Assange: Google should be of concern to people all over the world
By Stefania Maurizi
Published in Espressonline, 15 September 2014
He lost his freedom four years ago and since then has been living in confinement. First in a beautiful Georgian country house in the heart of the old green England, Ellingham Hall, where he remained under house arrest for a year and a half. Then in the glamorous Knightsbridge district in London, where he is currently holed up in the embassy of Ecuador, which granted him political asylum two years ago. Uncertainty is still the keyword in the life of Julian Assange. Four years on, no one knows how his incredible story will end up. Endless times Assange and his organisation have been considered over and done with.
In December 2010, immediately after he and his staff started publishing the US diplomacy cables, a serious extrajudicial banking blockade hit WikiLeaks. In an unprecedented blitzkrieg, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Western Union and Bank of America stopped accepting any donations from supporters. Seeing WikiLeaks selling stickers to survive the blockade made many draw the conclusion that the organisation was almost dead: seen as an intriguing flash in the pan by activists and libertarians and a brief nightmare by powerful entities always in need of the shield of secrecy.
It took the Snowden case to make those who had dismissed WikiLeaks as dead to understand how wrong they were. A manhunt on a planetary scale, unleashed by the most powerful government in the world, with hundreds of newspapers and human rights organizations around the world watching on passively or with indignation as the US left no stone unturned to chase down Edward Snowden. Yet no intervention at all from any player. Only Julian Assange, a man confined in a 20 square-meter room, under heavy surveillance, was able to plan a blitz to save Edward Snowden. And it worked. Last August, an entirely unfounded rumour that Assange was set to leave the embassy very soon to hand himself over to the police led dozens of journalists to rush to Knightsbridge ready to chronicle what many considered a foregone surrender. But once again they were wrong: no surrender. Assange and WikiLeaks carry on.
In recent months, Julian Assange has been working on a book about the internet giant Google. Titled " When Google Met WikiLeaks " (Or Books, New York), it is set to be released today. It is a brilliant book, in which Assange tells the story of his meeting with the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, and with the director of "Google Ideas", Jared Cohen, at Elligham Hall, in 2011. A meeting of men and minds who are poles apart.
Their visions for the future of the internet are poles apart as well. For Assange, «the liberating power of the internet is based on its freedom and statelessness». For Schmidt, «emancipation is one with US foreign policy», writes Assange. People like Schmidt and Cohen «will tell you that open-mindedness is a virtue, but any perspective that challenges the exceptionalism at the heart of American foreign policy will always be invisible to them. That is the impenetrable banality of 'don't be evil'. They believe they are doing good. And that is the problem»».
In “When Google Met WikiLeaks” there are flashes of Assange's humour. Like when the founder of WikiLeaks recounts how, back in 2011, before the full release of the US diplomatic cables, his staff called the State Department saying that Assange wanted to talk to Hillary Clinton. «Predictably, this announcement was initially greeted with bureaucratic disbelief», Assange writes, adding how they soon found themselves «in a re-enactment of that scene in 'Dr. Strangelove', where Peter Sellers cold-calls the White House to warn of an impending nuclear war and is immediately put on hold». We asked Julian Assange about his book and his current situation.
Let's start from the meeting you had with Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. In your book, you write that on a personal level they are perfectly likable people, however if the future of the internet is to be Google, that should be of concern to people all over the world. Why?
«In the last 15 years Google has been growing inside the internet like a parasite. Web browsing, social networks, maps, satellites, drones. Google is inside your phone, on your desktop, it is invading every aspect of people's lives: the personal relationships and the commercial relationships. At this point Google has real power over all people who use the Internet: basically everyone in modern life. At the same time as Google was getting big, it was also getting bad. I show in the book how Google is now aligned with US foreign policy. This means that Google can intervene on behalf of US interests, for example, it can end up compromising the privacy of billions of people, it can use its advertising power for propaganda. Countries like Russia and China - you can see this on our cables - already regarded Google as an arm of the United States as far as back in 2009. Unfortunately their own [Russia and China] solution is to create local state monopolies. Google hoovers up the personal data of every single person: it is constructing a vast reservoir of personal data that is extremely attractive to state power within the United States. As a result, state power has entered into a relationship with Google to access all the information it collects. Google will never change its way, because its business model is to collect as much data on as many people as possible, centralizing those data, finding all the relationships to make a model of prediction for advertising, almost exactly the same as the NSA does».
You describe Eric Schmidt as fitting "perfectly where the centrist, liberal and imperialist tendencies meet in American political life". What kind of world are Schmidt and Cohen building for us?
«Schmidt and Cohen published a book which is largely overlooked but which is extremely revealing. It is called "The New Digital Age" and it is a blueprint for their vision of the future: a world of endless consumerism and distraction, where the ideal consumer goes around with Google gadgets, "swiping" and "sharing", and everything is marvelous. Schmidt and Cohen believe that privacy is no longer needed in the West at all, because western governments are inherently "good" and responsive and use the information they collect in order to better manage the people in those states».
You write that Google started as an expression of independent Californian graduate student culture- decent, human, playful, but finally became a "don't be evil empire". What made Google to grow so bad?
«Google started as an expression of that decent, playful and politically naive Californian graduate student culture around Stanford and Berkeley universities, but due to ultimately becoming the second largest company in the US, Google has grown bad. As with many other US companies, Google attempted to expand into foreign markets, thus becoming dependent on advice and lobbying from the US State Department and other US government actors. That dependency resulted in extensive social contacts and personal alliances between Google management, including Eric Schmidt, and the US power».
Don't you think that geopolitical actors like China and Russia will fight hard against the Google empire?
«Yes, they are slow, but local people are shocked when they realise what is happening. Because it doesn't need to physically annex a country; if you control information and can influence international trade deals you are able to influence domestic legislation. The dominance of Google on the internet is seen as a national sovereignty issue by countries like China or Russia. In China we can see the construction of domestic server services. You may take the view that Russia and China are bad, however just one power having an extreme dominance leads to the extreme abuses that we have seen with the NSA. The interplay between Google and US foreign policy and the intelligence establishment is largely mutual and is backed up through the use of coercive forces, when voluntary cooperation is not maintained. A case has just been revealed that in 2008 Yahoo was pressured by the National Security Agency to give access to users data or face a fine of 250,000 dollars a day».
How do you reply to those who object: well, Google might be a don't be evil empire, but China and Russia are definitely not champions of the internet freedom?
«China was the first country to censor WikiLeaks and was doing this in 2007. It is a political country and it is scared about what its people believe. But in some sense that is an optimistic side because China thinks that what people believe is important, whereas in many western countries free speech is the result of the fact that it doesn't matter what you say. The dominant élite doesn't have to be scared of what people think, because a change in political views is not going to change whether they own their company or not. The problems with China and Russia are completely domestic».
And how do you reply to those who say that we need NSA mass surveillance achieved through partnerships between Google and the Nsa, because Isis fanatics are the perfect demonstration that our democracies are in mortal danger?
«Our democracies are in mortal danger as a result of mass surveillance-enabled totalitarian government: one dominant power faction seizing nearly every significant form of economic and social interaction».
By the way, it seems that though they are intercepting billions of people, they are unable to prevent any major attack and even the rise of Isis...
«The primary purpose of mass surveillance is geo-strategic advantage, in fact it is called 'strategic surveillance' internally. The NSA is involved in the interception of entire continents in the same way as in the last 70 years there has been a great game to control the resource of oil and countries involved in it. You can see that recently in Ukraine».
You and your staff were able to resist all sorts of pressures: death threats, massive investigations, extrajudicial banking blockade. In your book you tell how you were able to ease the economic pressure resulting from the banking blockade thanks to a strategic investment in Bitcoin. And though confined in the Embassy, you were able to assist Edward Snowden, sending Sarah Harrison to Hong Kong to help him to get asylum. However, you are still in the embassy, Sarah Harrison is in exile, Chelsea Manning is in prison, Edward Snowden has no place to hide, a part from Russia. Do you think we are going to have new Mannings and Snowdens, given these huge prices paid by whistleblowers and by you and your staff?
«Yes, I am quite certain. We intervened and organized an operation to assist Snowden, rescuing him from Hong Kong, because we wanted to set an example that you could reveal such information and keep most of your freedom: that certainly encourages and incentives other whistleblowers».
In your book you explain why it is not easy to do a WikiLeaks. How do you look at the attempts by the Guardian and the Washington Post to establish a platform to submit secret leaks?
«I consider a victory that organisations are trying to follow some parts of our model. I don't find those organisations particularly interesting. There are a variety of more interesting smaller players, such as “BalkanLeaks”, that are trying to use encrypted communication technologies in innovative ways. But the big problem has always been to publish and unfortunately the adoption of encrypted communications does nothing to solve that problem. We have seen the very little that the Washington Post and the Guardian have published of the material they received. The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, even stated that in the Snowden files there is stuff about Iraq and Afghanistan and they are not even going to read it».
The New York Times has the Snowden material, but didn't publish it so far...
«Yes. In total, only some 2 percent of the material has been published. And that is the true problem: encrypted communications are fine, but you need an organisation that is able to publish with more serious methods: this is a complex multi-jurisdictional technical, legal, sociological endeavour and that is the reason why there is no organisation, unfortunately, that is able to publish in a way that WikiLeaks does. It is still hard to do a WikiLeaks».
You dedicated your book to your family "whom I love and miss very much". Did you meet them, recently?
«For security reasons I do not comment on this sort of thing; there have been threats against my family».
You said: "What is to be done? The answer is easy. It has always been easy. Stop saying "not in my name" and start saying "over my dead body". That is what we did. It works. Do it". Looking back, was this worthwhile?
«If you have ideals and want to realise them, you must pay a price, just like if you buy a car, you pay a price for it. To live a purposeful life you need to pay a high price. In terms of my own life, I believe the price paid for things I want to achieve, while not insignificant, is very small compared to the satisfaction that it has given me to achieve something».