When Google Met WikiLeaks
By Julian Assange
Published August 22, 2014
200 pages, paperback, $16
When Google CEO Eric Schmidt turned up to meet WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, he brought several people with him who were connected to the US government.
"The delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment," Assange writes in his latest book, When Google Met WikiLeaks. "But I was still none the wiser."
The three were Schmidt's then-partner Lisa Shields, a vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations; Scott Malcomson, a long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Jared Cohen, who had moved to Google after serving under Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton at the US State Department.
"It was not until well after Schmidt and his companions had been and gone that I came to understand who had really visited me," writes Assange. "While WikiLeaks had been deeply involved in publishing the inner archive of the US State Department, the US State Department had, in effect, snuck into the WikiLeaks command centre and hit me up for a free lunch...
"To their credit, I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given. I was out of my comfort zone and I liked it."
Schmidt, who is now executive chairman of Google, was visiting the WikiLeaks founder in 2011 ostensibly to interview him for a book on the future of technology while Assange was under house arrest in Norfolk. Assange writes that as their conversation wore on, "I began to think of Schmidt as a brilliant but politically hapless Californian tech billionaire...
"I was wrong."
When Schmidt's book was published, it showed just how far in bed he was with the US government.
"There was nothing politically hapless about Eric Schmidt," writes Assange. "I had been too eager to see a politically unambitious Silicon Valley engineer, a relic of the good old days of computer science graduate culture on the West Coast. But that is not the sort of person who attends the Bilderberg conference four years running, who pays regular visits to the White House, or who delivers 'fireside chats' at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
"Schmidt’s emergence as Google’s 'foreign minister' — making pomp and ceremony state visits across geopolitical fault lines — had not come out of nowhere; it had been presaged by years of assimilation within US establishment networks of reputation and influence."
It is this background that gives the subsequent transcript of their conversation a sinister twist. Schmidt relentlessly needles Assange for more and more technical details of how WikiLeaks operates - and its technological ambitions for the future. Assange obliges him, appearing to hesitate only once, when he pauses to tentatively say: "I don’t know how technical I can get."
Schmidt replies: "Please."
The talk does get intensely technical, to the extent that readers may find they lose the thread of the conversation unless they flip back and forth between the transcript and the extensive footnotes. Assange is effusive, but Schmidt replies more often than not with the bland, but telling, "interesting, very interesting". At one point he seems to become self-conscious of this, saying: "I keep asking questions — I’m just curious." But he seems to snap out of it quickly, going on to ask: "When you speak with a staff member, would it typically be on the phone or in person?"
Readers may get the impression that Assange would have been far more guarded if he knew then what he knows now.
"Eric Schmidt," he writes, "was born in Washington, DC, where his father had worked as a professor and economist for the Nixon Treasury...
"Long before company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired Schmidt in 2001, their initial research upon which Google was based had been partly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ...
"In 2008, Google helped launch an NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] spy satellite, the GeoEye-1, into space. Google shares the photographs from the satellite with the US military and intelligence communities...
"In 2012, Google arrived on the list of top-spending Washington, DC, lobbyists — a list typically stalked exclusively by the US Chamber of Commerce, military contractors, and the petrocarbon leviathans. Google entered the rankings above military aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, with a total of $18.2 million spent in 2012 to Lockheed’s $15.3 million. Boeing, the military contractor that absorbed McDonnell Douglas in 1997, also came below Google, at $15.6 million spent, as did Northrop Grumman at $17.5 million...
"In autumn 2013 the Obama administration was trying to drum up support for US airstrikes against Syria. Despite setbacks, the administration continued to press for military action well into September with speeches and public announcements by both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. On September 10, Google lent its front page — the most popular on the internet — to the war effort, inserting a line below the search box reading 'Live! Secretary Kerry answers questions on Syria. Today via Hangout at 2pm ET.'...
"Google’s real power as a drone company is its unrivalled collection of navigational data. This includes all the information associated with Google Maps and the locations of around a billion people. Once gathered, it should not be assumed that this data will always be used for benign purposes. The mapping data gathered by the Google Street View project, which sent cars rolling down streets all over the world, may one day be instrumental for navigating military or police robots down those same streets...
"Since the beginning of 2013, Google has bought nine experimental robotics and artificial intelligence companies and put them to work toward an undeclared goal under Andy Rubin, the former head of Google’s Android division...
"Google’s development in recent years has seen it expand its surveillance enterprise by controlling mobile phones and tablets. The success of Google’s mobile operating system, Android, launched in 2008, has given Google an 80 percent share of the smartphone market. Google claims that over a billion Android devices have registered themselves, at a rate now of more than a million new devices a day...
"As Google’s search and internet service monopoly grows, and as it enlarges its industrial surveillance cone to cover the majority of the world’s population, rapidly dominating the mobile phone market and racing to extend internet access in the global south, Google is steadily becoming the internet for many people. Its influence on the choices and behaviour of the totality of individual human beings translates to real power to influence the course of history...
"If you want a vision of the future, imagine Washington-backed Google Glasses strapped onto vacant human faces — forever."
In the footnotes, Assange has a warning for those who concentrate on government, rather than corporate, surveillance.
"There is an uncomfortable willingness among privacy campaigners to discriminate against mass surveillance conducted by the state to the exclusion of similar surveillance conducted for profit by large corporations," he writes.
"At the individual level, many of even the most committed privacy campaigners have an unacknowledged addiction to easy-to-use, privacy-destroying amenities like Gmail, Facebook, and Apple products. As a result, privacy campaigners frequently overlook corporate surveillance abuses. When they do address the abuses of companies like Google, campaigners tend to appeal to the logic of the market, urging companies to make small concessions to user privacy in order to repair their approval ratings.
"There is the false assumption that market forces ensure that Silicon Valley is a natural government antagonist, and that it wants to be on the public’s side — that profit-driven multinational corporations partake more of the spirit of democracy than government agencies. Many privacy advocates justify a predominant focus on abuses by the state on the basis that the state enjoys a monopoly on coercive force... This view downplays the fact that powerful corporations are part of the nexus of power around the state, and that they enjoy the ability to deploy its coercive power, just as the state often exerts its influence through the agency of powerful corporations. The movement to abolish privacy is twin-horned. Privacy advocates who focus exclusively on one of those horns will find themselves gored on the other."
When Schmidt's book featuring his interview with Assange, called The New Digital Age, was eventually published last year, it "was not a serious attempt at future history", writes Assange. "It was a love song from Google to official Washington."
The book misquoted Assange, twisted his words and misrepresented his arguments. In doing so, it also warned its readers that “greater transparency in all things” is “a dangerous model”.
Clearly, it is an ethic Schmidt lives by.
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