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Friday, December 03, 2021

Book review: When Google Met Wikileaks

Google’s Eric Schmidt interviewed Julian Assange, under house arrest in rural Norfolk, for The New Digital Age.

Updated: October 13, 2014 1:10:57 pm
Julian Assange Julian Assange

When Google Met Wikileaks Julian Assange

Author: Navayana

Publisher: Navayana

Pages: 224

Price: Rs 295

BY: Julian Assange

On January 10, Tunisia was still in revolt when Hillary Clinton embarked on what she described as her global WikiLeaks “apology tour,” starting in the Middle East. Four days later the Tunisian government fell. Eleven days after that, the civil unrest spread to Egypt. The images were beamed throughout the region on unblockable satellite television by Qatar’s Al Jazeera network. Within a month there were “days of rage” and civil uprisings in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, and large-scale protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan. Even Saudi Arabia and Oman saw demonstrations. The year 2011 became one of serious political awakenings, crackdowns, and opportunistic military interventions. In January Muammar Gaddafi denounced WikiLeaks. By the end of the year he would be dead.

The wave of revolutionary excitement soon washed over Europe and elsewhere. By the time of my meeting with Eric Schmidt in June, the Puerta del Sol was occupied and protesters were facing down blackclad riot police in squares all across Spain. There were encampments in Israel. Peru had seen protests and a change of government. The Chilean students’ movement had taken to the streets. The state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, had been besieged by tens of thousands of people standing for workers’ rights. Riots were about to erupt in Greece, and then in London.

Alongside the changes on the streets, the internet was rapidly transitioning from an apathetic communications medium into a demos — a people with a shared culture, shared values, and shared aspirations. It had become a place where history happens, a place people identified
with and even felt they came from…

The US financial blockade against WikiLeaks had provoked massive denial-of-service protests from a once apolitical internet youth. Anonymous — once an obscure internet meme — had become a battering ram for the internet’s emergent political ideology.

In a spectacular electronic intrusion and information dump, sympathetic hackers operating under the Anonymous banner had exposed a $2-million-a-month subversion campaign targeting WikiLeaks and its supporters (including reporter Glenn Greenwald), which had been prepared by a group of private security contractors on behalf of the Bank of America… Bitcoin had gone from being worthless to achieving parity with the dollar. And as early as June, names like “Operation: Empire State Rebellion” and “US Day of Rage” could be heard online, the early reverberations of the popular disenchantment that would by September coalesce into Occupy Wall Street.

The world was ablaze, but the farmlands around Ellingham Hall slept on. Norfolk was an idyllic setting, but my situation was far from ideal. Pinned there under house arrest, I was at a tactical disadvantage. WikiLeaks had always been a guerilla publisher. We would draw surveillance and censorship in one jurisdiction and redeploy in another, moving across borders like ghosts. But at Ellingham I became an immovable asset under siege. We could no longer choose our battles. Fronts opened up on all sides. I had to learn to think like a general.
We were at war…Each month brought news of yet another government task force. So many US and Australian agencies were involved that both countries started to refer to their “whole of government” response in internal documents. The Pentagon’s “WikiLeaks War Room” alone had swollen to over a hundred people. A US grand jury was started against us, targeting my staff and me, and is ongoing at the time of writing. The FBI kept raiding our extended human network and attempting to recruit informers. Suddenly, lots of people had “WikiLeaks” on their business cards, but they were not doing business for WikiLeaks…

It was into this ferment that Google projected itself that June, touching down in a London airport and making the long drive up into East Anglia to Norfolk and Beccles. Schmidt arrived first, accompanied by his then partner, Lisa Shields. When he introduced her as a vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations — a US foreign policy think tank with close ties to the State Department — I thought little more of it. Shields was straight out of Camelot, having been spotted by John Kennedy Jr.’s side back in the early 1990s…

Some time later, Jared Cohen arrived. With him was Scott Malcomson, introduced as the book’s editor. Three months after the meeting Malcomson would enter the State Department as the lead speechwriter and principal advisor to Susan Rice (then US ambassador to the UN, now national security advisor). He had previously served as a senior advisor at the UN, and is a longtime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. At the time of writing, he is director of communications at the International Crisis Group.

At this point, the delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign policy establishment, but I was still none the wiser… Schmidt was a good foil. A late-fiftysomething, squint-eyed behind owlish spectacles, managerially dressed — Schmidt’s dour appearance concealed a machinelike analyticity. His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence. It was the same intellect that had abstracted software-engineering principles to scale Google into a megacorp, ensuring that the corporate infrastructure always met the rate of growth. This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale, and information flows.

For a man of systematic intelligence, Schmidt’s politics — such as I could hear from our discussion — were surprisingly conventional, even banal. He grasped structural relationships quickly, but struggled to verbalise many of them, often shoehorning geopolitical subtleties into Silicon Valley marketese or the ossified State Department microlanguage of his companions. He was at his best when he was speaking (perhaps without realising it) as an engineer, breaking down complexities into their orthogonal components.

I found Cohen a good listener, but a less interesting thinker, possessed of that relentless conviviality that routinely afflicts career generalists and Rhodes Scholars. As you would expect from his foreign-policy background, Cohen had a knowledge of international flash points and conflicts and moved rapidly between them, detailing different scenarios to test my assertions. But it sometimes felt as if he was riffing on orthodoxies in a way that was designed to impress his former colleagues in official Washington…

To their credit, I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given. I was out of my comfort zone and I liked it… 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. And then as the evening came on it was done and they were gone, back to the unreal, remote halls of information empire, and I was left to get back to my work.

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