In a wide-ranging talk Saturday, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said that despite the efforts of his organization and the revelations of Edward Snowden, "We are all actually living in a world we don't understand." Assange, who is still confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London because he faces arrest on espionage charges in the United States and Great Britain, addressed a crowd of about a thousand at the South By Southwest Interactive conference via a live-video Skype connection.
His and Snowden's revelations showed that "the true nature of human institutions" such as the national-security, defense, and diplomatic agencies of major governments and their contractors, "are all obscured by fog. Every now and then, there is a clearing of the fog, when there is one of these disclosures," he added. He identified his bete noir as a "fluid, postmodern amalgam of agencies and contractors," including the National Security Agency in the United States, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and Britain's GHCQ.
After asserting that the Western bloc led by the United States was responsible for 75 to 80 percent of the world's aggregate expenditures, Assange assailed what he said was a new kind of totalitarianism. "We're moving into a new totalitarian world," he said. "Not in the sense of Stalin or Pol Pot...but in the sense that anyone can be surveilled.
"The ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there," he claimed, "and arguably will be there in a few years. And to store all the information."
Because of the efforts of Wikileaks and a few individuals, he continued, public perception has grown that the Internet, "the greatest tool of human emancipation, had been coopted" by agencies using it to gather information surreptitiously to further their agendas. He referred to the use of the Internet by powerful government agencies as "a militarization of our civilian space. A military intrusion into our civilian space."
But he also saw a brighter side to the Internet's recent evolution. The Internet had been transformed over the last four years, he said, because of revelations such as his and Snowden's and also by events such as the "Arab Spring." The Internet "four years ago was a politically apathetic space," he said. But the conflicts involving him and Snowden against the United States and other powers have played out in public, "and everyone could see what was going on," he declared. "The Internet became a political space, and that is an important development."
He further noted that the conflict has made de facto refugees not only of him—he has been confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for 650 days—and Snowden, who is in Russia, but also of several others. He cited three journalists, including Glenn Greenwald, who brought the Snowden revelations to light for the British newspaper The Guardian, and is now living in Brazil. The others were American Laura Poitras, who reported on Snowden's revelations for the Washington Post and Der Spegel, and British citizen Sarah Harrison, who helped Snowden get from Hong Kong to Russia. Assange also mentioned the American Jacob Applebaum, who has been identified as a hacker and Wikileaks supporter. Poitras, Applebaum, and Harrison are all now living in Berlin.
"National security reporters are a new kind of refugee," Assange asserted. But at least they are "not in a situation where they have to be terrified all the time," he went on. "I see this as quite a positive phenomenon: Where, once, people would have been completely crushed, they can use these basic tenets and rights to confine nations, and in restraint of the powerful countries.
"We are all part of what we would traditionally call the State," Assange said. "So we have no choice but to attempt to manage the behavior of the State."
At one point, in defending Wikileaks, Assange seemed to compare himself to Robin Hood. Major government security agencies are "stealing information from all of us," he began. "Knowledge is power. Wikileaks specializes in going in the opposite direction. Reversing the process--taking knowledge about how this process works and putting it back in the public record. And that empowers us."
But Assange's spirited defense of liberty and openness stumbled badly when he was asked about recent events in the Ukraine, including the Russian military's apparent invasion of Crimea. Assange seemed to accept and even endorse the incursion. "Geopolitically, it is utterly intolerable for Sevastopol to fall into the hands of NATO," he declared. Such an occurrence would be "an existential threat to Russia."
"Russia will reclaim Crimea," Assange stated flatly. "And the United States will prop up the rest of Ukraine."
Asked if he is fears for his own safety, Assange began by saying "I am a normal person." Then he added: "Courage is not the absence of fear, it is seeing fear and proceeding anyway."
He also said, apparently in reference to intelligence and national security agencies in the United States and Britain: "They don't need to kill you. They just need make you believe they will kill you" to make you give up a quest such as his.
On a lighter note, he joked about Wikileaks that "we're one of the few media organizations that's in the black." And he said that his organization has proved an important principle, which is that "with a little help from your friends, with hard work, and with dedication, yes, you can stand up to these awful, fearful, great powers. Yes, you can outmaneuver them."
Glenn Zorpette is editorial director for content development at IEEE Spectrum. A Fellow of the IEEE, he holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Brown University.