In 2011, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was living under house arrest on a country estate in England. He received occasional visitors, mostly his staff and the occasional deranged fan. But in the late spring he received one of the most unusual he would meet: Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Accompanied by a few Washington insiders, the man at the head of one of the world’s most powerful corporations was nominally there to conduct a wide-ranging interview with Assange for a book he was working on with Jared Cohen, the director of the Google Ideas think tank and a former U.S. State Department advisor.
The interview was granted on the condition that Assange be given a full transcript, and from that emerged When Google Met WikiLeaks, published this fall by OR Books. The book consists of the lightly edited and thoroughly footnoted transcript of the interview Schmidt and his crew conducted with Assange, flanked by an introduction by Assange; his 2013 New York Times review of The New Digital Age, the book that Schmidt and Cohen eventually produced; and a summary/rebuttal to Schmidt and Cohen’s summary of their interview with him, penned especially for the book.
The founder of WikiLeaks is highly critical of Google in his introduction and his footnotes throughout the interview, if not directly confrontational with Schmidt and company during the interview itself. Yet he never works himself up over it, maintaining an evenhanded tone throughout the book – perhaps a consequence of what he calls “the impenetrable banality of ‘don’t be evil.’”
Assange criticizes the ease with which Google coasts by on goodwill thank to its public perception as “an essentially philanthropic enterprise—a magical engine presided over by otherworldly visionaries—for creating a utopian future,” despite its involvement with “the shadiest of U.S. power structures.” And Google is eager to foster that image by creating programs like the Google Ideas think tank, which Assange asserts would draw “intense scrutiny” if it were in the hands of people like notorious private mercenary corporation that’s alternately been named Blackwater, Xe Services, and Academi.
According to Assange, this breezy march to potential dominance over the internet’s future as cause for “serious concern” for “people all over the world—in Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, the former Soviet Union, and even in Europe—for whom the internet embodies the promise of an alternative to US cultural, economic, and strategic hegemony.” (There’s no mention of Americans who aren’t big fans of the Google monopoly. Perhaps they’re considered too lost a cause.)
The author admits to underestimating the man at the head of that charge to power, thinking of his interviewer, Eric Schmidt, as “a brilliant but politically hapless Californian tech billionaire who had been exploited by the very US foreign-policy types he had collected to act as translators between himself and official Washington.” But after learning about Schmidt’s savvy political donations, in equal portions to Republicans and Democrats, and considering the diplomatic role the Google CEO was playing on visits to states like Burma, China, and North Korea, he realized that he had spent three hours talking with a formidable figure. That formidability was underlined by later learning that all three of Schmidt’s companions had deep ties to the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. State Department. Assange notes that “the delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment, but I was still none the wiser.”
Many of the questions posed by Schmidt and his cohorts are about the structure of WikiLeaks, how it operates, and how it plans to change in the future. At points it reads like thinly veiled espionage by corporate actors on behalf of their government sponsor: Google’s CEO probing the mind of someone who understands the vast alternatives the internet offers to American domination better than almost anyone, so that they in turn can understand those possibilities and how to limit them in the way most useful to the military complex with which the Silicon Valley behemoth has aligned itself.
The host and subject of the interview graciously plays along with these pseudo-spies the whole way, describing the design and implementation of WikiLeaks from both engineering and philosophical viewpoints. As he says in the introduction, “I sought to guide them into my worldview. To their credit, I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given. I was out of my comfort zone and I liked it.” And as a thorough statement of that worldview, the interview transcript and its footnotes that make up the bulk of When Google Met WikiLeaks produce about all you could ask for.
Assange describes to Schmidt and company how censorship enables bad deeds, whether it manifests as the murder of journalists, self-censorship in the press, or what he calls “censorship through complexity” in systems like the offshore financial sector. He pines for a better internet naming system, which would fight censorship at the root by producing a verifiable trail that would make the removal of information plainly obvious in a way that it’s not today.
He is particularly troubled by the ability of the powerful to use their wealth and connections around the world to shut down people who try to expose wrongdoing. And yet he sees censorship as an opportunity, because it means that a regime’s hold on power is so tenuous that it feels it must resort to lies and disinformation. Combined with his faith in the basically decent values of young people around the world, that view makes it easy to understand how WikiLeaks came into being in the first place.
Assange also wants to see the “elimination” of a press so rotten that it “can’t be reformed.” The press “has always been very bad,” he tells Schmidt. “Fine journalists are an exception to the rule.” The remainder are the sort who makes up stories that lead countries to war and consciously avoid reporting details that would result in any kind of risk to themselves or their publications. (In fact, Schmidt and Cohen would fall into this category themselves, willfully and reductively misrepresenting Assange’s stance on redaction in The New Digital Age, a manipulation he addresses in the book’s penultimate section, “Deliver us From ‘Don’t Be Evil.’”)
Besides being a defining document of Julian Assange’s worldview, the transcript is also a glimpse back to a different era. A reader armed with post-Snowden hindsight can watch Schmidt and company demonstrate through their lines of questioning just how thoroughly intertwined American corporate and government interests are on the internet, all while still enjoying public goodwill for promising to “not be evil” and posturing to Assange as if they share at least a few of his beliefs. Fortunately, Assange provides a heaping share of that hindsight in his copious footnotes, in the form of links to WikiLeaks cables, videos, and all sorts of other evidence housed on the internet, a perfect testament to his belief in the power of letting facts do the talking.
The Google of 2014 isn’t quite as bulletproof now that the world knows it was paid to participate in the NSA’s PRISM program. And even Julian Assange doesn’t enjoy the same kind of freedom as he did back in 2011, having stepped down from a country estate to the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Even the internet itself is more vulnerable than it was back then, facing increasing pressure on it from governments who want to harness its surveillance properties while shutting down its potential for organizing people who don’t like the status quo. Whether the net eventually tilts back toward the radical hopefulness of harnessing its power for good or becomes a medium of disinformation and surveillance, When Google Met WikiLeaks will stand as a snapshot of what things looked like back at the crossroads.