Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Julian Assange

HUO: Do you have dreams for the future?

JA: Yes, many. I’ll tell you about one, which is interesting. Orwell’s dictum, “He who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future,” was never truer than it is now. With digital archives, with these digital repositories of our intellectual record, control over the present allows one to perform an absolutely untraceable removal of the past. More than ever before, the past can be made to completely, utterly, and irrevocably disappear in an undetectable way. Orwell’s dictum came about as result of what happened in 1953 to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. That year, Stalin died and Beria fell out of favor. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia had a page and a half on Beria from before he fell out of favor, and it was decided that the positive description of Beria had to go. So, an addendum page was made and sent to all registered holders of this encyclopedia with instructions specifying that the previous page should be pasted over with the new page, which was an expanded section on the Bering Straight. However, users of the encyclopedia would later see that the page had been pasted over or ripped out—everyone became aware of the replacement or omission, and so we know about it today. That’s what Orwell was getting at. In 2008, one of the richest men in the UK, Nadhmi Auchi—an Iraqi who grew rich under one of Saddam Husain’s oil ministries and left to settle in the UK in the early 1980s—engaged in a series of libel threats against newspapers and blogs. He had been convicted of corruption in France in 2003 by the then magistrate Eva Joly in relation to the Elf Aquitaine scandal.

HUO: She was the investigating judge. I remember reading about it when living in France at the time. It was in the daily news every day.

JA: Right. So Nadhmi Auchi has interests all over the world. His Luxembourg holding company holds over 200 companies. He has companies under his wife’s name in Panama, interests in Lebanon and the Iraqi telecommunications market, and alleged involvement in the Italian arms trade. He also had a $2 billion investment around Chicago. He was also the principle financier of a man called Tony Rezko, who was one of Obama’s most important fundraisers, for his various pre-presidential campaigns, such as for the Senate. Rezko was also a fundraiser for Rob Blagojevich, the now disgraced Governor of Illinois. Rezko ended up being convicted of corruption in 2008. But in 2008, Barack Obama was involved in a run against Hillary for the presidential nomination, so the media turned their attention to Barack Obama’s fundraisers. And so attention was turned to Tony Rezko, who had been involved in a house purchase for Barack Obama. And attention was then turned to where some of the money for this house purchase might have come from, and attention was then turned to Nadhmi Auchi, who at that time had given Tony Rezko $3.5 million in violation of court conditions. Auchi then instructed Carter-Ruck, a libel firm in the UK, to go after stories mentioning aspects of his 2003 corruption conviction in France. And those stories started to be removed, everywhere.

HUO: So they were literally erased from the digital archive?

JA: Yes. The Guardian pulled three of the stories. The Telegraph pulled one. And there are a number of others. If you go to the former URLs of those stories you get a “page not found.” It does not say that it was removed as the result of a legal threat. As far as we can tell, the story not only ceased to exist, but ceased to have ever have existed. Parts of our intellectual record are disappearing in such a way that we cannot even tell that they have ever existed.

HUO: Which is very different from books, or newspapers, when some copies always survive.

JA: Right. It’s very different from newspapers, and it’s very different from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The current situation is much, much worse than that. So what is to be done? I want to make sure that WikiLeaks is incorruptible in that manner. We have never unpublished something that we have published. And it’s all very well for me to say that, but how can the public be assured? They can’t. There are some things that we have traditionally done, such as providing cryptographic hashes of the files that we have released, allowing for a partial check if you have a copy of a specific list of cryptographic hashes. But that’s not good enough. And we’re an organization whose content is under constant attack. We have had over one hundred serious legal threats, and many intelligence and other actions against us. But this problem, and its solution, is also the solution to another problem, which is: How can we globally, consistently name a part of our intellectual history in such a way that we can accurately converse about it? And by “converse” I don’t mean a conversation like we’re having now, but rather one that takes place through history and across space. For example, if I start talking about the First Amendment, you know what I mean, within this current context of our conversation. I mean the First Amendment of the United States. But what does that mean? It’s simply an abstraction of something. But what if the First Amendment was only in digital form, and someone like Nadhmi Auchi made an attack on that piece of text and made it disappear forever, or replaced it with another one? Well, we know the First Amendment is spread everywhere, so it’s easily checkable. If we are confused in our conversation and unsure of what we’re talking about, or we really want to get down to the details, it’s in so many places that if I find a copy, it’s going to be the same as the copy you find. But this is because it’s a short and very ancient and very popular document. In the cases of these Nadhmi Auchi stories, there were eight that were removed, but actually this removal of material as a result of political or legal threats, it’s happening everywhere. This is just the tip of the iceberg. And there are other forms of removal that are less intentional but more pernicious, which can be a simple matter of companies going under along with the digital archives they possess. So we need a way of consistently and accurately naming every piece of human knowledge, in such a way that their name arises out of the knowledge itself, out of its textual, visual, or aural representation, where the name is inextricably coupled to what it actually is. If we have that name, and if we use that name to refer to some information, and someone tries to change the contents, then it is either impossible or completely detectable by anyone using the name…