Julian Assange, founder of the nonprofit media organization, WikiLeaks, kicked off the first talk on privacy and security on Day 2 of SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas with “A Virtual Conversation with Julian Assange.” Speaking to a packed audience of more than 1,000 SXSW attendees at the Austin Convention Center, and many more through live video stream, Assange joined via video conference from the Ecuadorian Consulate in London.
Benjamin Palmer, co-founder of the Barbarian Group, led the conversation on stage in Austin with a series of questions about the importance of online privacy, and the ethical and political implications of releasing classified information.
During the conversation, Assange discussed the concept of the “Internet Nation,” and how he thinks this democratic Internet space is threatened. “Human society has merged with the Internet. The laws of human society now applies to the Internet,” he said. “We are all part of what we traditionally call the state, whether we like it or not, so we have no choice but to be part of it, and that includes managing the laws and activities to what we find to be acceptable.”
This participatory state of the Internet Nation is what Assange believes is at risk with surveillance activities. “National security reporters are a new type of refugee,” he said. “For WikiLeaks as an organization, it’s interesting to take stock. The perception of power, the ability to strike back and create fear in others…is all that is needed to rule. They don’t need to be able to kill you. They need to make you think that they can kill you. And that’s enough to alter your behavior in radical ways.”
When asked about what’s in store for the future, he expressed, “less than 1 percent of what [NSA whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden] released has been made public.” During another response, he discussed the power of sites such as WikiLeaks to keep surveillance efforts in check, “there’s an unprecedented theft in wealth,” he said. “Knowledge is power…there is a lateral transfer of information between us, so we’re educating each other at a speed which is unprecedented.”
Palmer asked a provocative question: “Knowing what you know now, would you do anything different?” For Assange, it boiled down to one thing: Trust. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, but the level of conflict with the U.S. and degree of pressure rained down on our organization and me personally, and that caused a changed in people’s behavior. It meant that individuals that you could formerly trust…now you can’t.”
But for the WikiLeaks founder, the challenges he has, and continues to face, was something that he was “geared up” for, reflected in his initial vision and inspiration for the site: “It became clear to me that one of the best ways to achieve justice was to expose injustice.”
Assange is one of several controversial figures speaking at SXSW Interactive this year on the topic of “Social and Privacy.” Other sessions at SXSW Interactive on this topic today include, “NSA & the Future of Web Users & Web Companies” and “After Snowden: Privacy, Surveillance, & the NSA.” National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden will also speak via videoconference at the session, “A Virtual Conversation with Edward Snowden.”
For more information about the “Social and Privacy” session track at SXSW, visit: http://schedule.sxsw.com/events?all_theme=Social+and+Privacy.