A virtual conversation with Julian Assange [SXSW]

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Julian Assange

Over an at-times wonky Skype connection, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange connected through to a packed Exhibition Hall 5 of the Austin Convention Centre this weekend, to urge the public to become more actively aware of how their information is being collected and used online.

Wearing a scarf (even though he hasn’t left the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he has found refuge from extradition for almost a year), Assange addressed the crowd of around 3 000 people, answering questions about the future of information online and life behind walls.

“I exist in a situation which is the dream of a national security reporter,” said Assange, highlighting a number of WikiLeaks reporters who are based around the world, outside of US borders, and describing them as ‘a new kind of refuge’.

Assange, although without the freedom to move around as he pleases at the moment, due to the extradition order, says he is virtually untouchable as police cannot touch him in what is essentially no-man’s land.

From this protected spot, Assange called on the public to become more responsible in what they share and do on the internet. “The internet, about four years ago, was a politically apathetic space,” he said, “but whenever you start to engage in any space, you run into state powers. You run into the deep state.”

Assange believes the internet has become a political space — an important transition that occurred over the 20 years he’s been involved in cryptology and other such activities. Citizens, he believes, have grown aware of the immense power gained by secret organizations like the NSA, as a result of revelations by the likes of Assange and former NSA employee Edward Snowden, who is due to speak today, also via Skype.

Snowden’s leak of thousands of classified documents about surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency is something Assange believes worked to the media’s benefit because the NSA did not have a public relations plan.

“The response to press reports was to not respond,” he said. “The White House’s actions in trying to crush [Edward] Snowden grew to such volume that it couldn’t be ignored… To some degree these people who’ve been trying for years to call attention to this phenomenon of state overreach, we got lucky because we ended up with an opponent that didn’t really have a PR strategy except to not exist at all.”

The Australian-born publisher essentially crystallized how the growth of the internet has created a kind of ‘militarization of civil society’; agencies like the NSA have ‘stolen’ a great deal of information. “The ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there, and arguably will be there in a few years. And that’s led to a huge transfer of power from the people who are surveilled upon to those who control the surveilling complex. It’s an interesting post-modern version of power,” he said.

Now that it’s been drawn to our attention, and because we put so much online, Assange argues, we should be aware of the gathering intelligence agencies are doing, and push back against this. “You might think we’re small and insignificant and how could we possibly do something about this situation, but what I’ve described is a movement towards a serious form of surveillance and totalitarianism… so how can individuals not do something about it? Well, you’ve got no choice.”

As a result of WikiLeaks’ 2010 publishing of classified government documents, Assange himself feels the fear ‘more keenly: “A degree of pressure and perceived pressure rained down on our organization and me personally that caused a change in people’s behavior and it meant for example that individuals that normally you could trust couldn’t be trusted.”

Assange says more leaks are coming, but he wouldn’t be drawn into just when this will happen. “I don’t like to give time frames because it tends to give opponents of that material more time to prepare their spin lines.”

Image: espenmoe (via Flickr).

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