Assange's search

Who will define the new digital age remains a contentious topic of discussion. Will it be the transnational corporations, governments or a network of whistleblowers, freedom fighters and independent journalists? At the core of this debate is the battle for a free internet spearheaded by WikiLeaks, the insurgent publishing organisation founded by Julian Assange. For Assange, who has found internet a creative, fertile place for ideas, it’s the freedom and the statelessness that is liberating.

When Google met WikiLeaks articulates Assange’s vision of a free, decentralised internet sans censorship. The occasion was his secret meeting with Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen in June 2011, when Assange was under house arrest in rural England and facing the aftermath of the funding-freeze on WikiLeaks, arranged by the US State Department in retaliation for his publication of war-related secrets leaked to him by Chelsea Manning.

The meeting coincided with the Arab Spring uprisings, anti-capitalist protests and WikiLeaks’ brush with the US over releasing diplomatic cables online. It was an encounter of equals. The two discussed an array of topics, from the mission of WikiLeaks and its technology, encryption-based currency, Bitcoin, private security firms’ subversive smear campaign against dissent, and the Arab Spring. What is outlined are radically opposing perspectives: for Assange, the liberating power of the internet is based on its freedom and statelessness. For Schmidt, emancipation is not at variance with US foreign policy objectives and is driven by connecting countries to American companies and markets. Assange excels in his knowledge of virtually everything that happens on the net.

Assange targets Google, claiming the internet giant is in bed with the US government. He pounces on Schmidt and Cohen. The duo had asked to interview him for their own book, The New Digital Age, which came out last year. “I asked Eric Schmidt to leak US government information requests to WikiLeaks, and he refused, suddenly nervous, citing the illegality of disclosing Patriot Act requests,” Assange writes.

He establishes that Google is not what it seems. It had moved too close to the Pentagon and the State Department with its invasive surveillance practices. Assange alerts us to the growing influence of such entities and reveals how “Google’s geopolitical aspirations” are deeply interwoven with “the foreign-policy agenda of the world’s largest super-power”. “Nobody wants to acknowledge that Google has grown big and bad. But it has,” he says. Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has political asylum, concludes: “If the future of the Internet is to be Google, that should be of serious concern to people all over the world.”

The book provides a rare glimpse into a clash of conflicting world views, the technology’s role in society. Apart from the long interview, there is also Assange’s scathing review of Schmidt and Cohen’s book, some background on WikiLeaks, and a great polemic on Google called Beyond Good and Don’t Be Evil.

The interview will appeal to geeks in particular. There are long explanations of encryption, of how to keep information and files safe and responses from Assange about WikiLeaks’ own security. There are strange exchanges with Assange explaining his bail conditions and showing the electronic tag attached to his ankle. During the interview, Assange outlines his philosophy and expands on what he calls “scientific journalism”. The press “has always been very bad. Fine journalists are an exception to the rule.”

Though they do not see eye to eye on various issues, Julian Assange and Eric Schmidt share a blind adoration for technology and the belief that technological solutions will cure society of its ill and woes. The book is of interest to anyone who wishes to have an overview of the true potential of the internet and the clash between those who try to centralise it and those who fight to keep it free.

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