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Saturday, December 20, 2014
When Google Met WikiLeaks
The book chronicles the afternoon in 2011 when he was visited by four individuals: Eric Schmidt,executive chairman of Google; Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas; Lisa Shields, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Scott Malcomson, the communications director for the International Crisis Group.
Julian Assange, the 43-year-old founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June of 2012. He occupies a single room in the building, a couple hundred square feet of space cluttered with work and life. He avoids using email and tries to interact with his staff only in person. “I have to act like Osama bin Laden now,” he writes in his recently published book, When Google Met WikiLeaks (OR Books). The book chronicles the afternoon in 2011 when he was visited by four individuals: Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas; Lisa Shields, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Scott Malcomson, the communications director for the International Crisis Group. The meeting took place in June of that year while Assange, who had presented himself to British police after a warrant was issued by the Swedish government for “suspicion of rape, sexual molestation, and unlawful coercion,” was out on bail, waiting for his appeal hearing. He was living under house arrest in the rural Norfolk home of Vaughan Smith, a friend and ally, and was required to wear a tracking beacon on his ankle and to walk twenty minutes every day to check in with the nearest police station.
Ecuador has granted Assange asylum, but the United Kingdom will not allow Assange, who is Australian, passage to South America. (U.S. agencies are conducting ongoing investigations into Wikileaks’ release of 251,000 classified State Department cables and secret documents from Guantánamo Bay. As he waits, the British government has reportedy spent 6 million pounds, roughly $10 million, guarding the embassy.) Over the past few years of living under house arrest in different buildings, Assange has received a host of famous and powerful guests, from privacy advocates to performers like M.I.A., whose song “The Message” Assange quotes in the epigram of the book.
You write in the new book, about meeting with the Google contingent, “I was out of my comfort zone and I liked it.” How did you feel that you were out of your comfort zone?
I was outnumbered four to one by people from a different world. It turned out two of them had worked for Hillary [Clinton] and [Susan] Rice. And Eric Schmidt, who is an extremely savvy tech billionaire, politically coupled—that’s probably the easiest way to say it—to Hillary’s liberal centrism. I needed to be on my toes and there was a lot to play for. Google had a market capitalization of $200 billion and now has a market capitalization of $400 billion. Clearly it’s a very influential company, if not the most influential company insofar as how the world is developing. I wanted to influence Schmidt to create a better Google. That’s an important thing to attempt to do.
You spend a lot of time talking to Schmidt about a different vision for the Internet, one that is much more decentralized.
Yes. That’s what made the Internet a great, vibrant, creative, fertile place for ideas.
In a world where the Web is more decentralized, with more autonomy and anonymity, how does leadership play out on that Internet? Or is there a need for leadership? Or is it OK if it’s simply a fragmented experience?
Leadership is still very important because when you have a cacophony of ideas, it takes a lot of time to understand which ones are worth considering. And so to solve that problem, people look to those who they respect or understand. That’s why we like to read the books of authors that deepen our understanding of a particular area of the world.
But there’s a difference between leadership and direction—coercive control over something. Extremely large states, they have a coercive control structure, and large companies like Google are intertwined with the mechanisms of the state such as law, courts, and police.
Leadership through values or through the creation of new standards or new software or new formulations of human institutions, these are structures that can propagate to others but where the originator doesn’t maintain more than a spiritual or philosophical influence. Most good ideas in human development have spread that way—from writing to the gramophone.
You write about civil society as a “fable,” something mostly gone now for several decades. What do you think are some ways to construct a civil society for the twenty-first century?
There are genuine civil society organizations that are around. There’s many that are fully corrupted and some that are part-corrupted. As you can see, organizations which get the majority of their revenue from membership, such as the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] are more genuine, and perhaps Greenpeace—although it’s become very large—there’s many more smaller organizations. So they exist, but there’s also very large actors that are really, in practice, cardboard cutouts for the political interests of their major donors. Some are, from the get-go, invented to fulfill another purpose from what they say that they are fulfilling. And others are co-opted by becoming dependent on various funding streams.
I feel like the word “grassroots” has been co-opted across the political spectrum. We’ve become familiar with billionaires engineering organizations overnight.
Well, a consciousness now has developed, at least on the left, in relation to big Koch brothers funding, for example. And there’s a little bit of consciousness on the sort of Tea Party right in relation to some of the stuff that Soros is funding. But there’s not much consciousness. It doesn’t get much deeper than that—but people know that there are these examples out there.
A lot of what you write about is Google’s relationship to the government, specifically to the State Department. Do you think there are historical parallels for such a relationship? Or is this a relationship without precedent?
There’s historical parallels in very large U.S. organizations, such as General Motors, which think that what’s good for General Motors is good for the U.S., co-opting various elements of government. Google is unique in that it’s so invasive. It doesn’t just deal with whether it needs to acquire planning permits from small councils, or funding subsidies, or tax discounts, or, say, tariffs. But they are involved with almost every single person using the Internet, collecting their information, and that of course means not just people in the United States but the vast majority of Internet users outside the United States as well. So it is an organization that’s not simply multinational in the sense of having different employees in Ireland and Europe and data centers in Sweden. But it’s multinational in the sense of having the majority of the people it gathers information from outside of the United States.
I like to think of relationships between individuals, organizations, and states in terms of bargaining power. And when a $400 billion company that has a revolving door with the U.S. government has a relationship with an individual, this is not a relationship in which the individual has any bargaining power. All relationships where there is little bargaining power lead to unjust outcomes.
Is there another company that you think works similarly to Google on a global scale? Or similar companies that you can think of throughout history?
Alright, yeah, so that’s interesting. I had thought about that, nearly put it in the book. You can think of Coca-Cola, for example. Many people across the world drink Coca-Cola. It’s a multinational company that has individual relationships. But Coca-Cola is not monitoring the Coke can as it sits on your desk recording everything that you’re interested in. It’s quite a different kind of relationship in that you know when you’re buying a Coke, the Coke can is yours. It’s not Coca-Cola’s any more. And the relationship has ceased once the transaction has occurred.
Even if you intend to never use Google—because it’s now become such a diverse company, nearly every website has Google ads—so whether you like it or not, Google is harvesting your information. Even if you think you’re avoiding Google.
In the book, you underscore the fact that so much of what Google offers is ostensibly free. Ultimately I think that’s what makes it hard to get people riled about the company.
I agree. You need to remember that when the product is free, you are the product. We can look at the business model equivalent in traditional industries where you make a free service bait to lure people to give you their information. There are these lotteries and you give your personal details and occupation to enter the lottery, and this data is harvested by advertisers and profilers. That’s Google’s basic business model: How to create an enticing service that harvests information that people are not fully aware of. Or they’re aware of the benefits of the service, but not fully aware of the cost. Part of what this book is designed to achieve is to make people aware of what the costs are.
You make a few references to Orwell, and sometimes the way you write about the Internet makes me feel like we’re walking right into a Philip K. Dick book.
Yeah, that’s right. The cyberpunk dystopia is here. Well, we’ve walked into a lot of things. In the introduction, I cite what I find to be Orwell’s most prescient and interesting essay from 1945, “The Atomic Bomb and You,” where he lays out and predicts the various strategic realities that stem from the invention of the atomic bomb, which held true for the next 50 years. Orwell laid it out very publicly what was likely to happen and it didn’t stop it from happening. But on the other hand, we didn’t end up with World War III either. And not ending up with World War III isn’t something that just happened. A lot of people fought quite hard to educate everyone about what the dynamics were that were occurring what everyone was entering into and to try and lay down some safeguards to prevent the world from ending up in Armageddon.
In your conversation with Schmidt, there’s a lot of talk about virtual human interactions and virtual communities. Traditionally the idea of “community” is grounded in physical space—a school, a house, a street—and now it’s moved into a sort of virtual realm. How does the physical world play a part, if it does, in your philosophy of what a community is, or can be?
I think there’s similarities. Communities within religions have been delocalized for a long time. Communities within some of the professions have delocalized. And within the West, actually, our physical communities are largely atomized now, which is unfortunate but it seems to be the way things are. So we either have a choice of creating international communities of mutual interest or abandoning that space to multinational companies.
I think it’s a healthy balancing activity that is occurring with the Internet providing the mechanisms to create international communities in the sense that multinational companies—because of their resources and degree of organization—have been able to lay out sophisticated international communications mechanisms within their own company to achieve a coherent structure across international boundaries. So that has empowered those organizations with new ways to act internationally, thereby giving them increased power. And as the technology has become cheaper and become more democratized, those same efficiencies and technology can now be adopted by regular people to create their own sense of community. And for the international community, I think that’s extremely healthy, because we are dealing in this regime of having powerful multinationals creating their workplace structures and rules and ethoses and spreading those across the world on the one hand. And then at the cultural level, having culture being dominated by the industrial production of culture. Culture industries such as Hollywood leave little space for the evolution of culture and rules and ethics and values, which emanate more directly from human beings and more directly reflect the desires of human beings as opposed to industrial or corporate structures.
That gets back to one of the main points you discussed with Schmidt about believing in the human being so much more so than the society, or—as you put it now—the multinational corporate structures.
That’s right. Interestingly, that was a point of divergence between Schmidt and the State Department and myself. I’ve been around the block. I’ve seen a lot of war and different judicial issues and corruption in relation to my work and in relation to myself. So I’m not naive about the world only being populated by good people. There’s good people in the world and there’s also extremely bad people. Nonetheless, I have seen in many different societies, as young people grow up, they become hardened as a result of discovering that many aspects of the system that they are going through are set against altruism. Not even altruism, just enlightened mutual interest. It doesn’t pay. So they gradually get trained out of it. And those people who have had cultural engagement with Australian Aborigines or Polynesians or even small, rural villages in the United States will understand that where the cultural and institutional structures are less sophisticated—that is, less derived from industry or big states—they tend to be friendlier and more humane.
That said, I wonder where you would go if you were free to travel anywhere. You’ve been living and working under house arrest for several years now. If you were free to walk out of the embassy tomorrow where would you go? Where would you feel safe? Where you feel like you can work? Does that place exist for you?
I feel best when following the road. I feel best when I’m following opportunities with different states and different cultures and connecting the people who are interested in my sort of work, or sources that may suddenly become relevant because of what a particular state is going through. I would not like to be bogged down in any one particular state, although I’m fond of a number of them. The geopolitical reality, of course, is that the United States has more than a thousand military bases spread across the world, and we found in our work getting Edward Snowden asylum that every western European state refused to grant him asylum. Unfortunately, many states do not feel they have full sovereignty that they can exercise in relation to threats from the United States. There are some that also feel that way in relation to threats from China, and a few small states in Central Asia who feel that they do not have proper sovereignty in relation to threats from Russia. There are countries now like Brazil, for example, which have enough geopolitical mastery—although I’ll note Brazil also didn’t give Edward Snowden asylum. It probably could have stood up but it didn’t want to pay the price. So that’s why Ecuador has been really quite impressive being a state of only 15 million which has taken a strong line to defend my rights.
Edward Snowden gave a blurb for your book. I’m wondering if you two have any opportunities to be in direct contact?
I can’t talk about things like that because of the legal situation.