POLITICS
09/30/2014 11:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Julian Assange Fires Back At Eric Schmidt And Google's 'Digital Colonialism'

Ryan Grim

ECUADORIAN SOIL -- A police officer stands just inside the lobby of 3 Hans Crescent, a nondescript apartment building just around the corner from Harrods of London and a few blocks south of Hyde Park. He's watching the door to apartment 3b, a mini-flat that has for two years been the home of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.

On the building's stoop stands another cop. Near him is parked a festive, multicolored paddy wagon. Several other officers loiter nearby, all of them charged with making sure Assange doesn't step outside the apartment, the home of the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he has asylum.

One officer tells The Huffington Post that if Assange does step out, he and his colleagues have been instructed to pick him up and taxi him to the nearest police station. The officer notes dryly that his past assignments -- guarding visiting royalty and American presidents as far back as Jimmy Carter -- have been significantly more glamorous. "I've guarded kings and queens and presidents," he says. "Julian Assange?"

Inside, the officers' unwanted charge is wary of his embassy lookouts. He moves quickly to stop a visitor from opening the flat's front door, warning that he'd be visible to the lobby's watchman. For our interview, he asks for the chair farthest from the door that offers him his daily protection.

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An officer patrols just outside Assange's window. Photos by The Huffington Post.

Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden in connection with two instances of alleged sexual misconduct. He maintains that the sex with the two women was fully consensual, while his accusers say that he was deceptive when it came to wearing a condom. He has not been formally charged, and has offered either to answer investigators' questions from his Ecuadorian home, or to travel to Sweden if the Swedes will guarantee that he won't be extradited to the United States, where he's worried he'll be imprisoned. The Swedes have declined both offers.

And so Assange remains at 3 Hans Crescent, working on his legal case; speaking at events by video conference or, more recently, by hologram; writing; and doing interviews. The threat of the charges hasn't stopped admirers from visiting. Just before our interview, two French ladies tried to get a moment with the WikiLeaks founder. Today, however, Assange wants to talk about Eric Schmidt.

In June 2011, Schmidt, then CEO of Google and working on what would become his book The New Digital Age, met Assange at a cottage in England for a conversation that lasted several hours. What Schmidt may not have expected is that Assange would go on to use the episode as material for a book of his own, the recently published When Google Met WikiLeaks. The book targets Google's cooperative relationship with the U.S. government in terms of privacy, mass surveillance and Internet freedom.

Assange’s new book hit the shelves last Wednesday -- the day after Schmidt's latest book, How Google Works, was released.

The two have engaged in a bit of public sparring. "Julian is very paranoid about things. Google never collaborated with the NSA and in fact, we've fought very hard against what they did," Schmidt told ABC News last week. "We have taken all of our data, all of our exchanges, and we fully encrypted them so no one can get them, especially the government."

"He's of course writing from the, shall we say, luxury lodgings of the local embassy in London," Schmidt added.

At the luxurious flat, HuffPost asked Assange to respond.

"Eric Schmidt has a difficult job defending what Google has become and that he uses -- Google uses private collection," said Assange. "The revelations, the Snowden revelations, showed that he did hand over the information to the U.S. government. I think it’s sad he that feels it’s necessary to resort to ad hominem attacks, but I understand that he has no real arguments to defend Google’s position."

Sign up to get an email from Ryan Grim when he publishes a new story. The interview with Assange continues below...

HP: What about the substance of Schmidt's defense, that Google is pretty much at war with the U.S. government and that they don't cooperate? He claims that they’re working to encrypt everything so that neither the NSA nor anyone else can get in. What would you say to that?

JA: It's a duplicitous statement. It's a lawyerly statement. Eric Schmidt did not say that Google encrypts everything so that the US government can’t get at them. He said quite deliberately that Google has started to encrypt exchanges of information -- and that’s hardly true, but it has increased amount of encrypted exchanges. But Google has not been encrypting their storage information. Google’s whole business model is predicated on Google being able to access the vast reservoir of private information collected from billions of people each day. And if Google can access it, then of course the U.S. government has the legal right to access it, and that's what's been going on.

As a result of the Snowden revelation, Google was caught out. It tried to pretend that those revelations were not valid, and when that failed, it started to engage in a public relations campaign to try and say that it wasn’t happy with what the National Security Agency was doing, and was fighting against it. Now, I’m sure that many people in Google are not happy with what has been occurring. But that doesn’t stop it happening, because Google’s business model is to collect as much information as possible and people store it, index and turn it into predictive profiles. Similarly, at Eric Schmidt’s level, Google is very closely related to the U.S. government and there’s a revolving door between the State Department and Google.

Could Google keep its current business model while also making it impossible for the NSA to access its data, or is it baked into the business model?

As long as Google is operating its current business model and runs out of the U.S. jurisdiction, it cannot protect people from the National Security Agency or the FBI, or other arms of the U.S. government.

In the past, you mentioned that Eric Schmidt and the Google leadership in the U.S. are allied ideologically when it comes to the role of technology. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Google’s foreign policy positioning is encapsulated in Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas. Google Ideas is Google's in-house think tank that specializes on Google’s geopolitical interactions with the world. Eric Schmidt has become Google’s secretary of state, a Henry Kissinger-like figure whose job it is to go out and meet with foreign leaders and their opponents and position Google in the world. The question becomes: What is the positioning?

We can see that positioning, for example, in relation to the proposed bombing of Syria, when Google took an interventionist stance and used its extremely powerful advertising network to push John Kerry's call to bomb Syria. This is not the State Department buying some Google ads. This is Google using its front page, of its own volition, to promote John Kerry's attempts to bomb Syria.

What did they do?

They put a link in bright red just before the proposed vote in Congress -- the day of John Kerry's public call for intervention in Syria. They put a bright red link on the Google home page advertising the talk.

This was a year ago?

Yeah. It had not been used for any other time. It's not that Google was advertising YouTube or anything like that. This was a one-off. We analyzed the uses of the homepage and whether that had been done for any other -- had it been done for a Michael Jackson tour? No. (Update: See below for Google's response to Assange.)

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Is Google, to you, a stand-in for the broader industry? Is Facebook any better when it comes to any of this?

Facebook is a younger company. Facebook also has its similar problems, however Google has become more integrated ... People know more or less what they're dealing with when they're dealing with Facebook. But Google controls 80 percent of Android phones now sold, YouTube is buying up eight drone companies. It's deploying cars, it's running ISPs -- Internet service providers. It has a plan to create Google towns.

It has become larger now. It's now more than 110 companies, so it's large enough that it's now looking like a high-tech General Electric, as opposed to a company that just does search.

Speaking of the secretary of state, what's your take on Hillary Clinton, on how she might lead if she winds up being the Democratic nominee and the president?

I've come to know Hillary quite well as a result of reading her cables -- reading thousands of her cables. And I might not be telling anyone anything new when I say that Hillary's positions are even more hawkish than Barack Obama's. As far as Google's concerned, as we document in the book, Eric Schmidt hired Hillary's adviser Jared Cohen to be the head of Google Ideas.

I gave a description of the book -- when WikiLeaks needed to speak to Hillary for legal reasons, because we were about to release a very large batch of State Department cables -- Eric Schmidt's then-girlfriend, Lisa Shields, who does not formally work for the State Department, was appointed to be the back channel. Google and the State Department are very close at a social level among their executives. So you can't expect that Hillary will be pushing to break up Google one day, using antitrust regulation for example, which would've already happened if we look at what happened with AT&T.

Ten or 20 years from now, if Google's vision on how the Internet should operate continues to carry forward unchecked, what does the Internet look like and what does life look like as you see it?

It's not just Google, but Google represents a push towards a technocratic imperialism or digital colonialism. While it can sound a bit strange to use these terms, that's very clear from Google's book about its vision for the future of the digital age, where Google envisages pulling in everyone, even in the deepest parts of Africa, into its system of interaction. Now that system of interaction concentrates global power into those people who already have a lot of it, and that means not just companies like Google but a lot of the alliance of interests that revolve around what we traditionally call the deep state -- but it's organizations like the National Security Agency and contractors that account for more than 80 percent of operations, institutions like Google and Facebook, which directly or indirectly are involved in the worldwide collection efforts of those organizations. At a less geopolitical level and at a more personal level, the global erosion of privacy for the average person brings democratic states socially into a position of where they are more like authoritarian states. That's the big problem for the average person.

Update, Oct. 1 -- A spokesperson for Google told The Huffington Post that the Google home page had displayed a link for a Sept. 10, 2013 Google+ Hangout featuring a conversation between Kerry and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The spokesperson told HuffPost that the following text was displayed to publicize the Hangout: "Live! Secretary Kerry answers questions on Syria. Today via Hangout at 2pm ET."

The spokesperson objected to Assange's description of the link as advocacy and added that Google has used its home page in a similar manner to promote other events, including State of the Union addresses, a 2012 relief concert for Hurricane Sandy and a 2013 Hangout with Michelle Obama on healthy living.

HuffPost

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