Monday, July 6, 2015

JOHN KEANE - Julian Assange on Google, Surveillance and Predatory Capitalism

Since the last time we were together inside his prison lodgings at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, a few things have changed. Julian Assange has grown a beard, looks more pallid and pauses when I ask after his general health. His legal team are warning that the shadows of detention without charge are now taking their toll. The caution is not just legal jousting: for more than a thousand days, locked down in cramped space that is nowhere, the pale rebel with a fearless grin has not lived a normal life. Surrounded by armed police and invisible spies, he enjoys no safe spaces for exercise. There are no strolls through streets with friends, no sunlight on his face, no fresh air inside his lungs, and no access to adequate medical facilities. Physical confinement and round-the-clock deep surveillance are his fate.

Some things haven’t changed: the intense eyes, the furrowed brow, the intelligence and unalloyed courage. And the conviction that he continues to be punished for doing what he had to do, for following to the letter Kafka’s advice: when the earth grows cold and people everywhere fall asleep, blanketed in the darkness of innocent self-deception, someone has to brandish a burning stick, someone must be there, someone must keep watch.

Google is the Future
Some say that the watchman is fast becoming a forgotten hero of resistance to state secrecy, or that in publicity terms he doesn’t measure up to the straight-laced liberal American genius of Edward Snowden. None of this is true. Julian Assange was instrumental in arranging Edward Snowden’s great escape from the United States to Russia. The pluck of WikiLeaks meanwhile keeps its founder in the world’s headlines. So does ongoing media coverage of his legal fight against confinement and extradition. Detention hasn’t damaged his reputation for daring, or shattered his will. He reads much more than before. And he’s eager to engage with big and challenging ideas, and to come up with his own, as I soon discover when we sit down at a small table to run through themes raised in his new book, When Google Met WikiLeaks.

“Google pretends it isn’t a company,” says Assange. “The world’s biggest and most dynamic media conglomerate portrays itself as playful and humane. But Google is not what it seems. It’s a deeply political operation. We must pay attention to how it operates, and prepare to defend ourselves against its seductive powers of surveillance and control.”

Assange is sure Google is a political matter, yet right from the beginning of our conversation I note his fascination with the question of why its global public reputation rides so high. I press Assange to explain why many millions of people around the world think of Google as a synonym for state-of-the-art technical progress. Assange recalls the forgotten fact that the company founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, dubbed their first-cut search engine “BackRub”. It was a college-level call to engage with the Web’s “back links” and (presumably) a freshman joke and people-friendly marketing ploy. Later the logo morphed into (from “googolplex” and “googol”, referring to specific very large numbers). The seductive imagery stuck, to the point where everything now seems to work in the company’s favour. Google, says Assange, “advertises itself as a great liberating force in the world”. It’s not just that Google has become a new verb in many languages, or that it has headlined the word “search”. The company cuts a swagger. Google is all good things to everybody.

“We’ve come a long way from the dorm room and the garage,” says its website. Yes, it has. Overseen from its Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, the company has more than 70 offices in more than 40 countries with “murals and decorations expressing local personality; Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and ‘huddles’; video games, pool tables and pianos; cafes and ‘microkitchens’ stocked with healthy food; and good old fashioned whiteboards for spur-of-the-moment brainstorming”.

Google knows it’s a carrier of cool, says Assange. “In less than a quarter of a second, users who google ‘Google’ in English are greeted by 7.3 billion results, one for each person living on our planet.” His point is that Google is more than just a company. It prides itself on being a force for good. Google says it gives back to the community. It wants “to make the world a better place”. Google is restless. It is hypermodern. It is visionary. Google is the future.

Digital Colonialism
When Google Met WikiLeaks is an effort to humble power by unpicking the social licence forged by Google. “Unlike Shell or Unilever, it appears not to be a corporation,” Assange explains. “It cloaks itself in beneficence, the impenetrable banality of ‘Don’t be evil’.” With help from Hannah Arendt, the gist of his attack is that Google hypocritically mucks with the murky world of high-level power politics. Assange speaks of “digital colonialism”. It’s his shorthand way of noting that our digital age has spawned a new type of state-backed corporation with a “missionary” mentality, a form of tutelary power that spreads itself across the planet, into the daily lives of many millions of people, in the name of “doing good”.

I ask Assange whether he thinks Google is becoming a 21st-century version of the Honourable East India Company. At its peak, the English joint-stock company accounted for half the world’s trade, dominated such commodities as silk, salt, cotton, tea and opium, and ruled large areas of India with its own private armies and administrative apparatus. “It’s worse than the East India Company,” he replies. “From memory, the company ruled according to a royal charter, but the government owned no company shares and had limited control over its activities, which were backed by a huge standing army. Google’s different. It’s trying to keep quiet about its actual politics. It’s in a state of public denial about its global ambitions, and its deep entanglement and collaboration with the American government.”

So the charge is that “liberty loving” Google secretly sails with the navy, not the pirates. Google, Assange says, is now a master of “back-channel diplomacy for Washington”. When Google Met WikiLeaks details the many ways the corporate communications giant shapes decisions and non-decisions in the political scene.

“Three years ago, Google finally joined the ranks of top-spending Washington lobbyists,” Assange tells me. “It’s a list usually stalked by such giants as the US Chamber of Commerce, military contractors, and the petro-carbon leviathans. Google is now at the top of the company list.” It annually spends more on lobbying than such military aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing.

Assange is a world-class muckraker skilled at tracking down connections and culprits. The book is built around painstaking research into the links that publicly implicate Google in the highest circles of the American state. He lays into characters like Jared Cohen, who in 2010 moved from the US State Department, where he had been senior adviser to secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, to head up the “think/do tank” Google Ideas.

Assange is especially critical of Eric Schmidt, who served as Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011 and is now its executive chairman. Assange spent time with Schmidt in mid 2011 and describes him as part of the “Washington establishment nexus”. Now tacitly backing Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency, Schmidt pays regular visits to the White House and delivers “fireside chats” at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He likes the “pomp and ceremony of state visits across geopolitical fault lines”. Assange dubs him “Google’s foreign minister”, 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”.

Schmidt has reacted bitterly to these charges. “Julian is very paranoid about things,” he told the American ABC News last year. “He’s of course writing from … the luxury lodgings of the local embassy in London.” Then came the blanket denial: “Google never collaborated with the NSA [National Security Agency], and in fact we’ve fought very hard against what they did.” Wagging his finger, he added, “We have taken all our data, all of our exchanges, and we’ve fully encrypted them so no one can get them, especially the government.”

Assange looks annoyed when I quote these words back to him. It’s not just the raspberry reference to “luxury lodgings” at the Ecuadorian embassy or the personal dig. What really irks Assange is the denial by Schmidt and Google staff of their political connections and the “revolving door” relations between Google and the US government. “Google’s bosses genuinely believe in the civilising power of multinational corporations, and they see this mission as supportive of the shaping of the world by the ‘benevolent superpower’.”

Google, a flag-bearer of the new Californian “free market” ideology of digital capitalism, is an accomplice of the American state, Assange insists. He reminds me that early Google search technology was seed-funded by the NSA and CIA “information superiority” programs. Since then, the family integration of Google and the government has tightened. Assange rattles off a string of cases. Each runs well beyond the politics of personal connections, and each connection is damaging to Eric Schmidt’s claim that Google has clean political hands.

Assange says that in 2004, after acquiring Keyhole, a mapping tech start-up co-funded by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the CIA, Google integrated the technology into Google Maps, an enterprise version of which has since been shopped through multimillion dollar contracts to the Pentagon and linked-in federal and state agencies.

Four years later, Google helped launch into space an NGA spy satellite, the GeoEye-1. Google shares its photographs with the US military and intelligence communities. In 2010, the NGA awarded Google a handsome contract for “geospatial visualization services”. 

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