Pando

Wikileaks meets Surveillance Valley: An interview with Julian Assange

By Joseph Flatley , written on October 12, 2014

From The News Desk

“The problem,” says Julian Assange, is that “a lot of groups that would normally criticize Google, the nonprofits that are involved in the tech sector, are funded directly or indirectly by Google. Or by USAID. Or by Freedom House. Google and its extended network have significant patronage in the very groups that would normally be criticizing it.”

Assange is speaking to me over the telephone from his exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. I’m 3,700 miles away in the eastern United States. The connection is awful, which makes our conversation stilted and weird. It also lends the whole affair a certain degree of intrigue. It feels like the secret police could bust in and confiscate our shortwave radios at any minute.

“For example,” he continues, “the EFF is a great group, and they’ve done good things for us, but nonetheless it is significantly funded by Google, or people who work at Google.”

I wanted to make sure I heard him right: “Are you saying that if it didn’t have those ties, that the EFF would be more outspoken against Google?”

“I don’t know about EFF specifically,” he says, “but it’s the nature of organizations. They don’t like to bite the hand that feeds them.”

When you talk to Julian Assange, you're bound to be thrown for a loop from time to time. For instance, you might find the EFF – universally considered to be the benevolent ACLU of cyberspace – lumped in with NGOs like Freedom House, which (as Pando’s Mark Ames points out) exist only to flex American muscle in a manner slightly less overt than invasion or coup d'etat.

A great many readers of Assange's latest book, When Google Met WikiLeaks (OR Books) will have their assumptions about technology, Silicon Valley, and Google challenged – and find out that the world is a much scarier place than they had believed. And those who are disillusioned with Silicon Valley will find themselves with plenty of reasons to remain disillusioned.

* * * *

Two related books were published last month: Assange's When Google Met WikiLeaks, and How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. Both have nearly identical cover designs (riffing on Google’s iconic home screen) and both feature Eric Schmidt, but the similarities end there. Schmidt’s own book is a bog-standard guide to business “the Google way,” with the kind of clever, counter-intuitive lessons that pass as insight for these sort of books (“Moritz was right” for instance, when presenting a common sense solution in an early Google management meeting, “but he was also wrong”). Assange’s book, on the other hand, is a much different beast. The bulk of the text is the transcript of a meeting that the author had with Schmidt and his colleagues while Schmidt was researching a previous book, The New Digital Age.

"The EFF is a great group...  but nonetheless it is significantly funded by Google, or people who work at Google."

The New Digital Age is a manifesto of sorts. “A startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism,” in Assange’s words. It goes far beyond what one would assume would be the interests of a Silicon Valley search company. But of course, Google's business is much more than search — with a valuation of $400 billion and almost 50,000 employees worldwide, this is a company sufficiently large that it has had to forge connections with the foreign policy establishment in order to operate successfully on a global level. As Pando’s Yasha Levine notes, its operations (and the source of its billions) more resembles those of a “for-profit surveillance company that wants to control as much of the world’s digital infrastructure as possible.”

“There’s proof that they’re involved in foreign affairs,” Assange says. “In the same type of manner, in the same sort of way that the State Department is: pulling together overlapping networks that Google perceives that it’s able to achieve influence in. Many companies do that. The interesting factor is that Google perceives that its overlapping networks should include networks of traditional US soft power, hard power, and networks in other countries where it is either collaborating with the establishments of those countries or — if it feels it doesn’t have an in with the elite of the other countries, it brings in the people that might one day replace it.”

“You would not be surprised,” he continues, “to see a company like General Electric or Raytheon doing that. But it is very much at odds with the perceptual image that Google has tried to build for itself.”

At the same time, Google is much more powerful than companies like Raytheon or Lockheed. “By market valuation it’s the second biggest company in the United States,” Assange notes. “In terms of its information gathering ability, it is unsurpassed. It is the number one collector of information on people — billions and billions of people. Second only to the National Security Agency. And perhaps GCHQ. It’s a bit hard to measure those two, but certainly among companies it’s the number one collector of information about how people behave.”

The thing of it is, Assange stresses that Eric Schmidt is a sharp tack. He wrote that Schmidt possesses a “machinelike analyticity,” that “his questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful, nonverbal structural intelligence.” This is, after all — as Assange points out in his book:

...the same intellect that had abstracted software-engineering principles to scale Google into a megacorp, ensuring the corporate infrastructure always met the rate of growth. This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people.
While Schmidt may be an engineering genius, his politics (and by extension, the politics of Google) suck. And he’s prone to making incredibly creepy statements to the press. (Example: “We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about.”) Which serves Assange’s point that, engineering genius or not, Schmidt isn’t a terribly savvy political operator.

“You characterize Schmidt’s politics as conventional,” I say to Assange.

He cuts me off: “Banal.”

“Banal, right. What do you think is the disconnect between his abilities as an engineer and his politics?”

“It’s a very interesting question, why these things come to be. I have met people, for example, in Africa, from a similar ideological milieu that Eric Schmidt comes from. They’ve been there two years, and they don’t seem to have absorbed anything at all. They expect the busses to run on time and the get angry when they don’t. This ideology of market statism, or extreme centrist liberalism, and the milieu of characters that socially surround people like Eric Schmidt, seem to be reinforcing. It’s not easy to break out of its grasp and develop a different kind of perspective, an alternate perspective, full stop.”

I agree.

“But also, if you perceive that it’s in your social and power interests to not understand something, people become extremely good at it.”

I ask Assange about Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

“During the writing of the book,” he tells me, “towards the end I became concerned that it might have a weakness. I was confident about the analysis of Eric Schmidt and his ideology and his place in the world, and his broader political interests,” but Schmidt is no longer CEO — Page took that role on back in 2010, when Schmidt became chairman.

“So we researched Larry Page,” Assange says. “We spoke to people who know Larry Page, and came to the conclusion that Larry Page is a brilliant apolitical technologist. And of course no one is apolitical when you really come down to it, but what I mean by that is that his politics are, in fact, simply the expansion of Google. And he’s in many ways megalomaniacal, but of course many industrial leaders have that quality. His politics are just to make Google as big as possible, to collect all the world’s information about everyone and organize everyone’s lives. And I’m certain he believes he can do that in a better way — I should say, I suspect very strongly that he believes he can do that in a better way than states or other organizations.”

As for Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google?

“Eric Schmidt is the political flavor” of Google, Assange says. “If you like, he’s Google’s Secretary of State.”

* * * *

American history is lousy with corporations who have gone to bed with the American Intelligence Community and State Department in order to expand their global reach. Indeed, it’s impossible for a large corporation to operate overseas without cutting deals with governments — and for a corporation as ambitious as Google, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility (or probability) that Schmidt and Co. would take it to the next level. Or, as WikiLeaks partner Al Akhbar put it, develop the Google Ideas think tank to pursue “global expansion — blurring the lines between business and political action.”

“You characterize Schmidt’s politics as conventional,” I say to Assange.

He cuts me off: “Banal.”

After Al Akhbar analyzed the Global Intelligence Files two years ago, they found that at least two top-tier Googlers (then-CEO Schmidt and Marty Lev, Google’s VP of security, safety and transportation) were briefing the private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) “about Google’s activities and internal communications regarding ‘regime change’ in the Middle East.” According to Al Akhbar, “the briefings mainly focused on the movements of Jared Cohen, currently the director of Google Ideas,” which, according to the files was being “billed as a vehicle for spreading American-style liberal democracy.”

The Global Intelligence Files offer a rare, real-time look into the daily life of a private intelligence firm.

If the Stratfor emails are to be believed:

  • Cohen was in Cairo during the revolution there, dining with Wael Ghonim hours before he was picked up by Egyptian State Security
  • The following day, a source within Google told Stratfor that Cohen would soon be visiting Gaza – presumably in the name of regime change. According to Stratfor: “Google is not clear if Cohen is operating [with a] State Dept [or] WH [White House] license…” Later, when asked who the sources were, Fred Burton (who has been the source of the emails) will say they were Marty Lev and Eric Schmidt.
  • Roughly two weeks later, Stratfor’s VP of counterterrorism, Fred Burton, reported that Cohen was still planning on a trip to Gaza: “The dude is a loose can[n]on. GOOGLE is trying to stop his entry into Gaza now because the dude is like scorched earth. It’s unclear to GOOGLE if he’s driving without a license, but GOOGLE believes he’s on a specific mission of “regime change” on the part of leftist fools inside the WH who are using him for their agendas.”
At this point, Stratfor is under the impression that Cohen’s gone rogue — bopping around the Middle East on behalf of the White House. The following week (late February, 2011) Stratfor got its hands on an email Cohen had sent to a “senior Google executive” discussing a trip Cohen had planned for March of their year:
I wanted to follow-up and get a sense of your latest thinking on the proposed March trip to UAE, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. The purpose of this trip is to exclusively engage the Iranian community to better understand the challenges faced by Iranians as part of one of our Google Ideas groups in repressive societies.
Burton responds:
GOOGLE is getting WH [White House] and State Dept. support and air cover. In reality, they are doing things the CIA cannot do.
It looks like the March trip never happened. According to an email from Burton, which he said was from the “senior Google executive” source, Google — worried by Cohen’s “baggage” as a “US State Dept. policy maker, his research and publications on Muslim extremists and youth movements and his presence in Egypt just as the uprising started” — canceled the trip.

* * * *

By the time Google began as a Stanford University research project in 1996, the Creation Myth of Silicon Valley (and all the hubris that it brings) was locked solid. People have struggled to name and define this ideology over the years: the California Ideology, Digital Utopianism, Technolibertarianism, and so on. Whatever you wish to call it, its apotheosis was Wired in its heyday, before being sold to Conde Nast in 1998. The magazine connected and crystallized a number of ideological strains that had been popular in the valley for decades, making them seem real. And one of the key parts of the Silicon Valley myth is that governments cannot and never will be able to keep up with digital communications technology, which is why government is slow and stupid, while Silicon Valley is smart and fast.

But a look at the history of the tech sector betrays this notion for the con job that it is. As long as American intelligence has needed computers, it has needed Silicon Valley – who has been paid handsomely for its part in this marriage born out of the Cold War.

“It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley would be collaborating with the biggest industries in society,” says Assange. “Including intelligence agencies, which are an industry in terms of their need to or their desire to purchase large amounts of data.”

He offers some early (pre-Google) examples of companies making fortunes off of intelligence projects, including Oracle and IBM.

Then how did Silicon Valley get its current reputation of being something “disruptive” and “rebellious?”

“I think there has been a change in perception about what Silicon Valley is,” says Assange. “If you go back to the early 1970s and you look at U.S. cultural products on the role of computers and networks, it’s not at all viewed to be liberating. It’s viewed to be at the most advanced fronts of state power.”

The change in perception, he says, came about as a part of the PC revolution. I blame Steve Jobs, but  Assange singles out the consumerization of Silicon Valley.

“You have Apple and Google who are interfacing directly with consumers in many marketing campaigns,” he says, and the companies are “presumed to be sympathetic to consumers. It seems to also be tied into an attempt to get higher caliber programmers and engineers to work for less by being — for not seeming to be the same sort of work as say, going to work for Lockheed Martin. You get a high-paid job and your hippie chick girlfriend wouldn’t leave you” for working for an evil defense contractor, he jokes.

“The gloss is coming off Google in terms of its public presentation,” Assange maintains.

In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner explains the growth of the Silicon Valley Myth (my term, not his) as a simple twist of fate, “a confluence of extraordinary economic, technological, and political currents.” In addition to being responsible for the (often unwarranted) goodwill that companies like Apple and Google get in our nation's mindshare, Turner points out that this “technocentric optimism became a central feature of the biggest stock market bubble in American history. Its faith that the internet constituted a revolution in human affairs legitimated calls for telecommunications deregulation and the dismantling of government entitlement programs elsewhere as well.”

What the early Wired crowd gave us was essentially libertarian ideology as a rave flyer (those of us doing questionable drugs in the 1990s will remember how futuristic that could seem). The myth, of course, is that there is no place for government in the New Economy, or Digital Economy, or whatever you wish to call it. The reality is that Silicon Valley basically began as one big dumping ground for ARPA (then DARPA) funding.

“That’s standard operating procedure for research environments like Stanford or Berkeley,” according to Assange. “Like many US universities, engineering and research money comes from DARPA. So that isn’t to hold out Sergey Brin and Larry Page as people who lept into bed initially with the military industrial complex. That’s standard operating procedure for engineering graduate students. But it does show that these are not especially principled individuals. They didn’t have ethical principles that were so strong that they were going to reject DARPA as one of their funders.”

* * * *

At the very beginning, Google was anything but a politically connected company. Years (and billions of dollars) later, the company is trying to have it both ways: courting politicians and groups on either side of the aisle while simultaneously claiming that this somehow means they’re apolitical or post-partisan. To this end, Schmidt trotted out his “gee, shucks” routine again last month when a caller to NPR’s Diane Rehm Show questioned the Google chairman about the company’s support of the climate change denying American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the infamous corporate “bill mill” that is only one of many conservative groups the company backs.

"Um, we funded them [ALEC] as part of a political [campaign] of something unrelated" to its right wing agenda, Schmidt replied. "I think the consensus within the company was that that was some sort of mistake and so we're trying to not do that in the future."

Whether or not people believe that Google’s ALEC membership was “some sort of mistake” or not depends on their conception of Google as a company.

From the very beginning, Google’s self-professed mission has been “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Of course, this can only happen if the company can suck up and process all the world’s data. And what will it take to achieve this goal? If you look at the company’s track record, this includes paying off everyone from the EFF to Obama, to climate change deniers like ALEC and The Heritage Foundation; developing its own Wi-Fi drone Air Force; working with Apple to create a cartel that kept high-tech workers’ wages artificially low; and sharing user information with the NSA.

“I’ve spoken to a number of friends who know nothing about the internet,” says Assange. “And they’re extremely surprised, reading my book. Their self-description of Google was like a tap: you turn it on and water comes out. So that’s the level. They don’t think about Google as a company, they just think it’s a bit like a power line or the water. You put in a search term and stuff comes out.”

And if the “surveillance barons” of Google have their way, that’s exactly how things will stay: Google will be perceived as nothing more than a public utility. But it looks like public opinion is starting to turn against the search (and surveillance) giant.

“The gloss is coming off Google in terms of its public presentation,” Assange maintains. “The PRISM revelations really kicked that off. There are a number of antitrust cases, and Springer (the publishing house) has decided to make major attacks, a deliberately public confrontation with Google’s market domination.”

While it might be hard to imagine a world before Google, it’s nearly impossible to understand Google’s role in the world. This is no accident — the company has gone out of its way to make its operations opaque. In his latest book, Julian Assange brings some much-needed transparency to one of the most nebulous global corporations.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]