Assange: 'Me, politics and Beppe Grillo'
By Stefania Maurizi
Published in l'Espresso and espressonline, 31 May 2013
The red-brick building just behind the famous Harrods department store is always the same. And the Scotland Yard agents guarding the building day and night are still there with their vans and their cameras keeping a watchful eye. One year has passed and Julian Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, with no opportunity to take a single step outside without being arrested by Scotland Yard, which has been policing the building at the cost of 4 million pounds over the last 12 months. It is in this embassy that "l'Espresso" met the founder of WikiLeaks, for the second time since he was granted political asylum by Ecuador.
L'Espresso has been working with Assange and his organization for over three years. We met him in Berlin a few weeks after the Swedish case: his luggage and computers had oddly disappeared during the flight to Berlin, forcing him to come to our appointment with a small plastic bag containing a toothbrush and some soap. We saw him under huge pressure during the release of the U.S. diplomacy cables, left alone in his battle against credit cards, put under house arrest for eighteen months wearing an electronic manacle around his ankle and, finally, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy, buried inside a roughly 20 square meter room, full of books, computers, a running machine, a table, a bookshelf and a bed. Julian Assange has never ever given up and, as we visit him again inside the same building, he looks like he has not only been able to withstand these difficult conditions, but also has kept in very good physical and mental shape.
His face is back to that of the old days and his body does not appear affected by twelve months of confinement. Even the room where he lives and works looks more liveable than last time. The bed is not there anymore and the bulky bookshelf has been moved. However, the lack of sunlight and fresh air in the room continues to be shocking and the small whiteboard outlining medical protocol is still in plain sight.
Julian Assange welcomes us for dinner, the only time he moves away from his laptop, which is basically part of his own identity . His routine remains the same: he stays up working late into the night. "It is the conflict with the United States that created intense pressure. Such a high intensity conflict: at a state level, intelligence level, political level, legal level, financial level and in the media", Assange told us last November. Six months after, all these problems remain and no one knows how this incredible situation is going to end up.
Next week, the trial of Bradley Manning is going to start in the United States. Manning is the young American soldier who admitted leaking U.S. classified documents to WikiLeaks. "I want people to see the truth [...] because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public", he confessed in an online chat attributed to him, where he explained his motivations for leaking a massive trove of secret files to WikiLeaks.
After the chat, Manning was arrested. That was in May 2010. He was held in inhuman conditions for eleven months. Following an international campaign, his jail conditions improved. He has spent the last three years under arrest without trial and will face a court martial set for 3 June, where secrecy will reign: 24 witnesses will be allowed to testify secretly. As WikiLeaks waits for the trial of Bradley Manning challening its secrecy in court, Julian Assange tells "l'Espresso" about his decision to run for the Australian Senate.
You are ready to run the next Australian elections in September and you co-authored the book "Cypherpunks" in which you see the Internet as a great tool for emancipation, but a the same time as a facilitator for totalitarianism. How do you look at the relationship between democracy and the Internet?
«Over the last 20 years every society has merged with the Internet, which has become the nervous system of societies at the national and international level. Relationships between friends and family, small and big businesses, individuals and the state, and even between the states are mediated by the Internet in a way people are not even aware that it is. In response to the democratic potential of the Internet, states have made a counter-maneuver, and the counter-maneuver is to understand precisely what people are doing at all times: mass surveillance on a scale that was undreamed of even in the wildest dreams of the Stasi. It sounds like science fiction, but it comes about for very practical industrial reasons: the costs of surveillance has being halved every year. That has led to the greatest theft that has ever occurred in human history: the theft of the map of social relationships across entire nations. Social relationships falls out naturally from the communication records of who communicates with whom and when. If you have the telecommunication records of the all state, then using the computer you can automatically see the entire social structure and that was what the National Security Agency did in the United States».
You see internet surveillance as the greatest threat to democracy, but the Internet allows participation, access to information, so it is a mixed picture...
«It is a mixed picture, but surveillance is so powerful that no one can't escape, though we might be able to keep part of our lives out of it with some efforts».
In the long run do you think the Internet will reshape democracies by empowering participation or rather social control through surveillance?
«It is very difficult to tell, that is why the current time is interesting: which trajectory will we get? Obviously we will get part of the dystopian trajectory and part of the utopian one, the question whether it is mostly dystopian is still to be answered. There are many reasons why aspects of the dystopian view are inevitable. Technology inherently tend to centralisation, that is because it is complex to make, so it need to be specialised and located in one point. Look at internet corporations: they are extremely complex industries, as a result they tend to merge with the state in order to preserve themselves. But then the big tendency in the other direction is democratisation and the new politics that has springing out as a result. You can see that with Beppe Grillo, I don't know how his particular party turned out, but that is reasonable: it is the result of a new politics forming very quickly as a result of the internet being able to break through the communications barriers erected by the traditional press».
How informed are you about Beppe Grillo's movement?
«Not enough. I have been observing it on and off over the past 3 years. Its success is undeniably impressive from a political and logistical viewpoint. He is one of the few Italian politicians who supported me and WikiLeaks during the hit of the storm».
When you asked for asylum.
«Yes, so it must go to his credit».
Beppe Grillo is using the Internet not only as a megaphone to reach people, but also for decision making and for understanding what people want. How do you look at these attempts to use the Internet and platforms like 'Liquid Feedback' for the decision making process?
«Somehow skeptically [he smiles gently]. I do not think it is necessary to give people what they think they want in specific terms. People want to be treated justly, they want people they care about to be treated with compassion and respect, they want decisions taken around them to be taken intelligently and not as a result of stupidity and corruption. While I think direct democracy is very important to control excesses of the leaders, people are busy with living their lives, they should not be expected to engage in details of special occupations of politics, or dealing with bureaucracies or foreign affairs. They want to delegate these functions to people whom they can trust, just like you hire a lawyer to go to the court. You do not go your own way to the court, what you want is a lawyer you can trust, competent and skillful. Similarly in politics».
So you look at these platforms for direct democracy very skeptically...
«I have seen the Berlin Pirate party: the interactions between the platforms and the political and social dynamics have been a total disaster. Beppe Grillo's movement has something very important that the Berlin Pirate party has not. It has Beppe Grillo».
The leadership, you mean. So do you still believe in a centralised decision making process?
«I believe people must take responsibility. The leadership is not just about a leader who has some vision of the future and is able to put things together, it is about the fact that when there is a failure, who is to blame? If the party is structured in such a way that no one is responsible for the failures, then of course there will be failures all the time».
As we speak, we find ironic that you talk to the Italian press, but you had very harsh clashes with the Guardian and the New York Times, whereas Grillo talks to the Guardian and the New York Times, but he does not talk to the Italian press...
«Yes, perhaps he can give me a message to pass to the Italian media [he smiles]. I am not British, but I happen to be in a situation which threatens the prestige of the British state and the British media are so hostile to me that it is dangerous to talk to them, not because I am worried about their questions, but because of the editing. However even in the British media we work with individual journalists, and even in the worst organisations there are good people».
You are working as an international activist, but now you are also working at local level, running for the Australian elections. What made you to run for political elections?
«Even though we are a very international organisation, for us it is important to have countries where we feel safe. At various times those countries have been Iceland, Germany, Ecuador, Australia, France and even Kenya for a period of time. The Australian people have been very supportive of our goals, so it makes sense from the activists' perspective to take the opportunity».
Do you really believe there is room for changing the status quo?
«Australia, geopolitically, is an interesting case. At the military and intelligence level, it is completely dominated by the United States, on the other hand it is in Asia. It has a relatively small population, 22 million people in a country of the size of the United States, and only became a country formally in 1901. The class structure is still rather fluent, therefore the democratic elements are more significant and while I do not overstate the role of electoral democracy in Australia, I think it is definitely more significant than in countries like England, which has a more similar moribund class structure that Italy has».
What would be the absolute priority in your work as a senator?
«We have a number of priorities, but the party will determine which is the number one. I do not want to marginalise people who do the work».
Are you planning to focus on foreign policy, on the internet policy, on what?
«I think the most important power of the Australian Senate is to interrogate bureaucrats, scrutinise legislation and if necessary, to demand changes. I am expert in dealing with vast numbers of documents from bureaucracies, their lies and their tricks».
How are you planning to work from this Embassy, if elected?
«If elected I will not take my seat formally until July 2014, and I hope the situation has been resolved by then. If it hasn't, according to the Australian Constitution I have further two months, after two months the Senate may choose to extend my vacancy or may vote to remove me. If they vote to remove me that would be an extremely interesting political scandal».
Are you really convinced to go into traditional politics?
«Absolutely not. It will be simply a waste of time engaging in traditional politics. My intent and the party's intent is to try and change the nature of Australian government as much as possible and my function is to be an example of that change».
So you are planning to be a subversive even in politics...
«You said that».