NOTE to readers: Adapted from my new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, which ORBooks is publishing this month in the United States and is available on their website. It is also being published in Great Britain by the Yale University Press UK. Sifry is the co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and editor of its blog, techPresident.com.H/t to Ari Melber.
Back in the fall of 2009, getting hold of Julian Assange wasn't easy. The Australian founder of WikiLeaks seemed to be constantly on the move, and his email habits were unpredictable. My colleague Andrew Rasiej and I had invited him to speak at the inaugural European gathering of our Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) conference in Barcelona that November. "Micah, great!" he wrote in late October, accepting the invitation. "Currently in Laos. Denmark 18th Nov-ish. Iceland not long after. Can you send me all necessary details?"
I wrote back right away, but a series of follow-up emails to his Sunshinepress.org account failed to get a response. The conference was just a few weeks away and we weren't sure if one of our keynote speakers was really coming. In desperation, I went online to the WikiLeaks.org website and clicked on "live chat." Within moments another screen opened, and I was given an anonymous user account name. I typed hello, and someone responded, telling me his name was "Daniel." I started to explain who I was, and Daniel suggested opening a private one-on-one chat to continue the conversation. No, Julian wasn't available right now, he told me, but he promised to relay my messages to him.
He did, because two weeks later, Assange and his trusted colleague Daniel (who then went by the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt, but has since broken with WikiLeaks to launch OpenLeaks, and is now known by his real name, Daniel Domscheit-Berg) were with us at the hypermodern Torre Agbar building in Barcelona, where some 350 people from all over Europe had come to PdF to talk about how technology was changing politics. The speakers included the top online organizers of the Barack Obama presidential campaign of 2008; senior tech advisers to the English, French, Spanish, German, and Norwegian governments; leaders from companies like Google, Facebook, and Meetup; and a polyglot mix of political bloggers, social media consultants, e-democracy innovators, human rights activists, and transparency advocates. But everyone seemed slightly awed by Assange and Domscheit-Berg, who were already known then among the digerati for what they had achieved with WikiLeaks.On stage in Barcelona for the final plenary at the forum, Assange didn't talk much about how the Internet and new communications technologies made WikiLeaks' work possible. Instead, he called on Western journalists and transparency activists to do more to keep governments and business honest.
"A friend of mine in the United States, Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers, uses a phrase that I've become fond of," he said, leaning into the microphone for emphasis. "'Courage is contagious,' that is, when someone engages in a courageous act and shows other people that that act wasn't an act of martyrdom, rather that it was an intelligently designed act, it encourages other people to follow him." MORE...