When people talk about your childhood, the two main words used to describe you are "nomadic" and "hacker." You first got into trouble when you were 17 for hacking into Pentagon networks, as well as several Australian sites. It seems in some ways that you've been engaged in a lifelong campaign against authority.
I haven't had a lifelong campaign against authority. Legitimate authority is important. All human systems require authority, but authority must be granted as a result of the informed consent of the governed. Presently, the consent, if there is any, is not informed, and therefore it's not legitimate. To communicate knowledge, we must protect people's privacy – and so I have been, for 20 years, developing systems and policy and ideals to protect people's rights to communicate privately without government interference, without government surveillance. The right to communicate without government surveillance is important, because surveillance is another form of censorship. When people are frightened that what they are saying may be overheard by a power that has the ability to lock people up, then they adjust what they're saying. They start to self-censor.
Growing up in Australia, what were the experiences that made you who you are? Was it getting into trouble as a hacker?
I lived a Tom Sawyer boyhood, which I think is a good childhood. Very physically adventurous on different islands and in the Outback and tropical regions, having small gangs of other boys, riding my horse, going into bat caves, exploring drainage systems and forests, hunting tropical fish.
I suppose the distinctive moments you have growing up, other than physical moments, are moral moments, so I designed and built a complex raft once. My plan at age 12 was to spend the night on the raft on the Richmond River, which is known to have bronze whaler sharks in it. All my friends said it was a great idea. So we went to do it, but all but one of them chickened out when it actually came to spending the night in the dark on the river.
A week later, the raft was stolen, and I managed to track down the people who took it. They were boys a couple of years older. We ran a mission at night to hijack it back, cut it loose, and let it drift downstream. The raft drifted out into the middle of the river. We paced along and the river got wider and wider, and I realized I'd have to dive in to get it, there in the middle of the night, with no one else. Thoughts of bronze whaler sharks started entering my head. I instructed my body to jump, but it refused to do so under those conditions. So even I have had that moment where I was a coward, but I think the situation called for it.
Did you like high school?
I went to many schools because I was touring with my parents' theater company. Some I did like, some I did not. I experienced a great variety of different types of people and educational systems, and it was hard to preserve some long-term childhood friendships, although I did develop some. It gave me a sense of perspective, which I think ultimately became important.
Did you go through a drug phase at university? Pot, or anything like that?
I was a bit of a stereotyped intellectual, other than being physically adventurous as a teenager. I'd do experiments on all my friends and write up the results, but I'd never take any myself.
So you never tried...
As for what happened subsequently, I think under the circumstances I'll just be quiet about my adult private life. There is something, actually. While not being a Calvinist, if you're striving to change the world in an important way, then it is beholden on you to, if you're opposing the actions of companies like Philip Morris, to not actually buy their products.
Let's talk about some of the attacks on you. Even many of those closest to you say you're difficult to work with. Are you?
I think the question is very interesting.
Spoken like someone who's difficult to work with.
I think your question is very interesting, and where does it come from? Well, when The Guardian broke their Cablegate contract with us, when we told The New York Times to piss off because of them sucking up to the White House, then these two groups tried to say that the reason we told them to piss off is simply a matter of my character as opposed to a fundamental institutional incompatibility. We say The Guardian broke its contract, the Times engaged in shoddy, tabloid journalism, fearful, uncourageous journalism, and so to defend themselves against that, they say, "Oh, no, it's because Mr. Assange's socks were dirty," or, "He's an extremely difficult person to work with."
But some who have worked with you over the years also paint you in an unfavorable light. You wouldn't be the only person in the media to suffer from a massive ego.
I don't think I have a massive ego. I just am firm at saying no. No, we will not destroy everything we've already published. No, we will continue to publish what we have promised to publish. No, we will not stop dealing with U.S. military leaks. For some people, that comes across as a big ego, when it's just sticking to your ideals.
There has been something of a mini boom industry attacking WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.
There are actually about 100 books so far, but a good 80 of those are opportunistic books that have absolutely no real writing – they're just sort of collations of things. If you're talking proper books, books someone has actually written every word from scratch, there's over a dozen. One of the funniest is a Russian book, which accuses us of being in league to defame Putin.
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