A Conversation between Julian Assange and Eric Schmidt

Julian Assange is the man behind WikiLeaks. Eric Schmidt is the CEO of Google. They met secretly in 2011, and now you can read a transcript of their conversation.

(This is not as illicit as it seems. Schmidt supposedly interviewed Assange for his book, The New Digital Age. The transcript was released online on April 19, 2013, four days before the scheduled publication of the book. I'm pretty sure they coordinated the release of the transcript, to generate interest in the book.)

The transcript is pretty long, but well worth reading. Here are some points that I found especially intriguing:

  • Addressing content by its hash, rather than by a name. Names (e.g. domain names) are scarce, and they require a hierarchical structure, which can be abused by those who control it. Content stored under a name can be censored or removed, and such alterations leave no trace. Furthermore, you can only get the content from the owner of the name. In contrast, if you change the content, the hash changes, and it is computationally difficult to forge content that maps to the same hash. Moreover, you can get the content from any node that has a copy, so it becomes more difficult to make content disappear. Peer-to-peer file sharing networks already have some technologies for addressing content by its hash, such as magnet links and distributed hash tables.

  • Preserving an un-forgeable, un-eraseable history of all content, again using cryptographic hashes. Git and Bitcoin are some technologies that do this already.

  • The key infrastructure is often the weakest link in a crypto system. Steal a key, and you can decrypt tons of content, and forge content too.

  • Encrypted peer-to-peer networks made of mobile phones. If your government decides to shut down the big ISPs, you can still communicate.

  • The young generation getting their political education from the Internet.

  • In China, the ruling powers are precarious. They have to worry about what people think, hence censorship. In the US, the ruling powers are strong. They don't care what the public thinks, hence free speech.

  • How censorship works: People censor what their boss will see, to cover their own asses. They're not that concerned about information leaking onto darknets.

  • Avoiding scrutiny through complexity: Make something so complex, that it is too difficult for your opponents to understand it. Example: evading taxes by building elaborate financial structures.

  • How to distinguish truthful publishers from liars? Require citations to primary sources? Devise some system for verifying someone's reputation? Will we see AI systems designed to produce vast amounts of misinformation, drowning out the truth?

  • Using encrypted email is like raising a red flag, saying "I'm doing something I don't want you to know about. Come install a rootkit on my machine." This wouldn't be the case if more people used encrypted email.

Power on the Internet is becoming increasingly centralized. For example, NAT boxes limit end-node connectivity, and proponents of the "cloud" want you to rely on a few big and powerful players. This makes it easy to be a consumer of content, and hard to be a producer (especially if your content is controversial). Reading Assange and Schmidt's conversation has reignited my excitement about peer-to-peer networks, where everyone is an equal, and you don't have to trust or depend on a central authority. Sounds like something from a Charles Stross novel. I think the next 50 years are going to be very interesting.