Business News/ Opinion / WikiLeaks and the ‘Google-military-surveillance complex’

In May 2011, Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, was under house arrest in Norfolk, a county about three hours’ drive from London. The crackdown against WikiLeaks was in full swing, as were efforts to have its publisher extradited to the US.

Despite his limited range of mobility, Assange had to wear a tracking beacon on his ankle. He was too busy firefighting to meet anyone, let alone for an interview. But then, it’s not every day that the executive chairman of Google calls you for an appointment. Eric Schmidt wanted to interview Assange for a book he was writing.

For Assange, who had dug out the deepest secrets of the American political establishment, the power centres of Silicon Valley were still something of a mystery; the higher echelons of Google, even more so. He saw a meeting with Schmidt as “an opportunity to understand and influence what was becoming the most influential company on earth".

Schmidt flew down from the US, accompanied by three others: Jared Cohen, his co-author and director of Google Ideas, Scott Malcomson, the book’s editor, and Lisa Shields, Schmidt’s then partner.

The interview took place in the course of one day, 23 June 2011. Schmidt’s book came out in April 2013, as The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business. The story should have ended there. It probably would have, had Assange not tried to fix a meeting with Hillary Clinton. The response to his overture came not from Clinton’s office but from Shields.

Assange was stunned that a message to the US state department should elicit a response from a Google representative. Or rather, a person he’d assumed to be from Google. Intrigued, the publisher set out to investigate the relationship between the US state department and Google.

When Google Met WikiLeaks, which released in New York last month, is a distillation of his findings. It is bound to make disturbing reading for anyone who subscribes to Google’s burnished public image as a benevolent giant that offers free search and email services to the human race in exchange for almost nothing.

The heart of the book, and its longest section, is the edited transcript of the interview—the exchange between Assange and Schmidt, with occasional inputs from Malcomson and Shriver. This conversation presents a fascinating clash of perspectives between two of the most powerful but ideologically antagonistic tech minds in the world today.

The subjects discussed range from the highly technical (magnet links, hash-based naming, strategies for surviving a DNS attack, the architecture of Tor, the algorithm used by Bitcoin) to the broadly philosophical (why secrecy is criminogenic, the social cost of mass surveillance, the limits of political change in a fiscal society), to the urgently political (designing a secure communication system for revolutionary moments, Arab Spring, managing an organization where your best talent is getting picked off by your enemies and it’s impossible to trust a new hire).

The interview section is buttressed by others where Assange brings Google’s top management—specifically, Schmidt and Jared Cohen—under the scanner, and presents a startling picture of a world where a private corporation is seen intervening “in foreign affairs at a level that is normally reserved for states."

The chapter headings, with their ironic riffs on Google’s corporate motto, tell their own tale. “Beyond Good" and “Don’t be Evil" fleshes out the political dimension of the meeting, which, remarkably, Assange himself seems to have missed completely until much later. “The Banality of ‘Don’t be Evil’" reproduces Assange’s withering review of The New Digital Age, originally published in the New York Times. And in “Deliver us from ‘Don’t be Evil,’" Assange evaluates how Schmidt’s book represents or misrepresents WikiLeaks as well as his own statements made in the course of the interview.

Assange does a thorough background check—WikiLeaks style—of the four individuals who had visited him. He finds that all of them have close links to the US state separtment, with Cohen being a former advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Clinton. All four were associated with the powerful Council for Foreign Relations, a think tank known to be intimate with the US foreign policy establishment.

Add to this the fact that Google ranks above military contractors such as Lockheed or Boeing in the list of top-spending Washington lobbyists, splurging $18.2 million in 2012; that it has a “‘formal information-sharing relationship" with the National Security Agency (NSA); that it received a $27 million contract in 2010 from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) for “geospatial visualization services"—the dots, for Assange, almost join themselves.

Post the Edward Snowdenrevelations, it is common knowledge that surveillance is universal and online privacy is a myth. But the general assumption has been that tech companies were being dragooned into spying for the government. When Google Met WikiLeaks shows that assumption to be largely unfounded. In the case of Google, the most formidable of the Silicon Valley titans, not only was there no state coercion involved, the reality turns out to be the opposite.

Google, Assange argues, “wants to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary," at the forefront of “the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley" where “the tech industry could be a powerful agent of America foreign policy". The delegation that had visited him, he notes ruefully, “was one part Google, three parts US foreign policy establishment". It took Assange two years to figure this out, and he concludes that the chairman of Google was likely conducting “‘back-channel diplomacy’ for Washington."

Assange presents an unflattering portrait of Cohen, director of Google Ideas, whom he dubs “Google’s director of regime change". He cites internal emails and US state department cables that show Cohen as a meddler extraordinaire in some of the major political hotspots in the world: he was in Egypt during the revolution, in Afghanistan in 2009, in Lebanon, trying to establish a rival to Hezbollah, in Azerbaijan to “engage the Iranian communities closer to the border," and had meetings planned in Palestine and Turkey. Interestingly enough, we learn that in London, Cohen “offered Bollywood movie executives funds to insert anti-extremist content into their films, and promised to connect them to related networks in Hollywood ."

When Google Met WikiLeaks doesn’t restrict itself to Google’s shenanigans. Assange also expounds at length on the philosophy behind WikiLeaks, and his vision for the future of the internet. The besieged publisher wants nothing more, and nothing less, than to put in place a “total system" where censorship, secrecy, and surveillance of data would all be losing propositions, and the internet will function as an emancipating tool beyond the purview of state control, channeling information to political agents who seek to bring about social transformation. This vision is elementally opposed to that of Google, and Schmidt, for both of whom liberation is identical with the fulfillment of US foreign policy objectives and the integration of all the world’s markets into the American economic regime.

When Google Met WikiLeaks, like Assange’s previous book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, is another strident warning, if any was needed, about the death of privacy at the hands of what he terms “technological imperialism".

Zero privacy for the powerless and extreme secrecy for the powerful, history tells us, is a recipe for totalitarianism. The work done by WikiLeaks in punching holes through the armored cocoons of governmental secrecy is well known, and is set to continue. Assange’s next big project is to find a technological solution that would make surveillance-proof communication and censorship-proof publishing the norm rather than a dream. If he succeeds, its global impact could be even greater than that of WikiLeaks’ leaked cables.

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Updated: 07 Oct 2014, 02:29 PM IST
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