Julian Assange Speech, Oslo Freedom Forum, April 2010, Oslo, Norway
Video available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDvfQ5gZ-Jw
This is crowdsourced transcription. Please do not quote without checking with original recording.
Julian Assange: I’m very pleased to be amongst so many people I can respect. I don’t think I have ever been in a room with so many people that I think hold to my values. That is really an extraordinary honor and I am very grateful to the organisers for inviting everyone and me. I see in the front front row we have Anwar Ibrahim who I met in Malaysia last year at a by-election for the opposition. Just after speaking to Anwar, a few hours later that night, I was detained by the secret police in Malaysia, so when you speak to him be careful. So we have heard a lot here about the problems in the developing world and in the work that I have done, certainly I have covered many of those and we are censored in all the rogues gallery states of China, Iran, Israel.
I don’t want to talk however, today, too much about that because censorship in the West is also a problem, and censorship in the West is used to legitimise censorship in other countries, and abuses in the West of Enlightenment ideals, which we should all hold dear, and the corrosion of those ideals not only impoverishes Western countries, it is also used as an excuse for terrible abuses in other countries, in particular countries that follow the common law that was set up by the British Empire. For example, abuses of libel law are used in Africa to imprison some fine journalists in severe conditions, based upon precedent set in the U.K. So, I’m not sure how many people here are familiar with the basics of my work… now I’ll just try and go very briefly through that so you can understand where I’m coming from.
As a journalist, and as a programmer, and as someone who was involved in the embryonic Internet, and bringing the Internet to people and bringing that great tool of information and publishing freedom to people, I saw that we could achieve a lot of reform with a little bit of work. And of course, you all know this, and you should remember Solzhenitsyn’s words, that, “In the right moment, one word of truth outweighs the world.”
Solzhenitsyn was referring to a world of lies. But this still is true, free information across the world, and it’s also true of the information in the West, that, in some cases, one classified video can possibly stop a war, and maybe fifty — definitely can. So we tried to pull together a system to automate that process to get as much new material, sensitive material, restricted material — material that we thought would achieve political reform into the historic record and keep it there.
We have, in the process, become the publisher of last resort. We, in the past three years, have been attacked over 100 times legally, and have succeeded against all those defenses by building an international, multi-jurisdictional network, by using every trick in the book that multinational companies use to route money through tax havens. Instead, we route information through different countries to take advantage of their laws, both for publishing and for the protection of sources. And that endeavor has been successful in putting over a million restricted documents into the historical record that weren’t there before. That’s more pages of information than is in Wikipedia. We have gotten into the intellectual record that had been restricted.
So, you may be… (well, you probably won’t, but I’m sure Lech will…) In 1953, after Stalin died, Beria, the NKVD chief, the chief of the secret police, fell out of favor and was executed. And the great encyclopedia of the Soviet Union had an entry on Beria, three pages, and the publisher sent out a replacement to say that this must be removed, and be replaced by an expanded version of the Bering Strait, that body of water between Vladivostok and Alaska. And into every library that bit of paper passed, and was pasted in some cases, by some librarians, not in others, into the Soviet encyclopedia, ripped out in other cases, but always the glue still visible. But that is not true anymore in the West, because archives of information have been centralised on computers. The Guardian’s archives are only in one place. They are not in libraries all across the nation that people look for; they are only looked for on the Internet. And because of copyright legislation, they are not copied elsewhere to other places on the Internet. So when something disappears from the archives — the electronic archives of the West to which all information is moving in to — it is gone forever. It is not only ceased to have existed; it is ceased to have ever existed. And when you go to those web pages that have been removed from Western papers, you won’t see the tear-lines, you will just see “page not found”, you won’t see anything in the index at all. We are now approaching the state of Orwell’s dictum, perfect dictum, that “he who controls the present controls the past”. He who controls the Internet servers, controls the intellectual record of mankind, and by controlling that, controls our perception of who we are, and by controlling that, controls what laws and regulations we make in society.
So the specific example that I would like to give — and there are many many hundreds of these, and no doubt most of you are not aware of them — is a litigious billionaire by the name of Nadhmi Auchi, the fifth richest man in the UK at one stage, whose birthday painting was signed by 146 members of the House of Commons. A very well-connected man: connected politically, connected in business, and connected in the social establishment of the UK. He attempted to remove, through legal threats, articles about his conviction for corruption in France in 2003 in the Elf Aquitaine scandal. And he just sent legal threats; he never went to court. And the Guardian removed four articles about that case from its records, that were over five years old and it never told its readers. They were removed from their index — when you follow links to them, you’ll just see “page not found.” And so did the Times, and so did the London Independent, and so did major Internet companies in the United States. But that’s just one example of a litigious billionaire, and there are hundreds.
In the UK right now, there are 300 secret gag orders. Those are gag orders that not only prevent the press from reporting corruption and abuse; they prevent the press from reporting that the press has been gagged. This is not the liberal democracy that we had all dreamed of. This is an encroaching, privatized censorship regime. And just like everything else in the West that becomes privatized and fiscalized, censorship also is not only a mechanism that is implied by the state. It is something that can be hijacked by wealthy plutocrats, by big companies, to use the coercive mechanisms of the State through the judicial system, through unequal access to the judicial system, through patronage networks, to have material removed permanently from the historical record.
So, in the West — and we are, after all, in Norway — we should not be too proud about our sense that there is no state censorship, because we have privatized state censorship. We have made it more complex and not as obvious. It is not a brute hammer anymore. It is a sophisticated device, like money laundering through Caribbean tax shelters is a sophisticated device, where the brutality is hidden in its complexity.
Similarly, when we see the path that countries like the United States — which once had a proud tradition of freedom of the press —is going down, we have to question whether it is really holding those values anymore, and what we should do about it. Because, if we don’t have Western countries as a beacon on the hill for Enlightenment values, what countries are left to hold that value?
You may — those of you who are familiar with World War II — remember the statement that was put by the Nazis on front of concentration camps that “work brings freedom,” an idea that Himler had when he himself was in prison.
But, in my investigations of exposing documents — which include many abuses by the United States military, which include the main manuals for prison camps like Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo — I have seen pictures on the front of those camps of their slogans. So, guess which camp has, “Honor Bound To Defend Freedom” on the front of it? The defense of freedom as a value is on the front of Guantanamo Bay. And I say, as a perversion of the truth, that that slogan is worse than “work brings freedom.” And we in the West should be aware of that perversion, and understand that the alliance that once existed between liberals, libertarians, and the military-industrial complex in opposing Soviet abuses in the Cold War is gone. The once-upon-a-time people who stood up for Enlightenment values domestically in Western countries, that stood up for human rights and freedom of the press domestically in Western countries — libertarians, liberals, and the press itself — were in a tacit alliance with war hawks. They were in a tacit alliance with those people who opposed the Soviet Union merely for geopolitical reasons, and that alliance was to pick up a moral stick and to beat the abuses, the terrible abuses, of the Soviet Union in relation to censorship, but as of 1991, that artificial alliance, that temporary alliance, has dissipated, and so now we see a split and a reversion back to a different standard where the natural interests of authority, the natural interests of intelligence agencies, the natural interests of the military is in stifling press reportage of abuse, and it has been reasserted in Western countries.
(How am I going with time? Right there? Excellent, ok.)
So, in this broader framework of what we do, it is to try and build a historical record, an intellectual record, of how civilisation actually works in practice, now, from the inside, everywhere, in every country around the World. Because all our decisions, individual decisions, our political decisions, are based upon what we know. Humanity is nothing but what we know and what we have. And what we have can be replaced, and degrades quickly. And what we know is everything, and it is our limit of what we can be. So before we embark on any particular political stratagem, we first have to know where we are because, if we do not know where we are, it is impossible for us to know where we are going. Likewise, it is impossible to correct abuses unless we know that they are going on. So I ask you to think about the words of Machiavelli; think about them in their negative, when he said,
“Thus it happens in matters of state, for knowing a far-off, which is only given a prudent man to do, the evils that are brewing, they are easily cured, but when, for want of such knowledge, they are allowed to grow until everyone can recognise them, there is no longer any remedy to be found.”
So secret planning is secret, usually, for a reason: because, if it is abusive, it is opposed. So it is our task to find secret abusive plans and expose them where they can be opposed before they are implemented. Because if they are exposed by the implementation, by people suffering from that abuse, then the abuse has already occurred and it is too late.