Exclusive: WikiLeaks's ex-spokesman on Julian Assange

Daniel Domscheit-Berg on his fears for the site -- and why Assange was nicknamed "the Disco King".

Want to know what's odd about Julian Assange's trousers? What his dancing style is like? Or how he treats cats?

All these questions are addressed in Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, the new book from former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

Now, I should be fair here. The book is not the hatchet job on Assange it will inevitably be made out to be and Domscheit-Berg is still committed to the idea of a whistleblowing website (he launched his own, OpenLeaks, at the end of last year). But its author does give some insight into why WikiLeaks -- and particularly its controversial founder -- has received so much criticism in the past few months.

The portrait of Assange that emerges is of an uncompromising man who doesn't want to live by social norms. He rarely carries cash, can sleep pretty much anywhere and often wears two pairs of trousers (presumably because he lives a nomadic existence and carries all his clothes in a small backpack).

The New Statesman will have an exclusive interview with Domscheit-Berg in next week's magazine but here are some of the key revelations from the book in the meantime. Perhaps the biggest is that when Domscheit-Berg left WikiLeaks in the autumn of 2010, he and "the architect" -- the programmer who built the website -- removed the secure submission system and Assange's access to the existing documents. "Children shouldn't play with guns," writes Domscheit-Berg. "That was our argument for removing the submission platform from Julian's control."

On Wednesday, WikiLeaks hit back with claims that they had begun legal proceedings against Domscheit-Berg for this act of "sabotage". Domscheit-Berg claims: "We just took away these dangerous toys so that Julian could not do harm to anyone else."

When we spoke, he reiterated this. "We had a three-week hand-over period and we had no idea where to put these documents safely. No one [at WikiLeaks] bothered." He added: "We've just made sure that these documents are stored away safely and we're now still waiting for a handover to happen. Those documents have been sent to WikiLeaks. I wouldn't ever want to doubt that they are in WikiLeaks' possession."

The other surprise is that, in its early days, Assange often overstated the scale of the WikiLeaks operation. Domscheit-Berg wrote emails as "Thomas Bellman" or "Leon from the tech department" and he suspects that several other team members he knew only online -- such as "Jay Lim" from the legal department -- were, in reality, pseudonyms used by Assange.

Then there are the questions he raises about WikiLeaks's finances. How much of the donations given by the public have been spent on the site itself and how much has been used by Julian personally? (The WikiLeaks website currently solicits cash for the "Julian Assange and WikiLeaks Defence Fund")

There's also the niggling question of the involvement of Israel Shamir, a Holocaust denier who's often been accused of anti-Semitism. He currently appears to be brokering deals for WikiLeaks material in Russia and Scandinavia.

In all, it's a fascinating book. The impression I was left with was that Domscheit-Berg has, as he claims, not written it out of spite, but rather a sense that the "project" is too important to be left to an increasingly isolated Assange.

"But what about the dancing?" I hear you cry. Well, here you go:

I remember one evening at a club in a former slaughterhouse in Wiesbaden. The others we were with nicknamed Julian "Disco King" or something like that for his unusual way of dancing. Julian took up quite a lot of space when he danced -- almost like a tribesman performing some ritual. He'd spread his arms and gallop across the dance floor, taking huge steps. He didn't look very rhythmic or co-ordinated and he didn't seem to have that much feeling for the music but he did possess a certain cool. He didn't care anyway what other people thought of him. You need space, he once told me, if you want your ego to flow. That statement fit well with his dance style.

As for the cat, well . . . Domscheit-Berg tells of how he let Assange stay in his flat in Wiesbaden:

Julian was engaged in a constant battle for dominance -- even with my cat, Mr Schmitt . . . Julian was always attacking the poor animal. He would spread his fingers into a fork shape and pounce on the cat's neck. It was a game to see who was quicker. Either Julian would succeed in getting his fingers around the cat and pinning it to the floor, or the cat would drive Julian off with a swipe of its claws. It must have been a nightmare for the poor thing. No sooner would Mr Schmitt lie down to relax than the crazy Australian would be upon him. Julian preferred to attack at times when Mr Schmitt was tired. "It's about training vigilance," Julian explained. "A man must never forget he has to be the master of the situation."

At the end of our interview, I couldn't resist asking Domscheit-Berg if Mr Schmitt had now recovered from this treatment. He laughed, and said: "He is doing good. He is recovering from the trauma. He is now with my parents where he can go out and hunt for mice and birds and stuff. Sometimes he is still a bit weird . . . but doing well other than that."

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.