In a surreal session in Austin today, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange spoke with an enormous hall full of SXSW attendees via a problematic Skype connection from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
(Well, it was full at the beginning of the session. Poor remote video can lose a crowd.)
Assange — credited with ushering in the current era of classified document releases, and unable to travel internationally for fear of extradition — is not necessarily this annual arena’s star of the year. That would be Edward Snowden, who is also speaking with SXSW via video chat from Russia on Monday. Also on Monday, journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been Snowden’s key outlet, will be join SXSW on a hookup from Brazil.
But at a tech industry event at a time when Internet freedoms are top of mind, Assange is definitely a draw.
“There has been a military occupation of Internet space — a very serious phenomenon,” Assange told the crowd, responding to texted questions from a moderator, and checking periodically to see if people in the cavernous ballroom could see him via show of hands.
Predictably, the U.S. government was Assange’s main rhetorical target. “There is a question if the Barack Obama administration is at all serious, and who really wears the pants,” he said. “Is it the security agencies, or the civilian part?”
The evidence to back up that allegation, according to Assange, is found in the lack of firings, prosecutions, budget cuts and other punitive actions that might have occurred in the eight months since the original Snowden revelations.
Before Wikileaks brought this style of disclosure and whistle-blowing to the headlines four years ago, “We weren’t actually living in the world, we were living in some fictitious representation of the world,” Assange argued.
Now that people are starting to understand the extent of government surveillance and secrets, the Internet has gone from an apathetic space to a political space, Assange said.
Going forward, Assange urged people to be aware that anything they do online is being watched.
And it’s troubling, he said, that control of Internet services rests with such a small number of companies. The fact that Google knows that one million Android phones are activated per day is a problem in and of itself, Assange asserted.
“There’s a single group that’s able to capture that much information,” Assange said. “That’s a surveillance nightmare.”