An interview with Julian von Bargen of York University for an academic research project in the data justice field on the “origins, growth and transformation of the information freedom movement”.
Julian von Bargen: How did you get started with WikiLeaks?
Heather Marsh: I was asked to create a news outlet for Wikileaks as a result of my pre-existing involvement in information and internet freedom and human rights journalism. Wikileaks at that point was a massive global megaphone with very little to say beyond the leaks presented through third-party media. That left both the organization and the leaks wide open to interpretation by what was at that point an all-powerful media in service to state and corporate interests. I felt that the people who risked everything to bring information to the public deserved more support. I had already been deeply involved in attempting to challenge the corporate and state monopoly on information presentation, which was far worse in those days before social media influence reached today’s level.  I wanted to focus on what I attempted to define as “the information we require in order to govern ourselves” and redirect the news spotlight, which back then was fixed on men with guns, to other people that really needed it. In those days, there was both editorial disinterest and audience hostility to any news outside their normal lens.
I was the sole editor / admin, and the only one in the organization with any real interest in the news site, so I had full autonomy (and responsibility) for everything on the Wikileaks news site (not the leak site). This meant an incredible amount of extremely stressful, unpaid work but also an opportunity that was impossible for me to pass up. Between 2010 and 2012, Wikileaks was possibly the largest political megaphone in the world, and I had what was effectively an exclusive ability to provide human rights and political content to that megaphone. In 2010, there really were not many options for human rights news to be amplified globally and most news was siloed by language. Through the site, stories that I had been trying to tell for years were suddenly reaching people, globally and instantly, so I worked with people around the world to publish every single day. Through use of the Wikileaks umbrella, all of these stories were suddenly acceptable to both mainstream news editors and their audiences as part of a voracious appetite for ‘Wikileaks news’.
JB: Why did you leave?
HM: That relationship was always going to be shaky. Media spent two years posting my ideas, words and work with Julian’s face and name on top.  The public representation of the association was agreed to on terms decided by Julian, which were “Neither confirm nor deny.” This arrangement ended for two reasons: one, Julian’s political ideas and agenda, which had always and often strongly conflicted with mine, became more intrusive and difficult to separate from the work on the site, and two, it became increasingly clear that in crediting an organization I had no control over with my work, and the work of my writers, and other movements I was heavily involved with, I was establishing a misplaced trust that may negate any good that could come out of my use of that megaphone.
That has been evident repeatedly since I left and the organization has acted in direct opposition to what I and my writers worked towards on the site. As just a few examples, they have whitewashed (and met with, through the Wikileaks Party) a genocidal dictator in Syria, in horrifying opposition to my daily coverage of the atrocities there and my earlier work covering Assad’s cooperation with the CIA in torturing people they trafficked to Syria. Wikileaks spoke out against refugees in opposition to my years of work supporting refugee rights. They helped Trump and others deflect from my crowd sourced OpDeatheaters investigation into human trafficking and paedosadism with the decoy ‘pizzagate’ noise, very specifically targeting and attempting to counter and discredit my work. As soon as I left, they threw out all my years of meticulous work establishing the credibility of everything I published by backing obviously false and biased reporting (pizzagate as just one example). They have spoken out against both Anonymous and Occupy, despite them being credited with both movements through my work. They even conflated viral interest around a project where I was trying to create a decentralized news platform (Global Square, precursor to Getgee) with their own closed-source, IP-logging, hierarchical venture.
I do not regret using the megaphone for the years I did because there was no alternative at that point for getting these stories out or expanding the interests of news audiences and editors, but I also have no regrets about jumping when Jeremy Hammond was arrested.
JB: How did your approach to data activism change after your experiences there?
HM: To be clear, these were not new issues. In the 2010 media climate, there was no way to be widely acknowledged, not even through social media, without an established news site. It was much later before any news would be considered official or verified if it was not routed through a western man or organization. Technologically, it was impossible to create a non-hierarchical news organization, due to the sealed-well structure of the web. These three factors made it impossible for me to amplify any human rights stories or continue my primary goal, which was to broaden the Overton window of what and who was considered newsworthy, without working within these constraints. By 2012, not only had the problems with Wikileaks become too difficult but the problems with social media had lessened. I was able then to drop the Wikileaks megaphone and focus on the Anonymous and other megaphones which I had also been using.  This way, I could still have all my stories picked up, under the persona of what were widely presented as collectives of elite western men.
The Anonymous megaphone, as well as those created as part of the 2011 movements, were under heavy interference and co-option by state ‘cyber-armies’ however, who mimicked and co-opted all of my media strategies for their own ends and were in a constant war to intercept and divert every story. They made social media, and especially Anonymous, almost completely unusable by 2015. I practice fold when you’re beaten on the board, and that point was the end of 2015 for me on social media. That was also around the same time it was newly acceptable to write about issues without the western male lens, so the Anonymous brand was less important.
The issues around the structure of the web are perpetuated with the structure of social media, and I have been trying, quite unsuccessfully, to challenge that aspect for most of this decade and earlier. I have not yet received any support or convenient window of opportunity which will help me with that and it is not something I can do completely unpaid and independently against ridiculously well-funded opposition, as I did all of the other work. I have therefore been focusing on work I can complete without support.
JB: What does information freedom mean to you?
HM: Information freedom is the freedom to access, participate in, understand and benefit from knowledge creation. This includes access to raw data, transparent auditing processes which include both elite knowledge and complete and immediate feedback from user groups and anyone else impacted, and interpretation which flows directly from the audit without interference from coercive manipulation.
The most important and difficult part of this goal is freedom from all forms of coercion by state and corporate actors, of which censorship of information is only one aspect. Years of research and trillions of dollars annually go into redefining terms, manipulating trust and emotive responses and every other type of coercion directing how information is received by the audience. Even if we managed to establish access to information, freedom of information cannot exist under a totalitarian state or supranational empire such as we have now. No attempt to reform information access will succeed until the mafia running interference is dismantled.
JB: What does data activism mean to you?
HM: Data activism is simply human rights. Information is power. It is secrecy that maintains power at the top and violation of privacy that depletes it at the bottom. The right to define reality is the right which creates all power.
JB: Why do you think information and internet reform is necessary?
HM: Information reform is necessary because an uninformed vote is a coerced vote. The freedom to be heard and the right to knowledge are far more important than the right to vote in a democracy. Access to the information we require in order to govern ourselves is a foundational right in a democracy, even synonymous with the word. Today this belief is marginalized, along with a belief in the right to privacy, as fringe or ‘hacker’ issues but they are rights agreed to in articles 12 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948, as the foundation of democracy or any form of consensual governance.
Internet reform is necessary because what is being created is no less than the implementation of an inescapable web of global totalitarianism and it will be very, very hard to dismantle when it is complete. It is governance by algorithm and the algorithm is based on inequality and tyranny. The general public seems as oblivious to what is happening with the internet now as they were when it was first developed. A very consistent refrain among the disinformation networks has always been that anything that happens online is unimportant and it is only ‘in the streets’ that activism is important. This has been a consistent message pushed onto activist circles, especially since 2011, for the obvious reason that the internet is by far the most important venue for challenging a global totalitarian state and there is really nothing you can do on a street against a global empire unless you are connected globally, online. The amount of state and corporate spending on interference makes its importance clear.
JB: What sorts of reforms do you think are necessary?
HM: A lot deeper reforms than most people seem to realize. That is such a big question I am currently writing an entire series of books in an attempt to answer it.
JB: How would you go about trying to achieve those reforms?
HM: See above, but as a start, knowledge needs to be recognized as a human right. Without knowledge, our actions are not our own; we are coerced to act in someone else’s interest. The right to knowledge requires more than the existing (already very insufficient) protections for freedom of speech and the press. Some other necessary components are:
Redesign the internet to allow open, information-centric collaboration. 
Restructure the scientific and academic communities to create open, two-way epistemic communities independent of state and corporate interests.
Abolish intellectual property and all ownership and restriction on the use of ideas and information. Credit should still be allocated to the originators, but intellectual property is rarely owned by the originators and credit does not require ownership.
Abolish state secrets. There are no legitimate state secrets in a democracy. If you think of secrets which most people consider legitimate, such as the location of police during the apprehension of a shooter, this is not a state secret. It is information withheld from a specific person or group who are an active danger to others. Everyone knows what the secret is and its purpose, it is information the public consents to being withheld and the time span is very short and specific. State secrets have nothing in common with this situation. Other state secrets widely perceived as legitimate involve state violations of personal privacy which should not be happening. The reality of state secrets is discussed in more detail in this talk at the Oxford Union, a place which bills itself as “the last bastion of free speech”. The CIA helpfully censored this talk and directed a media blackout on it in the UK, so it serves now in itself as a perfect illustration of what constitutes a ‘state secret’. 
Abolish trade secrets. Just look at Samsung being permitted to not tell its workers about cancer-causing chemicals they were forced to work with. Trade secrets are very rarely about competitive advantage and never in the public interest.
JB: What does the future internet(s) look like?
HM: There are two options. The first allows information-centric, global, immediate, open collaboration on knowledge creation with all personal information kept in personal devices completely separate from public information or the internet. We could have complete, transparent, participatory knowledge accessible to all, audited at every level of understanding, and protect privacy for everyone. Local governance could be both informed and autonomous and we could collaborate with a speed and accuracy that might just give us a chance to solve the problems we are facing before it is too late. Everyone would have the equal ability to make informed choices at their chosen level of understanding. We could have a universal reality, informed by information from all sources, and we could make decisions free of state and corporate coercion.
That is the option I have been working towards for years but which I have found no useful support for. Many other people, including many I have been friends with for years, are also working on components of such an internet. They are mostly free software developers and are also universally under-supported and under-funded. While a people-friendly internet is very achievable, organizations such as the EU are reacting to abuses by social media corporations by demanding that those same social media corporations take over the governance of the internet. There is no process of prior, informed consent in internet development and most people are not even aware it is happening.
Therefore, the second totalitarian option, which has received overwhelming support and promotion from major financial and state institutions and is well on track to becoming reality, will be reality. This second option has personal data stored all over the place, in permanent ledgers no less, and used as keys to gain access to any of life’s essentials. This is the internet of fingerprints and iris scans required to enter buildings or access your own devices. This internet is not built for global collaboration on knowledge, but for management of human resources as corporate product. It actively prevents any meaningful collaboration through algorithms set up to detect and block unauthorized conversations. Here are a couple scenarios which are not at all too dystopian for reality:
1. The EU is scanning all information uploaded to the internet for copyright violations. Recent (real) copyrights include letters of the alphabet (upper and lower case, all fonts), the concept of photographing a public scene, and the colour pink (all shades and intensities). How long until someone copyrights all mention of the internet or information or declares spy agencies a state secret (again)? How long until this conversation is a copyright violation which we cannot have in public or electronically? How long until they add an NDA or Internet TOS making it illegal to reveal which topics are banned and everyone forgets these topics ever existed? Or the words ‘internet’ and ‘information’ are changed to mean something else and no one can challenge that? None of this is more ludicrous than what is already happening, enabled by the concept of intellectual property and spy agency (now ‘intelligence community’) manipulation.
2. Imagine all of your ownership deeds and debts are in smart contracts, coupled with your personal information. Imagine you are at work and your child is at home listening to pirated music or your husband is at home gambling online and one of them trigger an automatic debt collection order. You look for your car, but it has driven back to the dealer. You try to catch a bus but you can’t swipe through the turnstile. You make it back home somehow and your front door is locked, the utilities are off and your social circle has been texted that you have been locked out for debt. Your neighbours won’t let you in because doing so would lower their own credit ratings. Talk to the algorithm.
3. Suppose you never got the loan in the first place because you didn’t pass the predictive policing algorithm or you were flagged as a terrorism risk in preschool. You had to get your car and home from a loan shark. That algorithm, which links to all your personal data and can track you anywhere even without a cell phone, now has an automated hit out on you and your family.
4. We know people are being trafficked and murdered for their organs, through both criminal networks and state executions (most notoriously by China and Syria, but also others). Imagine any of those networks being able to shop through their databases for a young, healthy, medically matched source with limited social ties or economic value and they can also track exactly where that person is at any time and who is with them. If they are a state, they can track this person’s personal information, find or create a crime and legally execute them. Imagine populations which corporations want removed (the Rohingya in Myanmar, indigenous communities in the Amazon or anywhere else, Central Americans in the US) being even more efficiently marketed for pharmaceutical testing or corporate product (the Retin-A testing on US prisoners or the human collagen from Chinese prisoners, for two examples of an endless number). There are currently large and longstanding concentration camps full of people, including children, in Australia, China, Myanmar, the US and others unacknowledged. Many refugee camps and prisons are close to being concentration camps. People are product. The new internet is intended for efficient inventory of that product. People who are not programmers tend to forget that IBM made its fortune helping Hitler establish databases of his victims.
There are many other planned features, such as an unbridled reputation economy which will act as a financial eugenics program, replacing fixed prices with a perfect vehicle for wealthy demographics to rate people according to their own bigotries and blackmail the most vulnerable in all the usual ways. Income inequality and privacy inequality will soar as advertiser access is a source of passive income to those who spend the most and privacy is unaffordable for the most vulnerable. The wealthy will be protected and the poor will be monitored and monetized in a vastly greater disparity than now. The wealthy will receive education and information while the poor will receive state and corporate manipulation. This is already extremely evident in social media advertising which targets the emotionally and mentally vulnerable. Greater coercion will result in less democracy and more consumption. It gets worse as you factor in all the other capabilities of mind-reading technology, virtual reality and autonomous drones the size of insects. Just use your imagination.
This is before even looking at the well-researched environmental disaster that proof-of-work blockchain, emf pollution and data storage are causing. Isn’t it strange that no one is asking the developers of this nightmare who will pay for it all or pointing out the complete infeasibility of developing this further?