Conversation with Steve Phillips, lead developer and Project Manager of The Pursuance Project edited by The Doctor. Also, thanks to Barrett Brown for reviewing the transcript for errors and to Lisa Rein for final proofs.
This article and its sequels constitute a somewhat edited and condensed transcript of a discussion between Barrett Brown and Steve Phillips at the San Francisco Aaron Swartz Day Hackathon in 2017. We’ve tried to trade off informality for clarity, and refer the curious reader to the original source material in the spirit of transparency. Any emphasis and hyperlink references are ours.
In 2012, Barrett Brown was arrested for his role in the Anonymous hack of Stratfor, a global intelligence company that serves corporate and government interests around the world. The hack revealed an apparent insider trading relationship between the company and Goldman Sachs, among other dubious business activities. Brown won the National Magazine Award for his work while in solitary confinement. While in prison, Barrett had some ideas for a software project, the democracy-building project called Pursuance.
From the Pursuance homepage
“Pursuance exists to amplify the efforts of activists, journalists, and non-profits by (1) creating open source collaboration software and (2) building a powerful network of talented, reasonable individuals around it…
“Our free, open source, and secure Pursuance System software enables participants to: create action-oriented groups called “pursuances”, discuss how best to achieve their mission, rapidly record exciting strategies and ideas in an actionable form… receive social recognition for their contributions, and to delegate tasks to other pursuances in this ecosystem in order to harness its collective intelligence, passion, and expertise.”
Read the full statement
STEVE PHILLIPS: I read a Wired Magazine article that said that Barrett Brown was out of jail and doing awesome stuff again, an encrypted environment where you can collaborate with other activists and journalists and people who are trying to change the world, and I thought that sounded ultra-compelling. So, I immediately reached out to him in several different ways — snail mail and Twitter and email, like all in parallel, and got through, and then I jumped on a plane and flew to Texas to meet Barrett.
[Barrett Brown], let’s talk a little bit about your background. You won a National Magazine Award, but let’s go back to 2010. You had the sense that we should be using the Internet for activist-type things. Even if it’s just a small percentage of people who really care about issues, there are billions of people online so that could be quite the force. Take me back to some of your thinking around that time, right before you started doing work with Anonymous.
BARRETT BROWN: At that point I’d been a journalist and a media critic specializing in ways in which politics deteriorates because of the failures of information, the failures of the press, and so my emphasis was on those particular issues. At the same time I was becoming aware of the potential that existed within the Information Age that was not being harnessed. When Anonymous began doing things like the Church of Scientology protests in 2008, that obviously was a proof of concept. That meant that you could, as a few people with no resources launch a massive campaign against a powerful institution and get results. And this was done very haphazardly. All of the Anonymous stuff was. I was wondering if we could systematize that sort of thing.
I recruited a number of people, academics and programmers, activists, some of whom are involved in this new project, and we were putting together a framework — both for bloggers to better communicate and better perpetuate actual information within the kind of broken information system this nation relies on, as well as a civic network for non-media people to better do the things that need to be done in a society. That was put to the wayside when I got involved with Anonymous in late 2010. They were supporting the Tunisian Revolution. They had a number of figures in Anonymous who were also major figures in the Tunisian revolt. One of them later on joined the government. And what happened there was obviously another proof of concept. And from there on we hooked on to this conflict with the intelligence contracting industry and the US intelligence community. That was what we started focusing on with Project PM.
We put together another proof of concept, a crowd-sourced research project, to continue to go through these stories even after the press had abandoned them to make sure that the materials that leakers and hackers released regarding these secret programs were actually analyzed and presented in a way that any journalist could take the ball and run with it. We were successful enough that the FBI listed Project PM and the website on my search warrant. I went to prison, then got out. Society [and] our institutions are more broken than ever. Things have changed in terms of perception such that some of the people who I think still believed that the structures we have are sufficient to continue this republic as a moral enterprise have started to realize that there is something fundamentally wrong that cannot be fixed within the usual processes. There’s a subset of those people who also recognize that we live in an important age in which the environment has fundamentally changed and which, for the first time in history, any individual can collaborate with any other individual on the planet without an intermediary. That’s an extraordinary change in the basic building blocks of society.
All of our institutions grew up in a very different environment in which collaboration was limited. We are at a period in which we have to make sure that we get to this [power] first. It’s almost like a space race or a colonial kind of thing. We have to ensure that the Internet is working for the open society because the people on the alt-right, the national populists across the world, totalitarian regimes, and our own increasingly authoritarian republic, are paying attention to the Internet. They’re making great strides in using it for surveillance and espionage and for a number of propaganda apparatuses here and elsewhere. It’s important that we figure out the fundamentals quickly and start getting people brought on to a single program where they can maintain their independence while also having unprecedented agility in terms of organizing.
SP: You started talking about the haphazard way that you and Anonymous were operating. Tell us about some of those challenges you faced. You’ve described one giant chatroom, and one disruptive person that you couldn’t really kick out could cause a bunch of issues. And then there was a wiki.
BB: Anonymous helped mix together a lot of these early groups which necessarily had to use infrastructure that was already there for other things — Internet Relay Chat (IRC) chief among those. IRC was the standard. It was already culturally the chosen venue of the kind of people who were involved with these sort of things. These aren’t made for activism, they’re made for chatting. Communication is obviously a big part of it, but the nature of these large crowds working together and the nature of IRC combines to create a medium in which a lot could be done very quickly.
But, over time, a lot of the deterioration Anonymous later went through, not just due to outside interference by the FBI, foreign intelligence agencies and companies, [was from] the sort of arguments and drama that any movement is subject to. They always grow within that kind of environment. So, the question was how could we keep the same agility, the same ability to bring on large numbers of people very quickly and put them to work and ensure that people with good ideas get those ideas heard, and that none of these bureaucratic structures arise that we see in a political party where the smartest people are oftentimes in the middle or bottom. How do we find the right mixture between an institution and a movement? That was one of the key questions we were trying to answer.
SP: There are 70,000 emails that Jeremy Hammond allegedly grabbed and put on the Internet, which Project PM went through. Do you want to talk about the arguably criminal conspiracy that you uncovered that involves WikiLeaks and Bank of America and whatnot and how that probably led to your being targeted?
BB: The HBGary release which Anonymous stole from the servers of that intelligence contracting firm was crucial in several ways. Very quickly after they were brought out, they uncovered the conspiracy in which the DoJ had set in motion a series of actions, some quite illegal, some borderline illegal, journalists supportive of WikiLeaks as well as left-wing activists opposed to the Chamber of Commerce would have been pursued clandestinely, harassed, faced with disinformation campaigns, and be set up on fraud charges: Harassments, disinformation, and setting them up on charges of fraud with the complicity of the DOJ. That was a big story for a month or so and it was on Colbert, and then NBC had me on and I talked about that. They forgot to actually mention what we uncovered. They just talked about the hacking, because that’s what’s important to them. So as always, a story doesn’t necessarily get pursued to a point in which the actual civic purpose of journalism achieved something. It gets pursued until such time as editors and producers put [it] aside. “Oh, that story’s done.”
Meanwhile, there are 70,000 emails still sitting there, and we’ve already found extraordinary pieces of information in there. The intention [of Project PM] was to pursue this because, even as these unusual circumstances arose where the nation at large and CNN, the New York Times, and everyone else are all reporting on this conspiracy, there were no real consequences for those involved. One of the firms involved continued to gain influence under Peter Thiel, who’s now more powerful than ever. The employee that was put on leave originally to try to blame it on him was later promoted. So we see here how both the state and our media as currently constituted are not up to this task of discovering these stories, and even when someone discovers it for them, they’re not able to run with the ball. Later on, when Project PM uncovered more programs, we put them up on our website. Probably dozens and dozens of people over the next year and a half – all volunteers – did research [on these programs]. Journalists, people with think tanks and foundations here and in Europe, did a great job of compiling all of these things.
But the fact of the matter was that even with all of this documented, when there was a call in Congress for an investigation into the DOJ and these companies, it was shot down by Lamar Smith, the Republican from Texas who just got retired a couple of days ago. He said the DOJ should be the one to determine if a crime was committed. Of course, the DOJ was not in a hurry to investigate this since they created it. We have these structures that are just not up to these tasks. We have to build our own structures, and we’ve seen the proof of concept on different levels, launching campaigns, crowd-sourced research, working with journalists to try to strengthen the media. We’ve seen them all to some extent with these haphazard associational groups that pop up. Now let’s see what we can do with a systematic version.
SP: We’ve talked a little about the first wave of online journalism. You started to say that we need to keep agility. We need a large number of people to be able to collaborate. It sounds like if people are causing trouble, you need to be able to kind of kick them out and have the productive people stay. So let’s start talking about Pursuance. There are several ways that we’ve described it. It’s a sort of ecosystem of people using the Pursuance system in order to collaborate. What other ways do you like to describe Pursuance?
BARRETT BROWN: Let’s start with a couple of descriptions, because we’ve tried to explain this with the elevator pitch and it takes a lot, frankly. It’s a very wide, very broad framework. It can be thought of as something between a political party and a union, less specifically political than a political party but more ideological than a union. It’s a collaborative framework for civics. It’s a digital ecosystem for collaboration. Fundamentally, it is a framework whereby a certain population of individuals are brought in, each of whom have equal rights to do several things.
A pursuance is an entity that, once formed, has a sort of DNA or constitution as determined by the person that creates it. It can expand in different ways and there are many different ways in which that expansion and delegation of powers can be done. Because this is a network in which everyone has the right to create Pursuances, that makes it okay for anyone who creates one to govern it however they like. Anyone who wants to join, for instance, a Pursuance in which a single person is directed to other people and they make all the decisions and everyone volunteers, people who want to join that can do that. People who don’t can create their own very similar Pursuance doing the same thing but as a full democracy. It’s hard to get into some of the fundamentals of this without a diagram, but think of it as an open space, think of every user as a circle, and think of the pursuance itself as a square. Circle creates a little square here. It determines this Pursuance is for prison reform. We’re going to go about prison reform under these broad methods, and I’ve created two positions linking off from me. One is public relations, one is research. And I’m giving both those people agency to bring on whoever they want under them and structure it however they like. They can bring on 10 people who themselves can bring on 50 people altogether, blah-blah-blah, so long so they do these functions that I’ve set out for them.
I think it will be an improvement in a lot of ways over IRC, or Facebook or Twitter, not the least of which is that it’s not run by government-friendly entities. When you start looking at the other things that we’ve added, the different options by which the same structural shape can add support differently, the options by which Pursuances once formed collaborate with other Pursuances, creating informal or formal connections to trade information, resources, that kind of thing. When you look at the ideas of crews, where we have Pursuances that the purpose of which is to, at different times, provide a particular service to more large-scale Pursuances. Let’s say we have a crew of designers and there are groups that are just NGOs, or there are entities that occasionally need some campaign design done, or a copyright, or coding.
Those crews make themselves available, just as happens in a more haphazard manner in an Anonymous IRC or anything else. Where some person is known, where some people are skilled, you go to them and say “Hey, we want you to make this design for this slogan, blah-blah-blah.” Eventually you have a proliferating ecosystem that expands as each participant helps it. The other method by which it’s populated is by virtue of each participant being able to bring on others. Anyone who comes into the system has the right to bring on some number of other people over time. We haven’t figured out the exact numbers for that. It may be [that] you may be able to bring on five [people], and then a month later you could bring on five more [people].
We’re toying with the ways which will best keep the quality up. But the bottom line is this [Pursuance] can grow perpetually without us being worried about it doing the kinds of things that institutions do when they grow, or doing the kinds of things that movements do when they grow… without deteriorating as they often do. We worked in several mechanisms that [attempt to] self-correct. As an example of what we’re trying to avoid, Reddit in 2009 was probably the best platform or medium by which to get information in this society. That was because there was a very erudite user-base for the most part. The threshold for knowing about Reddit was such that you tended to be a software engineer or a writer or whatever. For people submitting articles to Reddit, if there is a critique needed of the article you’ll probably see it there [in the comments]. You would probably see a link saying, “This article misstates this; here’s a link to an academic paper.”
It was an extraordinary resource. But over time — and you’ll see this is similar to other movements — the average user quality does go down but that’s not because everyone who comes on after a certain point is lesser than the original occupants. How can we build something that grows and expands over time without having to worry about what it will become later? Is this going to become part of the problem? That’s something we’re able to avoid to an extent because we’ve had the advantage of being able to see how these things work over the last 10 years very closely, sometimes from inside, and we’ve solved, to some extent, the problem of debilitation that comes with growth.
SP: Let’s talk about what the goals of Pursuance are. For anyone who’s especially Internet connected, it seems like 90 percent of what we see is negative. There are tons of problems. Prison reform needs to occur. The drug war is a huge problem. Mass surveillance. Many other issues. Would like to touch upon anything in particular Pursuance should lend itself well to when it comes to pushing up against these various injustices in addition to crowdsourced investigative journalism?
BB: There’s obviously a focus that we’ve had envisioning different kinds of Pursuances, a few of which we’re going to create in order to help them get started. We’ve created some examples of how a journalist can use this that we’ll make available on our website… [how a journalist] can come in, bring two people — maybe a college student or whatever – that he trusts to not waste his time and gives them the ability to bring on a big web of people under them so that if the journalist wants to research a topic… he’s able to convey this message to the two people under him. “We’re looking into campaign financing and I need you two on this aspect of it.”
They send this message down to everybody. Everyone now knows we want information on this particular thing and they can collaborate however they will. But the alternative to that, the traditional way that’s done is that you have an editor and you have a journalist and you have a fact-checker. Maybe. As someone who’s been a freelancer for a long time for a lot of publications, I can tell you that process is far from ideal. You can never expect 100 percent accuracy from any outlet, but outlets in general have not really been trying because there’s really no impetus to. They can get things wrong here and there. People generally don’t know, including the editors themselves, unless it happens to be your industry or field that’s being discussed.
At any rate, editors and journalists and fact-checkers should not be expected to know what the best places to look for information are. They’re dealing with sources that may or may not know what they’re talking about and may have an agenda, and that’s hard to catch. Anyone who’s been covering the press like I have… I’m in the unique position of being a journalist who has also been covered by journalists, so I’ve been able to see how errors creep in and how they get repeated. Journalists copy off each other quite a bit. You can’t blame them, they don’t make much money. So this model is not just something that will work better but it’s something we can actually convince journalists to try. We have a partnership in the works with Russ Baker, who is on our board of directors. He’s a great journalist formerly from the New Yorker, formerly on the board of the Columbia Journalism Review and the founder of WhoWhatWhy. We’re going to have journalists serve as guinea pigs on these projects.
They [members of Pursuances] can join several different journalists and every once in a while have a chance to fact-check a story. This is something that can become common. It’s good for journalists. It helps them get things done faster and quicker and better. This is something we can sell journalists on, and what we’re looking for is how can we not just think of ideas that work better, but think of ideas that can be implemented and gain mass acceptance. There’s a quote that we bat around by Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Party where he’s talking to the head of an NGO or some such and he’s telling him the problem they need to be worried about is not the people who work for you. The problem you should be worrying about is the thousands of people that want to work for you, but you don’t let them.