WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange talks about Bitcoin, Google, ISIS and censorship

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange doesn’t normally give a lot of interviews from his sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London — but when he is promoting a new book, exceptions can be made. So the Australian freedom-of-information activist did one of Reddit’s trademark “Ask Me Anything” interviews about some of the topics he writes about in the book, including Google chairman Eric Schmidt, the future of Bitcoin and the terrorist group ISIS. What follows is a heavily condensed version of that interview.

On the potential of decentralized data protocols like Bitcoin:

Bitcoin is an extremely important innovation, but not in the way most people think. Bitcoin’s real innovation is a globally verifiable proof publishing at a certain time. The whole system is built on that concept and many other systems can also be built on it. The blockchain nails down history, breaking Orwell’s dictum of “He who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future.”

On Bitcoin’s long-term value as a currency:

Here’s footnote 185 [from Assange’s book]: On the day of the conversation [with Eric Schmidt], Bitcoin had risen above the US dollar and reached price parity with the Euro. By early 2014 it had risen to over $1,000, before falling to $430 as other Bitcoin-derived competing crypto-currencies started to take off. WikiLeaks’ strategic investments in the currency saw more than 8,000 percent return in three years, seeing us through the extralegal US banking blockade.

Google and its chairman Eric Schmidt

On what Google could be doing to fight surveillance culture:

I think it is misguided to be looking to Google to help get us out of this mess. In large part, Google has us in this mess. The company’s business model is based on sucking private data out of parts of human community that have never before been subject to monitoring, and turning that into a profit. I do not think it is wise to try to “reform” something which, from first premises, is beyond reform.

On Assange’s personal relationship with Eric Schmidt:

Eric Schmidt is personally likeable in the sense that most billionaires are. You can’t get there without making friends. Obama’s also likable, but runs an extrajudicial kill list each tuesday and has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined. The problem with Google, as in the US administration is not the personalities. It is the structure, the business model and social and ideological matrix in which its decision makers are embedded.

On what countries like Greece should do in dealing with Google:

Your recognition of that visit and what it means is exactly what I was hoping for–simply that people see Google for what it is and when its representatives turn up in Greece or elsewhere they are not falsely perceived to be kindly wizards with hats stuffed with cash but rather understood in the same way that, say, an information pied piper from SAIC might be.

On ISIS and corporate censorship

On terrorist networks like ISIS and what the U.S. should do:

People who argue that ISIS poses a threat to our democracies are out to lunch. ISIS is an ugly phenomenon, but it’s largely the consequence of one blunder after another by the US and its allies in the region, who shouldn’t have been meddling there in the first place. If ISIS poses a threat to anyone, it is to countries in the region, and they are the appropriate parties to address it. If the US and its allies want to reduce “terror” in the region – as Noam Chomsky says – they need to stop participating in it.

On the movie about him, The Fifth Estate:

It is an interesting experience having a $60m attack on your reputation distributed by Disney. It even had a scene in it showing us helping the Iranians explode a nuke until we leaked the script and attacked the producers. The audience could see it was not well intentioned and turned against it. Some of my friends went to see the film, and this was their reaction: We also released our own movie, Mediastan, to compete with the launch of the film. It did well!

On allegations of censorship on Reddit following GamerGate:

It’s pathetic. But censorship by companies controlling privatized political space is now almost a norm. Facebook is implementing its own “laws” for social behavior and politics. Even Twitter has now folded; censoring for example, leaks about the New Zealand prime minister just this week and some time ago banning Anonymous Sweden after a request from that country. High volume publication+control of publication by powerful organisations = censorship, all the time. We have to fight to create new networks of freedom. The old and powerful always become corrupt.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user espenmoe

Authors United may not want to admit it, but most books are consumer goods like any other

As my colleague Laura Owen has reported, Authors United — a group of writers who are upset at the tactics Amazon is using to negotiate with the French publisher Hachette — has posted a letter to the company’s board of directors, arguing that the online retailer is being unfair to authors. Among other things, the group says Amazon is making a mistake by treating books like any other consumer product.

In fact, in a somewhat bizarre turn of events for a group that is supposedly protesting Amazon’s methods — the refusal to allow advance orders of Hachette books, the removal of some books from the search index, and so on — Authors United makes an odd admission: it agrees Amazon “has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler.”

But wait — isn’t that exactly what Amazon is doing with Hachette, by using a variety of retailing tactics to send a message to the publisher that it is charging too much for its books and/or not giving Amazon enough of the proceeds? It sure is.

So then how could the authors’ group claim that Amazon shouldn’t be able to do the same thing with Hachette that it does with every other product? Simple: because Authors United argues that books are not a consumer good like any other. Books exist in a special category, and that category of products should not be open to traditional negotiating tactics used by retailers. As the letter says:

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual.

Do books belong in a special category?

So that’s the case in a nutshell — books are not like razor blades or shoes, or toasters or televisions. They can’t be produced more cheaply, and therefore by extension prices for books must not fall but should only rise, because that’s what lonely and intense writers require for their livelihood. And authors are better than people who make toasters or televisions, or who work in China.

Old typewriter

As with most arguments related to Amazon’s behavior, the Authors United letter plays on a host of emotionally-loaded assumptions about the book business (and it is a business, although perhaps not a very good one). It implies that all authors are starving and intense loners, who write because their muse compels them to, and therefore shouldn’t be used as pawns in Amazon’s chess game with Hachette or any other publisher. Or as author JA Konrath puts it:

We’re special snowflakes, unique and quirky, and the lonely, intense struggle we endure for the sake of ART is much more difficult than coal mining or waitressing or mechanical engineering or brain surgery or conservationism or rocket science.

And yet, despite this image of writers as lonely, starving artists in a garret somewhere, huge quantities of books are sold every year that are clearly based on cold, calculated marketing decisions made by either authors or publishers. Most aren’t even remotely unique, quirky or created by intense individuals struggling to follow their inner voice. So maybe it should be okay for Amazon to fiddle with that supply chain, but not with the one that applies to “real” books.

Clearly, some books play a critical role in society — but then so does music, and no one got upset when Apple started dictating prices and terms to the major record labels, just as Amazon is doing to the big publishers. Here’s Konrath again: “I don’t believe I’m owed a living, or that what I do is particularly important. I’m not curing cancer. I’m not even saving whales. In fact, I’m a damn lucky son of a bitch who gets to make a living doing what I love.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Vasabii and Thinkstock / Worac

Facebook is under fire from gay and transgender users who are being forced to use real names

Not that long ago, it looked as though Facebook might be softening its previous stance on real names, with comments from CEO Mark Zuckerberg that suggested he saw the value of anonymity in some cases — and at the same time, the social network has expanded the number of gender-related selections users have to choose from. Despite those moves, however, some gay and transgender users say the site is forcing them to use their birth names or have their pages blocked.

According to the website Queerty, the network has been ordering gay users who registered using their drag personas to either set up a fan page or change to their legal name, and has been asking them to send copies of birth certificates and driver’s licenses to verify their identity. Queerty said it was alerted to the crackdown by Sister Roma, the drag persona of a gay man named Michael Williams, who has been forced to change his account to his given name.

Facebook real names

What’s odd about the move is that Facebook put together a significant PR campaign earlier this year to promote the fact that it had changed the gender-related menu choices for users, offering more than 50 options for the gay and transgendered — something it said was done after much consultation with gay and transgender advocates. In one article, a trans Facebook engineer named Brielle Harrison even talked about how important this option was for people like herself.

Taylor Hatmaker at The Daily Dot says reports have been emerging from a number of gay communities that other users who registered under drag personas like Sister Roma are also being forced to change their names or risk losing their pages. Although setting up a fan page is an option, Hatmaker — who is gay — points out that this isn’t appropriate for many users, and that forcing them to do so or risk being shut out of Facebook altogether is unfair:

Presumably, Facebook wants to shoehorn these personal identities into Pages, like the ones brands and celebrities use. But for queer users more interested in keeping up with friends and building community than collecting followers, it’s an extremely poor fit. Facebook is making an implicit judgment call here, operating off of the hunch that an account in question is not the “true” identity of the user, which is an inappropriate position to begin with.

As Hatmaker and others like ZDNet columnist Violet Blue have noted, pseudonymity is not just a convenience for many gay and transgender users, but is something they are in many cases compelled to use because of threats of violence, or because revealing their identity could put their jobs at risk. Forcing them to use legal names essentially means forcing them not to use Facebook.

[tweet 510546705331130368 hide_thread=’true’]

As Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out during a discussion of the topic on Twitter, the action against Sister Roma and others may not be a sign that Facebook is actively targeting gay men or drag queens, but could be a result of complaints from those who do want to target those individuals, which Facebook then has to pursue. In any case, she says, the policy is unwise.

Facebook and Google+ were both involved in a “real names” crackdown several years ago, saying their networks were designed for real identities and that pseudonyms made bad behavior more likely to occur. Google has since given up on its real-name policy for Google+, but it seems Facebook is still pursuing that goal — even though it may drive some users away.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Andrea Michele Piacquadio

Why the Guardian is smart to bet on live events and a membership model instead of paywalls

Even as The Guardian has expanded its international readership dramatically over the past few years, critics have slammed the British news outlet for being a perennial money-loser, with no viable business model apart from the funding it receives via the Scott Trust. As it turns out, that is a pretty viable business model, but now the paper is expanding beyond that by launching a major new live-events strategy and a membership-driven revenue model — and there is a lot to like about that approach as opposed to the paywall model other papers have chosen.

As described in a piece by editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger on Wednesday, the new focus on live events at the Guardian (please see disclosure below) begins with the renovation of a massive former railway structure that’s located near the paper’s office in Kings Cross, which the newspaper company is turning into a kind of convention center or conference venue.

This ambitious effort started with a kind of open-house for readers that the paper put on in 2012, Rusbridger says, in which it opened its headquarters up and spent the weekend having conversations about the future of journalism and society, along with food and music and other entertainment. That weekend convinced the Guardian that a membership-based strategy was a crucial part of its future, he says:

The prospect of being part of the debates, ideas and conversations we could start and host was immensely appealing. Most readers said they would happily contribute money to the ’cause’ of the Guardian – but an overwhelming majority also wanted the journalism to be free, so that it could reach the maximum possible audience. A fair number were happy to be subscribers, but the most hands shot up when asked if they would like to be ‘members.’

Friends, partners and patrons

And so, the paper has launched a formal membership model: without paying anything, readers known as “friends” get access to all of the paper’s journalism online, and can buy tickets to Guardian live events. If they become a “partner,” for $24 a month, they get a discount on tickets as well as the ability to book their tickets in advance and watch livestreams of the events. And for $97 a month they can become a “patron,” and get special access to private events and “unique experiences” not open to other members.

Guardian membership

The Guardian isn’t the only newspaper to offer a form of membership, with different benefits based on how much they contribute: the Wall Street Journal offers something called WSJ+ to paying subscribers, which gives them access to invitation-only talks by experts on various topics, as well as special events like museum tours, or discounts on a round of golf at a private course. The New York Times also offers something called “Premier,” which gives subscribers who pay extra access to special features, including behind-the-scenes interviews with journalists.

As Ken Doctor notes in a post at the Nieman Lab blog, a number of media companies are also investing heavily in live events, since some success stories such as Atlantic Media’s dramatic turnaround have shown that events can be a significant draw for readers, and can generate additional revenue.

But what makes The Guardian‘s approach a bit different, I think, is the sheer scale of what they are talking about, and how the events tie together with the membership model. It’s not just one or two events — the British paper is spending a large sum to renovate the former Midland Goods Shed because it plans to host dozens of daily or weekly events, from the small to the large. In a sense, it is going into the conference business in a big way. Is that risky? Sure it is.

Deepening the relationship with readers

What those live events accomplish, as Rusbridger notes when talking about the open-house weekend, is that they deepen and extend the relationship with readers, a relationship that the Guardian editor notes is the most important thing the paper has — more important than its relationship with advertisers, and certainly more important than a relationship with shareholders. As he puts it:

The Guardian and our Sunday title the Observer have no proprietor: the only relationship our journalists have is with our readers. We felt we had a real possibility of deepening the intense bond between the producers and consumers of what we do.

The bottom line is that this relationship with readers is the core of whatever value newspapers have in this digital age — it’s not their ability to print things on paper, or drop objects off at your house. It’s their status as a trusted source of information and content that is relevant to you and your life. And the more they get to know you, the more valuable that relationship becomes.

I’ve written a number of times before about membership-based models like the ones at Talking Points Memo and Techdirt, and how the best of those models replicates what is happening in the music industry: namely, a focus on a deep relationship with fans, and deriving revenue from that instead of focusing on selling access to a specific unit of content or a specific physical product. I think the Guardian is smart to dive into that model in a big way.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom. Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Digital Vision

Reddit at a crossroads: The inevitable clash between free speech and a desire for funding

It’s more a cruel coincidence than outright irony, but Reddit finds itself this week at the confluence of two streams, and both of them sum up the site in different ways — one pointing towards the past, and one towards the future. At the same time that the site has come under fire for its role in distributing stolen nude photos of celebrities, it is also rumored to be working on a venture financing round that could value the company at more than half a billion dollars. Will Reddit’s desire for funding trump its legendary commitment to free speech?

Reddit wasn’t actively involved in the hacking of iCloud accounts that led to the publication of hundreds of nude photos of celebrities such as actress Jennifer Lawrence and model Kate Upton, but the site quickly created a forum or sub-Reddit devoted to the pictures — or rather, users of the site did, since one of the unique things about Reddit is that users can create any kind of forum they wish and appoint themselves moderators of it without the company’s approval.

Reddit is a microcosm of the wider Internet. All the good and horrible stuff that happens there happens elsewhere too.

— Alex Fitzpatrick (@AlexJamesFitz) September 8, 2014

Open government or failed state?

The site — which is majority owned by Advance Publications, the parent company of Conde Nast, who bought it in 2006 and spun it off in 2012 — has since removed the sub-Reddit known as The Fappening, and CEO Yishan Wong made a public statement about the move, in which he tried to make it clear what Reddit would do in similar cases. Unfortunately, his comments (both in a public blog post and in a subsequent posting on Reddit itself) seemed to make the situation worse, or at least more confusing. In his blog post, Wong said:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize. Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event. The reason is because we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. [/blockquote]

Many interpreted this as meaning Reddit would let any kind of content appear on the site, including violent pornography and other deviant or repulsive behavior, unless that content involved a copyright issue or had to do with celebrities who might launch a lawsuit. The Verge said that if Wong’s analogy to a government was to be taken at face value, then the site would have to be considered “a failed state,” since it allowed its residents to be subjected to all manner of violent imagery and abuse without taking action.

Free speech is a double-edged sword

There’s no question that Reddit is an anarchic environment, in much the same way that its predecessor 4chan is. The Awl published a list of sub-Reddits that few people would be prepared to discuss in normal social circles, including one devoted to bestiality, another dedicated to photos of attractive-looking female corpses, and so on. And yet, it is also responsible for a number of positive things as well (Redditors recently found someone’s missing father), and is seen by many as a force for good rather than evil.

empathy is hard. reddit is a rare place online where there are people actively thinking about how to express it and give more of it.

— joanne mcneil (@jomc) September 8, 2014

Reddit has been down this particular road a number of times already, including a public outcry involving a moderator known as Violentacrez, who ran a sub-Reddit devoted to pictures of women taken without their permission. After he was outed by Gawker — or “doxxed,” as a number of online communities call it when someone’s identity is revealed without their permission — the site removed him as moderator and banned the sub-Reddit. But others continue to be hosted that are just as bad, if not worse.

And yet, the site’s commitment to freedom of speech lies deep in its DNA, as co-founder Alexis Ohanian pointed out in a post earlier this year about his investment in Secret — an anonymous app that has also been criticized for the kind of abusive behavior it allegedly encourages in users, and for what some critics say is a lack of safeguards or protection for those who are targeted by abusers. At the time, Ohanian said:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Like all tools, this new publishing technology comes down to how we as individuals use it, but I’m heartened by every post I see that allows someone to share something about themselves that they’d never have been able to with their name attached… anonymity enables us to be truly honest, creative, and open.[/blockquote]

Can Reddit bridge the gap?

The challenge for Reddit now is: How does it retain its commitment to such free-speech principles while it is trying to raise money from a group of what could be nervous or conservative venture funds? Twitter has also wrestled with its early commitment to being the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” and its desire to grow and generate revenue for its public shareholders has led to a form of quasi-censorship in which certain tweets and accounts are banned or hidden from users at the request of governments. But Twitter’s challenges are like a day at the beach compared with Reddit’s.

Remaining committed to free speech is hard enough when the speech you are trying to protect is violent or homophobic or repulsive in a number of other ways, but it becomes exponentially more difficult when you have investors with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line breathing down your neck. Will Reddit start to water down its commitment, in the hope that it can bridge those two divides without losing its soul? Or will it be forced to mimic Facebook, which routinely removes photos of women breast-feeding and never says why?

4chan founder Chris “Moot” Poole has talked about his commitment to free speech and the value of anonymous behavior, and also about how he never really seriously considered raising outside funding because he assumed the content of the site would make that impossible. Reddit is about to try and thread that particular needle, and what the site will ultimately look like after that process is anyone’s guess.

Don’t like Facebook owning and controlling your content? Use tools that support the open Web

When it comes to content — personal or professional — [company]Facebook[/company] is a classic double-edged sword: it has such incredible reach that you almost have to use it, and it can drive huge amounts of traffic to your content. But at the same time it is a classic walled garden, run by a black-box algorithm that uplifts or down-ranks content for reasons that are completely unknown to anyone outside of the company’s ranks of developers. So how do you work with it, and not give all the power over your content to a proprietary platform?

Blogging and RSS pioneer Dave Winer has one potential solution: work with Facebook, but make sure the blog or site you control remains primary. Winer’s latest blogging tool posts simultaneously to Facebook and a self-hosted blog — and unlike other tools that do this, any changes or updates to the blog version are automatically reflected in the Facebook version as well. That way bloggers and other content creators can take advantage of the strengths of Facebook while still maintaining ultimate control over their work and its distribution.

Especially for media companies, Winer said in an interview, trying to pretend that Facebook doesn’t exist doesn’t really make sense, and isn’t going to work anyway — so as he described in a post, better to figure out ways to use the platform to broaden your reach, but do so in ways that don’t trap your content. That way Facebook wins, but so do you. As he put it to me in our interview:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]If you’d asked me whether I thought there should be a Facebook I would have said no, but now they have a billion users or whatever, and at some point you have to reset your thinking, you can’t just say I wish they weren’t there. Any software shipped now exists in a context where Facebook also exists, and to pretend that it doesn’t is to make your world very small.[/blockquote]

Facebook wins, but so can you

What’s particularly interesting about the new tool for cross-posting and updating Facebook posts, Winer said, is that Facebook reached out to him rather than the other way around — a sign that the company is trying to become more open. The contact came from Doug Purdy, a senior manager in charge of Facebook’s API and developer relations who worked at Microsoft in the late 1990s, when Winer was collaborating closely with the software giant.

As it turned out, even Facebook wasn’t aware of how open its API actually was: Winer said that any writing and posting tool should be able to update in both places at once, and the Facebook API documentation specifically said that wasn’t possible — but when Purdy looked into it, it actually was possible, but the documentation hadn’t been updated yet to reflect that.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]The way I see it, I’m sort of negotiating on behalf of the open web, asking them to make some concessions… and they are already more open than you think they are. That was the purpose of the tool I produced — it’s a demo, and the point was to show people this is not as limited as people think it is. And their API is incredible, it really is a thing of beauty.[/blockquote]

Supporting the “indie web”

Winer isn’t the only web veteran who has been stressing the importance of maintaining control over one’s content and supporting the open web. Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson wrote recently about the power of having a personal blog — which writers like Curbed founder Lockhart Steele and Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers have returned to recently, and is something very different from using third-party proprietary platforms like Medium.

Online journalism veteran Dan Gillmor has also written about the importance of defending the open web, and the efforts of a group of developers and programmers focused on tools that help support what they call the “indie web.” These tools allow content creators to distribute their work everywhere and still maintain control — including one called Bridgy that pulls comments from social networks back into a user’s blog — and the philosophy is to “publish once and syndicate elsewhere.”

Why is this so important? Because as Gillmor put it in his post: “when we use centralized services like social media sites… we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work, material that exists on their sites only as long as they allow.” And that’s not open at all.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Luis Santos

My take: There are so many takes now because no one is guaranteed an audience

Before I begin, I’m aware that what follows likely fits the definition of a “take,” as Awl writer John Herrman calls the endless series of blog posts, online think-pieces and me-too coverage that follow an event like the recent celebrity nude-selfie hack or the Delta Airlines Twitter gaffe. But I found his post fascinating — not so much because of what he said in it, but because of what the phenomenon he is describing can tell us about the disruption of the traditional media landscape.

In his post, Herrman calls the profusion of posts on such news events an “evolutionary defense against attention surplus,” as every media outlet large or small scrambles to cover whatever the trending topic of the day is — regardless of whether they have anything to add in the form of reporting, or analysis, or additional background on the story:

There were dozens more of these stories, all about a single tweet, from virtually every outlet that publishes news. And they served their purpose admirably: They left no attention on the table. They represent “we should have something on this” news impulse stripped to its barest form, left unspoken and carried out as a matter of course. Endless minimalist Takes, obviously duplicative from the producer’s side but not necessarily from the other.

Trying to meet social demand

At one point, Herrman describes the impetus for this explosion of content by saying that writers for almost every media or news site found themselves “under the spell of that horrible force that newspaper columnists feel every week, the one that eventually ruins every last one: the dreadful pull of a guaranteed audience.” In other words, everyone knew that people would be looking for information about the celebrity photo hack, so they bent over backwards to produce some.

What struck me about this description was how similar it is to the model that powered the former “content farm” known as Demand Media — which involved figuring out as quickly as possible what the most popular search terms were likely to be, and then generating or aggregating whatever content it could around those terms, whether it was how to change a snow tire or the meaning of Hanukkah.

Farm with tractors

Now, the entire internet is a content farm, and the wave everyone is trying to ride is no longer a search or SEO-driven wave but a social one, powered by Twitter and Facebook. But the rationale is the same — if your “take” on a specific event gets clicked on or shared the right way, it could become a massive traffic driver, pushing millions of eyeballs to your site. The only problem is that you have absolutely no way of knowing whether that is actually going to happen or not.

No guarantee of an audience

Unfortunately, Demand Media’s understanding of the new-media landscape was actually spot on: as the name of the company implied, the web has transformed the media ecosystem from a supply-driven model into a demand-driven one. Instead of newspaper editors publishing whatever they deem worthy and ignoring what they don’t (which is what Facebook now does, ironically) it has become a world in which readers flock to whatever captures their attention.

In that sense, the profusion of identical “takes” is a form of clickbait — which, as I tried to argue in a recent post, is also a result of media sites trying to give readers what they seem to want, instead of producing what they think readers should want.

The reality is that no one is guaranteed an audience any more, as Guardian editor Janine Gibson described it in an interview for the New York Times‘ internal “innovation report.” It doesn’t matter what it says on your masthead, or how many centuries you have been publishing, or how many industry accolades your columnist has. All that matters is whether people want to read it or not — and that force is as mercurial a mistress as any newspaper editor ever was, and then some.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / moodboard and Flickr user D. Miller