Fifteen feet by 13 feet – that’s allegedly the size of Julian Assange’s room at the Ecuadorean embassy. It has been the physical home of the Australian Wikileaks founder since June 19, 2012 and the British government has so far spent $8 million to keep it that way.
The thing is: for the most part, Julian Assange doesn’t live in the physical world. His appearances, his presence and (probably) most of his life are spent online, speaking to collaborators, and Skyping into large conference auditoriums like he did today at SXSW. In a strange way, the most famous campaigner for freedom from surveillance has become an always televised Big Brother, smiling serenely to large audiences and spreading his message of privacy protection.
Unlike Big Brother, however, he has to deal with more worldly problems. He seemed a little less strident than in his public appearances and his new beard and long hair gives him the air of man of words rather than action. Plus, Skype didn’t work, and when he finally came on to the big screen he couldn’t hear the audience or the moderator. In the end, the moderator, Benjamin Palmer, Co-Founder & Chairman of The Barbarian Group – who was slightly out of his depth – had to resort to texting questions to Assange’s aide in the background.
Thematically, Assange came right to the point. He described the NSA as a rogue agency on course to monitor everybody around the clock. “Their ability of storing information is growing faster than information production, while at the same time world population growth is slowing,” he made his point. “Soon, nobody will be able to exist outside the state,” he added.
Like many speakers at SXSW, he pointed towards the ongoing accumulation of data by a few powerful actors. In Assange’s words that is “a unprecetened theft of wealth from individuals” and an ongoing power transfer as large entities collect what’s most important in the 21st century: information. (Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of a “post privacy” world got a special scornful mention.)
But all is not lost in the fight for privacy. Despite what he described as the continued pressure of the US and other allies to convict himself and collaborators, he sees himself “in a no-man’s land of coercion,” able to speak out to the world and create change. Similarly, several of his American or British collaborators have taken up residence in countries like Brazil and Germany where privacy protection is an important issue, and keep publishing from there.
He stopped short of announcing any new major revelations but mysteriously hinted at “important upcoming material.” Always the revolutionary and destroyer of established structures, he also decried the cozy relations between mainstream journalists and security agencies which all to often are able to use pressure or counterspin to devalue leaked information.
In long monologues (partly caused by technical difficulties), he covered a wide range of issues, from the problems in Ukraine to the perception of power and the business of running Wikileaks, always eloquent and confident, like a man with a strong certainty of conviction.
Because that is what it is in the end, conviction. The conviction that “the internet has merged with human society, so the laws of the internet apply to human society,” as Assange said. No, not the other way around, not human laws applying to web. The promise of the internet to change human society for the better, to fulfill its potential for individual freedom without the greed and quest for power so familiar to us humans, that is the mission of Julian Assange.