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal, Schmidt and Cohen outline the core of their view: The Internet doesn't always help activists struggling to establish democracy, but rarely if ever does it hurt. More curious, they write, is the kind of person that seems to succeed on the Internet. They quote Henry Kissinger as saying the Internet promotes a kind of "mad consensus," where activists prove exceptional at tearing down cumbersome old institutions but less versatile at building new ones. What Schmidt and Cohen call the transition from "protest to politics" follows a different route when it takes place online, where individual fame waxes and wanes far more quickly than the languid pace of traditional public life. Where trust preceded positions of responsibility, they argue, in the "digital" future that sequence will be inverted.

This brings context to a quizzical stretch of Assange's conversation with his interlocutors. Their talk moves from how WikiLeaks accepted and verified information at the time to something Assange says he thinks is important: Decentralizing access to verified information. He certainly has reason to be interested in this. After all, the way former Sen. Joseph Lieberman used his trappings of office to deny WikiLeaks use of Amazon hosting, PayPal payment processing and other dealings with American companies was meant specifically to drive leaked government information off of the Internet.

Schmidt asks Assange what technologies he's looking out for to make it easier for an anonymous sender to reach out to a dubious recipient. He responds:

The most important one is naming things properly. If we are able to name some... a video file or a piece of text in a way that is intrinsically coupled to the information there, so that there is no ambiguity-- a hash is an example of this--but then there's variations, maybe you want one that human beings can actually remember. Then it permits this information to be spread in such a way where you don't have to trust the underlying networks. And you can flood it.

Hashes use algorithms to create a unique string of characters based on a file's characteristics. It's common practice already with open-source software, before installing a piece of software, to use hashes to make sure the installer hasn't been tampered with. The software's author publishes the hash that should appear when applying a specific algorithm — SHA-1 for example — and the downloader can run the same algorithm against the file they've got. If the resulting hash is the same, then it's a near-certainty that the file, byte for byte, is the one the author made and not an altered copy. The digital currency Bitcoin's distribution scheme relies on a system called "proof-of-work," where a peer-to-peer network of computers "mines" coins by solving hash-based cryptological problems. That hash serves as an index to, among other things, a record of recent Bitcoin transactions. The community website Bitcoin.it explains that "mining" is the process of earning Bitcoin for building the public ledger of past Bitcoin transactions — in short, miners get new coins for making it very difficult to erase or alter records about where old coins came from. Anyone who mines needs a copy of past records to do it, so they also serve as a distributed backup of the transaction ledger. So miners are really being paid to contribute to the integrity of the system.

Bit.ly makes "hashes" of URLs. Same idea — connect something long with something shorter and easier to remember, search for, and distribute.

What if, Assange seems to propose, there was a way to create a similar distributed table for human knowledge? A broadly available, peer-produced, functionally impossible-to-destroy-or-tamper-with association between an index — a "name" — and the information it was created to reference? For instance, he suggests, someone could create a hash for the entire U.S. Constitution. Record of the "tuple" — programmer-speak for an associated pair, usually of numbers or strings — would be distributed across a peer network. Anyone wanting to find an untampered-with copy of the Constitution could search for it across the network, setting their computer in a hunt for its hash the same way a human would hunt through a library with an index card. In this scenario the fates of the Framers would be irrelevant — no one would need to check with them to make sure they had an authentic copy, and could instead rely on the widely held reference table of hashes to documents.

It seems likely that Assange was really thinking about the Collateral Murder video or WikiLeaks' tranche of sensitive State Department cables when he described this system. Once a hash-verified Cablegate trove hit that grid, it would be functionally impossible to remove or alter — and completely separate from its author. There would be no Internet service provider for a senator to intimidate with letters or phone calls, just information spread across the world.

That's particularly relevant for Assange. As he spoke with Cohen and Schmidt, he was under house arrest while Sweden prepared its case to extradite him there from the U.K. for questioning related to a sex abuse charge. A year later, he would draw widespread scorn in the West for launching a television show on the Russian state-run outlet Russia Today. In June 2012, he fled extradition by seeking asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. If there's anyone suited to serve as an example of how a movement — like the movement for transparency — can accept and then consume a leader in the digital age, it's him. It's easy to understand how Assange would want the fruits of his labor to survive separate from his own soon-to-combust public persona.

It's also unclear whether he was serious. Assange delivers this description in a circuitous, long-winded way familiar to me from interviews with the type of political figure who is more likely to have an interviewer on or to become entranced with his own voice than to formulate and deliver a cogent thought.

Schmidt and Cohen are inscrutable, nodding and uh-huhing their way politely through Assange's diatribe. But when the conversation veers into the technical, Schmidt is right there with Assange — even admiring his computer-geek boasts before he finishes making them.

At one point, Assange explains:

... [T]he Chinese internet filtering system is quite baroque, and they have evolved it... sometimes they do things manually and sometimes they do it in an automated way, in terms of adding IPs to the list based on domain names, and then we did... we had a quite interesting battle where we saw that they were looking up our IPs, and we see that these requests came from a certain DNS block range in China. Whenever we saw that we just then returned...

According to the transcript, Schmidt responds:

Ha ha ha ha ha. That's clever. Ha ha ha ha ha.

And Assange finishes:

...different IPs. I was actually thinking we could return Public Security Bureau IPs!

News Briefs

RSS Feed thursday >

NYC Open Data Advocates Focus on Quality And Value Over Quantity

The New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications plans to publish more than double the amount of datasets this year than it published to the portal last year, new Commissioner Anne Roest wrote last week in an annual report mandated by the city's open data law, with 135 datasets scheduled to be released this year, and almost 100 more to come in 2015. But as preparations are underway for City Council open data oversight hearings in the fall, what matters more to advocates than the absolute number of the datasets is their quality. GO

Civic Tech and Engagement: Announcing a New Series on What Makes it "Thick"

Announcing a new series of feature articles that we will be publishing over the next several months, thanks to the support of the Rita Allen Foundation. Our focus is on digitally-enabled civic engagement, and in particular, how and under what conditions "thick" digital civic engagement occurs. What we're after is answers to this question: When does a tech tool or platform enable actual people to make ongoing and significant contributions to each other, to a place or cause, at a scale that produces demonstrable change? GO

More