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WikiLeaks' Assange Defends 'News Of The World' Hacking And Paying For Sources

Julian Assange
Julian Assange
There is a viral that has been going around for a while that shows a stylized composite picture of both Julian Assange and Mark Zuckerberg. The Julian Assange says, "I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I'm the villain." The Mark Zuckerberg says, "I give your private information to corporations for money and I'm man of the year."
Apart from its anonymous submission system, little is known about how WikiLeaks obtains its "private information." There have been unsubstantiated accusations made about how it has scraped peer-to-peer networks, but the organization has always adamantly said that it doesn't hack.
I wrote about this back in July amid the scandal over the "News Of The World" and the possible similarities between WikiLeaks and phone-hacking journalists:
Above all, it does underscore the point about intermediaries and whether journalists have done enough due diligence to ensure that they have obtained their information by legitimate means -- that applies to grubby private investigators that leech off Fleet Street but also to hackers-turned-international-freedom-fighters like Assange. Read anything about Assange and it's clear that his own organization's accountability is the least of his concerns.
I'm a bit late to the game, but there's a fascinating interview with Assange in the book "Barefoot into Cyberspace: Adventures In Search Of Techno-Utopia," Becky Hogge's exploration of hacker subculture, that's worth revisiting. (There's a full transcript of the interview.)

In the 2009 interview, Assange takes a maximalist approach to radical transparency, saying that what the "News Of The World" did wasn't a terrible thing and defending the practice of paying for sources. If you accept that WikiLeaks isn't obtaining its information by hacking and accept that, to use Jay Rosen's term, it's the "first stateless news organization," there are plenty of ethical questions about how such organizations use intermediaries and their relationships with their sources.
From Assange's response, it's clear that he takes an "anything goes" approach, providing it's in what he would see as the "public interest." (He made similar, but less explicit comments, on a WikiLeaks blog last year.)
So this News of the World thing, with this using a default password on a couple of, or maybe it was many, but anyway there’s only proof of a couple, of celebrities’ voicemail boxes to listen to some of the voicemails that they were receiving. So was this a terrible, terrible thing? Of course it wasn’t a terrible, terrible thing. This is possibly a wrong thing for those particular people to do. There’s a law of the land and if the land says you shouldn’t listen to people’s voicemails, then of course the people who did listen to this directly should be treated equally under the law like everyone else. But is it a terrible, terrible thing that a newspaper took that end product and maybe turned a little bit of a blind… didn’t look too hard into how private investigators were acquiring this material? Not at all. These celebrities were wielding their influence on the public and that’s why the public were interested in them.
In Peru we released 68… maybe 78… over 60 telephone intercepts of politicians speaking to businessmen. And that was the biggest political event in Peru this year according to one of the Peruvian newspapers, and it was on all five major daily front… in all five major dailies’ front pages. These were actual telephone intercepts. These weren’t voicemail boxes, in fact. So I feel that it was just disgraceful that the Guardian wasted its time on that issue, just disgraceful and all they ended up doing was producing a climate that increased the amount of regulation of actually even more important investigative journalism. I mean, the jumping up and down about the fact that News of the World had not actually just reprinted an AP newswire or stolen something from somewhere else or reprinted a press release, but they’d actually done original investigative work about people in this society that its readers were genuinely interested in.
When asked whether WikiLeaks would ever pay for leaked information, here is Assange's response:
We haven’t, but I have no general philosophical position on that and I think it’s one of the strengths of the UK press versus the US press that it does actually pay for leaks occasionally. The US quality press has generated a cartel to not pay sources. It’s a disgrace. What if the real… What are they saying? If they get a leaked document and it is the real… it should be on the front page. If that’s the real story of the day that the public should know about. But because they have decided to have the cartel, they’re not going to pay for the news that is actually the real news of civilization on that day. So they have instead swapped that out for something that is not the top story of the day…
Of course you want to… you do want to… you absolutely… I mean, if you believe in the press, you believe that the public has – sometimes its desires are incorrect – but, that the public is interested in particular things, mostly interested in people who are perceived to have power, and what they’re doing. So if the public is interested in that, and you believe in the fourth estate, then why wouldn’t you want to get as much politically, or… information about power as possible into the hands of the public where they can use it? Why wouldn’t you want to incentivize that path?
Assange has been a bit under the radar for a while, but he's resurfaced recently with the announcement of his plans to host a TV show, reportedly on a Russian state satellite channel.