‘Google thinks it’s running America’
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange tells Kevin Gopal why he feels Google has grown 'big and bad'
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange tells Kevin Gopal why he feels Google has grown 'big and bad'
Think of a hugely powerful company getting too close to government and security agencies and you might, post hacking trial, think of the Murdoch empire. Julian Assange wants you to think about Google.
Murdoch’s empire used technology to spy on people and developed profitable relationships with the top echelons of government, with the disgraced former News of the World editor going on to be an adviser to David Cameron.
Google is much worse, says Wikileaks founder Assange.
“There are some parallels with phone hacking but the Google case is much more severe,” says Assange over a poor phone connection from the Ecuadorean Embassy, his home for the past two years.
“Google collects the world’s data using services as bait, storing, indexing it and selling it – rather like the National Security Agency does to the US government. The Murdoch empire only hacked 5,000 people some years ago.
“The Murdoch empire got close to senior people in government and low-level police officers but there wasn’t a proper integration, unlike with Google and the NSA, where the company is very much seen as part of the defence-industrial base – a big company with vital services that are classified – as contracts going back to 2002 show.”
Assange has Google in his sights because of a meeting he had in 2011 with Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, who had recently joined the company from the US State Department.
The pair wanted to interview him for a book they were writing about global technology and political power that they were provisionally calling The Empire of the Mind, and came to meet him in rural Norfolk, where he was under house arrest while he fought a Swedish extradition warrant over alleged sexual offences.
The Google book came out two years later, now called The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business and was endorsed by the likes of Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger. But there was no endorsement from Assange.
By this time Assange had spent a year in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, having sought asylum after losing his appeal in the UK Supreme Court against extradition, angering some of his supporters who had posted bail for him.
“Google saw itself as Washington’s geopolitical visionary.”
Now beginning his third year in the embassy, he says the Google book was a means to cement the technology giant’s influence with the US government.
“Google saw itself as Washington’s geopolitical visionary, tracking how the world was evolving, collecting the data of billions through Gmail, advertising and searches. You can argue that Google was answering the question where America would go next.
“Google wanted to be close to leadership and have proximity to traditional US power structures in the State Department and intelligence agencies.
“It wants a seat at the White House Situation Room because it feels – and rightly – that it is running America.”
Not only that, but the Google book misrepresented Assange’s words, he says, and Schmidt and Cohen conclude it would be “unfortunate” if organisations like Wikileaks were to take advantage of the new openness that the internet offers. US authorities are said to be considering bringing espionage charges against Assange because of Wikileaks’ revelations about American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the release of more than 250,000 US diplomatic dispatches.
Stung by the accusations, Assange has now written a book of his own. When Google Met Wikileaks is essentially a transcript of his 2011 meeting with Schmidt, Cohen, Cohen’s partner – from a thinktank with ties to the US State Department – and the prospective editor of the Google book who became another State Department Adviser. But Assange’s biting additional commentary adds much to the book.
The delegation he met was “one part Google, three parts US foreign policy establishment”. Cohen, who had met contacts in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, is described by Assange as Google’s “director of regime change” and “possessed of that relentless conviviality that afflicts career generalists and Rhodes scholars”. Schmidt is already firmly embedded at the point where the “centrist, liberal and imperialist tendencies meet in American political life”.
Assange found them quite likeable as people and there are humorous moments, such as when he corrects Cohen over the name of the encryption software Tor, which Cohen calls Thor. Assange adds: “And Odin too.” But he writes: “Nobody wants to acknowledge that Google has grown big and bad. But it has.”
He tells The Big Issue in the North: “Not that Schmidt and other Google senior executives are evil – it would be far too easy if they were Dick Cheney types. But they are part of a uniquely American neoliberal centrist provincialism with no perspective on the rest of the world that doesn’t share their view of US exceptionalism.”
Google tells The Big Issue in the North it is not commenting on the book. Assange has of course fallen out with others too, notably his one-time collaborators in the media, who were incensed when Assange decided to release the unedited cache of diplomatic cables after they had worked to redact them so as to protect the names of people mentioned.
In 2011 five media companies that had been working with Wikileaks on publishing redacted material – the Guardian, New York Times, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde – put out a statement saying: “We deplore the decision of WikiLeaks to publish the unredacted State Department cables, which may put sources at risk.”
Writing at the time, James Ball, former Wikileaks staffer who joined the Guardian, said the unredacted cables contained details of activists, opposition politicians and bloggers in autocratic regimes and “others driven by conscience to speak to the US government. They should never have had to fear being exposed by a self-proclaimed human rights organisation.”
“My view on redaction has changed over time.”
Assange says he has changed his hardline views on not redacting documents since then.
“My view on redaction has changed over time and become what I hope is more principled.”
He adds: “Redaction should only be done when there is a real credible risk of human rights violations – and that is almost never. It does happen in rare situations and then redaction should happen for only a limited amount of time and it must be explained.”
But he remains anti-censorship, accusing his one-time allies of having redacted documents for “political reasons”, and says of Wikileaks: “The public put trust in us that we’re not going to hold anything back other than is strictly necessary – and then only for a limited time and we’ll explain it when we do.”
More recently, former NSA deputy chief Chris Inglis has accused whistleblower Edward Snowden of helping extremist groups because of his disclosure of the vast extent of NSA surveillance. Inglis told the Washington Times that the Islamic State group – or Isis – had “clearly” capitalised on the Snowden revelations to help its members evade detection by US intelligence.
That criticism is “absurd”, says Assange, who claims there is no evidence Isis has been able to profit from Snowden’s leaks. If he’s reflective about redaction, he remains scathing about US foreign policy. Isis, he says, grew out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was caused by the “US-led invasion of Iraq conducted under false pretence”, giving it a haven and a supply of weapons, some acquired indirectly from the US. As a result of a series of “lamentable geopolitical intervention decisions” by the US, not only has Isis grown but Libya is a failed state and Iraq a “semi-failed state”.
Assange has not been charged in Sweden with the alleged sexual offences. Under the Swedish legal system the warrant is for preliminary investigations. Swedish authorities insists he should travel to Stockholm to do so – and many others feel he should face the music that way too. Assange and his legal team have said they are willing to meet Swedish representatives in the embassy but that he will not step outside, because British police – currently maintaining a costly guard outside – will arrest him the moment he does.
That, believes Assange, could set in train a process of events whereby the US decided to press espionage charges against him, asks Sweden to extradite him, and tries him. If found guilty, he could face the death penalty.
“If the court follows the law the warrant will be rescinded.”
Assange remains confident. He is challenging the Swedish warrant, with a hearing due this week or next on whether prosecutors have acted in a “timely manner”. He says: “The law is clear – if the court follows the law the warrant will be rescinded.” With a new centre-left Swedish government about to be formed after last week’s election, it’s also unclear whether it would ever extradite a man to a country where the death penalty is in place.
Assange also takes heart from proposed changes to extradition law in the UK and “an important recognition by Conservative politicians that extradition without arrest would be fundamentally unjust”.
The Home Office has since said any changes to the law will not be retrospective and therefore not apply to Assange’s case, but he has no doubts about leaving the embassy.
“It is clear that I will be victorious in the diplomatic standoff. There is an inevitability – it’s just a question of time.”
When Google Met Wikileaks by Julian Assange is published by OR Books
Photo: David G Silvers, Cancillería del Ecuador