Today, Julian Assange—the force and founder behind WikiLeaks—joined SXSW Interactive in an interview with Benjamin Palmer of The Barbarian Group. Skyping in from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange began the talk by condemning the United Kingdom’s efforts to keep him bottled up inside the embassy, stating that the English government has spent the British equivalent of $1M on surveillance of his political asylum. Policemen are constantly stationed around the premises of the building, Assange added, effectively trapping him. In Assange’s own word, his situation is “a bit like prison.”
However, as the interview unfolded, the reasons for his self-described imprisonment were clear. Simply put, Assange’s freedom is a threat to the reputation of the United States government, as well as the anonymity that the NSA had previously enjoyed in a pre-Edward Snowden world. Despite the efforts on the part of the United States and its allies to silence Assange, he openly criticized the United States government and its practices regarding surveillance, information collection, and military strategy. At times, he described the United States as a government managed by fear, citing the exile of critics of the U.S. such as Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jacob Applebaum, all former U.S. residents who have been forced to live elsewhere because of their activism.
President Obama has made his love for the popular political thriller House of Cards publicly known but after hearing Assange describe his own situation as well as those of Greenwald and Applebaum and Poitras, the President’s taste for a television show based around deceit and espionage becomes unsettling. We are forced to ask what is happening behind the political curtain that the public doesn’t see. Assange referred to the United States’ data collection agencies as a “postmodern amalgam,” the type of body that makes it difficult to understand what is fact and what is fiction.
In House of Cards, political figures back-channel and connive for political and personal purposes in ways that seem extreme. We want to believe that a morally repugnant character like Frank Underwood couldn’t possibly exist, but Assange’s arguments make you believe otherwise. He pointed out that as the Internet and human society have become more familiar with one another, the combined result has only been more difficult to decipher. “We are all actually living in a world that we don’t understand,” he noted. “We are living in a sort of illusion.” Comparisons between the NSA and George Orwell’s 1984, serve as perfect examples for how convoluted the situation has become. We don’t really know what to believe anymore. The stories of the past are becoming our reality.
Even worse, the practices of these agencies may have made them self-sustaining. Assange claimed that even if President Obama sought to disband the NSA or CIA, the information that has already been collected about him would prevent him from taking such serious action. His own skeletons would be aired out for the public to see, putting his personal life and career at far too great a risk.
Despite all of this attendant turmoil, Assange expressed little regret when asked if he would change anything about WikiLeaks' past actions. If anything, it appears that those trying to hush Assange have only hardened his resolve to further uncover corruption and violence within governments across the world. He added that he hoped WikiLeaks' success has inspired other citizens to speak up when a whistleblower is needed, though he knows that it isn’t easy to act. Is he afraid of the power that he’s up against? To that question, Assange answered, “Well, I’m a normal person.” But he also remarked that in situations like these, “Courage is not the absence of fear… rather, currently seeing fear and still proceeding anyway.”
Assange believes that the Internet and its advanced powers of communication have allowed citizens to mobilize in a way that was never previously available to them. Now more than ever, we are finding ways to express our global concerns and protest injustice all around the world. Coming out of Assange’s interview, the only question is whether we'll continue to have the courage to uncover these inequalities.