When Google Met WikiLeaks: Battle for a New Digital Age

In recent years, the line between the outer world and the online world has become increasingly blurred. Much of cyberspace has come to mirror the outer structures of power. No one understands the severity of the infiltration of these coercive powers in the digital space better than the man who has had to live under constant threat of their force. Even before revelations of NSA mass surveillance, Julian Assange warned the world. In his 2012 book Cypherpunks, he said “the internet, our greatest tool for emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen”. He further noted how the internet has become “a threat to human civilization” (p. 1).

The world is often not what it seems to be. We live in a constructed reality enmeshed in a global network that feeds the 1% through de-risked capitalism. The throne of crony Washington consensus uses liberal democracy as a cover, while installing dictators like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt who was once referred to by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a “family friend.” With the corporate media as its army, the Pentagon distorts reality with lies and justifies invasions of oil rich countries with blatant propaganda. Through secret diplomacy and militant foreign policy, the US creates colony states, subservient to US and corporate interests, that yield their economic and judicial authority.

We stand at a crossroads, at a turning tide of civilization. This shift is indicated in Assange’s new book When Google Met WikiLeaks (2014). In its essence, the book is about two contrasting forces that may end up determining the course of our future in important ways. This is a story of the encounter between WikiLeaks and Google, two entities that have, each in their own way, become highly influential in the world.

The encounter took place June 23, 2011 while Assange was living under house arrest at the country manor of Vaughan Smith, the founder of the Frontline Club and fighting extradition for questioning in regard to the Swedish authorities’ allegations of sexual misconduct. With the release of the US Diplomatic cables and unprecedented political retaliation against WikiLeaks as background, “the delegation”, which Assange described as “one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment” (p. 17) came out to rural Norfolk, about three hours northeast of London.

The purpose of this visit was to research a book Eric Schmidt, the current Google chairman, who at that time was a top executive of Google, and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and former advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, were writing. They had requested the meeting to discuss ideas for their upcoming publication entitled The New Digital Age (2013).

Accompanying the duo were the book’s editor Scott Malcomson, former senior advisor for the UN and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who eventually worked at the US State Department, along with Lisa Shields, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, closely tied to the State Department, who was Schmidt’s partner at the time. In the illuminating three hours of conversation, which can be heard in its entirety on the WikiLeaks site, the editor in chief of the publisher of last resort engaged in an in-depth discussion with the future CEO of Google, who had turned the Silicon Valley iconic start-up into a multinational search giant. They debated political challenges and ways that global digital networking and technology might bring changes to fundamental structures of society.

Web of Self-Deception

When people talk about interaction on the World Wide Web, the topic often shifts to Facebook and Google as if the whole internet has become synonymous with such third party companies. Indeed, as Assange astutely pointed out “Google is steadily becoming the internet for many people” (p. 46).

Many people don’t realize how these companies are simply centralized aspects of the internet and that they don’t represent its basic structure or what it could become. Here Assange alerts us to the growing influence of such entities and reveals how “Google’s geopolitical aspirations” are deeply interwoven with “the foreign-policy agenda of the world’s largest super-power” (p. 46).

If President Obama, with his rhetoric of hope and change, is a brand that expands the structure of the offline Western patronage networks and disguises its architect, Google has become a new meme to mobilize this radical American foreign policy and its air of legitimacy into the digital space.

Assange observed US state power’s silent co-option of Google, using its friendly, playful color and progressive image as part of the smiley face of modern oppression. He sees what is unfolding beneath the surface and alerts that “the advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism” (p. 57). This is already happening, as Snowden’s NSA files revealed the company’s role in the existing PRISM spying program and how, in a sense, Google has become a privatized NSA in itself.

In his book, Assange makes clear Google is not as innocent as it portrays itself to be. He reveals what happened when this company that grew out of an innovative California graduate student culture came in contact with Washington’s halls of power. With its official motto “Don’t be evil,” the company claims its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

Assange unveils how, contrary to Google’s efforts to create a positive public image by giving away free storage, making it appear not like a corporation driven solely by profit motives, this seemingly philanthropic company is a willing participant in its own government co-optation. Indeed, he argues, Google Idea was birthed as a brainchild of a Washington think-tank.

Assange described how “Google’s bosses genuinely believe in the civilizing power of enlightened multinational corporations, and they see this mission as continuous with the shaping of the world according to the better judgment of the ‘benevolent superpower.'” (p. 35). This process is so gradual and discrete that it is hardly conscious on the part of the actors. This digital mega-corporation, through getting too close to the US State Department and NSA, began to incorporate their ambitions and come to see no evil. This internalization of imperial values created what Assange called “the impenetrable banality of ‘don’t be evil'” (p. 35). It appears that bosses at Google genuinely think they are doing good, while they are quickly becoming part of a power structure that Assange described as a “capricious global system of secret loyalties, owed favors, and false consensus, of saying one thing in public and the opposite in private” (p. 7). Allegiance creates obedience and an unspoken alliance creates a web of self-deception through which one comes to believe one’s own lies and becomes entangled in them.

Radicalization of Internet Youth

Along with shedding light on this invisible force of governance, Assange guides us into a deeper decentralized net. Now, for more than two years, the founder of WikiLeaks has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since the British government obstructed his passage to Ecuador. It is this underground world of cyberspace that connects him to the interconnected world of dissidents and visionaries and which made it possible for him to continue doing his work.

Calling WikiLeaks a “guerrilla publisher,” Assange describes how the organization would “draw surveillance and censorship in one jurisdiction and simply redeploy in another, moving across borders like ghosts” (p. 14). He explains the philosophy behind WikiLeaks and its architecture, especially what made the organization successful in combating censorship with the use of technology as a nonviolent tool to fight coercion and secrecy of the state.

Tapping into waves of street movements and similar insurgence that has emerged on the internet, Assange draws attention to a new organ of civil society growing in tandem with WikiLeaks’ decentralized infrastructure. He sees it as a kind of evolution of the Internet, transforming itself from an apathetic space into a “demos – a people with a shared culture, shared values, and shared aspirations” (p. 10).

As Assange engaged with this team of tech giants, openly sharing his understanding of a technology that enabled communication in a critical revolutionary time, Malcomson at one point inquired about the human side that makes a broad peer-to-peer open network possible. Malcomson pointed to the new subculture that has emerged around WikiLeaks as a social and political phenomenon, a group composed of technical and altruistic people. He asked Assange how vital it is for this culture to exist and thrive for the work he does for WikiLeaks. Assange acknowledged the expansion of this network. He called it the “radicalization of internet educated youth” (p. 115) and described it as the most positive development in recent years that has emerged through the internet.

Assange pointed out how the young generation that grew up on the internet exhibits attachment to the certain values of open access to knowledge, free flow of information and expectations of government transparency and individual privacy. He explained how rapid communication and the attacks on WikiLeaks became catalyzing events for this new generation to create a critical mass of political action.

Malcomson responded to Assange with great reservation, saying that “young people aren’t inherently good.” Then he added, “I say that as a father and with regret” (p. 118). Assange countered Malcomson’s point, saying that he believes human instincts are actually much better than the values of existing society and that these young people have innately good hearts, but are simply hardened by the social structures which reward narrow commercial interests. He argued that our actions are often conditioned by the structure of society and economically driven systems incentivize certain values. He pointed out how, by the time we get to college, we learn that altruistic deeds won’t get paid and explained how this is mainly “a result of the technology that enables fiscalization” (p. 120).

These strikingly opposed opinions on young people reflect contrasting views on the nature of the internet. Malcomson’s sentiment can easily fuel the State Department rationale that criminalizes anyone who dares to challenge US hegemony. Conscience is replaced by the interlocking power of state and corporations that now functions as an arbitrator of moral authority. They call those who engage in civil disobedience traitors, malicious hackers and cyber-terrorists who need to be governed, i.e. put behind bars for decades. Whistleblower Chelsea Manning, political activist Jeremy Hammond, journalist Barrett Brown, the late internet activist Aaron Swartz and the PayPal 14 who engaged in a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against PayPal after it cut off service to WikiLeaks – which amounts to legitimate political protest equivalent to a physical sit in – were all criminalized this way.

Assange points Google’s skewed morality as revealed in their book when Schmidt and Cohen associate “politically motivated direct action on the internet” with terrorism (p. 200). Here the views of the private sector and the state merge, deepening the ties of invisible shadow governance. With its “Don’t be evil” code of conduct, Google acts as a self-righteous arm of the superpower.

With little burden of conscience, Google carelessly spreads a virus of deception as it installs and maintains the insidious malware of surveillance.

Clash of Governance Models

In the conversation, Jared Cohen brought up “intervention in the context of a futuristic genocide” (p. 155) that is later explored in one chapter of their book. He questioned the role that WikiLeaks might play in a situation like the Rwandan genocide. This eventually led to a discussion about the growth of WikiLeaks and problems that slowed it. Stating that “it’s not that easy to do a WikiLeaks” (p. 156), Assange outlined its particular way of organizing. He talked about how, due to the nature of their work, WikiLeaks cannot just put up an ad and recruit people with certain skills, but needed a different approach. He described a way to lead by “values instead of through command and control” (p. 161).

Similar to the Open Source Movement, this form of leading through values creates an affinity network through which spontaneous collaboration becomes possible without needing to trust people. Through WikiLeaks educating people about their values and beliefs, people across the world who adopt these values find each other in creating their own “computational network of human beings that can think in the same way, that can trust each other on a point-to-point basis” (p. 162).

This horizontal network enabled people to fight effectively, in a David and Goliath like struggle, to find the Achilles’ heel of empire. Here WikiLeaks’ decentralized organizing took on the top-down mammoth structures of the State Department and the Pentagon. The US government’s orchestrated attack on WikiLeaks revealed the clash of two divergent governing forces. While the US empire is highly organized, staffing 10,000 people in these tasks, allocating massive resources to push against the whistleblowing site, WikiLeaks had millions of people around the world who share the same values gather together to organize themselves around shared values and act purely on principle. This bottom up organizing, where each person’s free deeds inspire the others embodies the organization’s very ethos of contagious courage.

As Assange shared his interest in seeing this global network of affinity create “broader, general, globalized cultural change” (p. 183), Schmidt also acknowledged the effect of globalization in making an interconnected world and how this would likely lead to fast paced culture shifts. In his book, Assange later reflects on this Google CEO who knows “how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people” (p. 17), was not familiar with Assange’s world, with its “unfolding human processes, scale, and information flows” (p. 18).

Mechanism of Accountability

This uncensored genuine public response is ultimately what drives WikiLeaks and makes it thrive. Here the conversation shifted to exploring what sets this whistleblowing site apart from other organizations, including Google. Assange explained the mechanism of accountability, addressing the question of how “the human economic ecosystem” influences the organization in a certain direction (p. 165). “We have our values. How do people see whether we are sticking to our values or whether we have betrayed our values?” he asks. He describes how the organization is “disciplined by the market of sources” and how “sources speak with their feet” by choosing whom to give material to through assessing each publisher’s integrity and looking at source protection and the impact of released material.

One could say WikiLeaks is a prime embodiment of source-driven journalism. Whistleblowers who take profound risks and act on behalf of the public good are the engine of the organization. By being true to the intentions of the source, the organization best serves the rest of us. WikiLeaks derives its source of legitimacy from the public, the only agent with the ultimate power to hold any institutions or organizations accountable in a real democracy.

In this context, Assage discusses harm minimization procedures. The organization’s much more nuanced and thought out approach to this issue was contrasted with that of US Joint Chief of Staff Mike Mullen, the mouthpiece of the bombastic official Pentagon line of “blood on their hands”, calling WikiLeaks publications reckless and irresponsible, while not one single shred of evidence has been adduced that any of these disclosures caused anyone harm, while US wars based on blatant lies continue to kill hundreds of thousands.

Assange explained to the visiting Google crew Wikileak’s decisions concerning redaction (which are, in truth, only delayed redactions, as they never permanently redact anything). He said it is rarely about reasonable risk of producing harm, but more about minimizing probable risk that the redacted information would divert and distract people from the importance of the disclosures themselves. He described it as “a pragmatic, tactical decision” (p. 167) that keeps the tacit promise to the source, namely to bring maximum political impact. This modus operandi seemed to appear alarming, foreign and unfathomable to Schmidt and Cohen.

Hidden Fist of the Market

Assange compares the actual interaction to how the conversations were eventually presented in Google’s the New Digital Age. He noted that despite Schmidt seeming sympathetic to the general vision of WikiLeaks and how he had not found any real damage caused by the organization, the Google authors pontificated about how a platform like WikiLeaks would “enable or encourage espionage” (p. 194).

Here we see the heads of Google acting like politicians in the new digital age, with the company on the list of “top-spending DC lobbyists in 2012” (p. 42). They blithely joined the parade of US senators who “labeled WikiLeaks a ‘terrorist organization’ and named Assange a ‘high-tech terrorist'” (p. 210) and tried to delegitimize WikiLeaks in order to push an aggressive agenda for a dystopian vision of the future. With the trite campaign slogan of “Don’t be evil”, they sell their liberation technology that they promise will connect the world, but which is a consumer fraud that further enables US domination and corporate governance. As apologists for the state, the Google executives parrot the Pentagon’s talking points and without evidence, suggest improbable scenarios in which leaked materials would put people’s lives at risk.

Assange cites Schmidt and Cohen asking their readers why someone like Assange should get to decide what information is in the public interest. He concluded that for these Google leaders, the bearer of such authority would be the state. They say whistleblowing publishers need “‘supervision’ in order to serve a positive role in society” and suggest “a central body facilitating the release of information” (p. 195). They certainly don’t abide by the principles of truly free markets that in theory would enable people to give honest feedback to the company’s innovative enterprise. In the case of WikiLeaks, the free, informed choice of the whistleblowers is an important force that guides the organization. In the case of a massive information giant, if not the informed spontaneous force of the market, what then would hold them accountable?

Citing New York Times columnist Tom Friedman who wrote in 1999 about the existence of a hidden fist which controls markets behind the scenes, Assange points to how “the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps” (p. 43).

Google does not see evil in itself. By embedding with US central authority, this global tech company not only fails to see the invisible fist of “American strategic and economic hegemony” that dictates the market, but moreover aspires “to adorn the hidden fist like a velvet glove” (p. 43). Exerting the power of monopoly, they subordinate civic values to economic and US hegemonic interests and escape any real accountability. They no longer recognize the unmediated market that responds to people’s demands, a true market that functions as a space of democratic accountability. This normalization of control leads to a subversion of law, creating a rogue state where a ripple effect of corruption is created, as individuals, companies and the state each betray their own stated principles.

The First Amendment

Perhaps the most fascinating interaction in this conversation emerged when Assange playfully suggested to Schmidt that WikiLeaks would welcome a leak from Google, specifically all the Patriot Act demands for Google info on citizens. Schmidt responded with a nervous chuckle, “which would be [whispers] illegal” (p. 186). Assange quickly countered with “it depends on the jurisdiction …!” with another chuckle. Schmidt said, “We are a US – “. Assange gently reminded him, “there are higher laws. First Amendment, you know”.

Here is an ironic picture in which an Australian native confronts an American citizen and chairman of a capital venture that was born on US soil about his stance on upholding the US Constitution. From its inception, WikiLeaks has attained status around the globe as a fierce defender of the First Amendment, pushing the boundaries of free speech. This was perhaps the precise moment when the Google truly met WikiLeaks. Through this encounter, they had an opportunity to fully understand the very principle that founded their country and confront the banality of evil that over decades has hollowed out the very heart of this nation. But the Google crowd didn’t take this up.

Assange told Schmidt about the case with Twitter where they successfully resisted the gag order regarding the secret US government grand jury espionage investigation into WikiLeaks. He asked him to disclose the contents of US subpoenas on Google and hand over information, especially those pertaining to WikiLeaks or any of its staff. Schmidt refused by citing “the gag clauses in the government data requests” (p. 217). He said he would pass it onto their counsel, which was the last communication about the issue.

The book When WikiLeaks Met Google is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the true potential of the internet and the invisible tug of war between those who try to centralize it and those who fight to keep it free and decentralized. The conversation moves through a wide range of topics, from the theoretical underpinnings of WikiLeaks and its technology, encryption based currency like Bitcoin, private security firms’ subversive smear campaign against dissent and the upheaval of a citizen movement boiling up against a “business as usual” extreme capitalistic order. This serious discussion, amplified in detailed footnotes, shows Assange’s broad knowledge of virtually everything that happens on the internet. Conversations at times get heavy and then quickly lighten into laughter. What was covered beneath the future Google chairman’s casual and charming demeanor may have been his nervousness about the real agenda behind the “Google Idea” being exposed.

In a sense, one might conclude that Assange’s new book is in itself another leak. In publishing what one might call the “GoogleFiles,” Assange conducts his usual job of publishing in the public interest with due diligence by providing the verbatim transcript and audio of the secret meeting. This time, the source of the material was Google themselves who sought out Assange for their publication. WikiLeaks did it again. Assange exposed the truth behind “The Empire of the Mind” (which was the Google publication’s original title) and dismantled the doublespeak that provided thin cover for the company’s vision of a new digital governance.

Millions of people all over the world are participating in the battle for a free internet. It is this contagious courage that can not only see evil, but can overcome the temptation in the banality of “don’t be evil.” In the end, it is not the giant multinational corporations or governments that will create the future, but simple networks of ordinary people acting from their conscience who together define the new digital age.