When Google Met Wikileaks by Julian Assange
Review by Michael Foley, School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology
At the heart of this book is a long interview Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks,gave in 2011 to the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, the director of Google Ideas, Google’s in-house think tank, Jared Cohen, and Schmidt’s partner, Lisa Shields, a former TV producer and then head of global media relations for the Council on Foreign Relations.
That interview was for a book by Schmidt and Cohen, The Digital Age, which was reviewed by Assange in the New York Times under the heading The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’.
He described The Digital Age as a ‘startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism’. He wrote of ‘ever closer union between the state department and Silicon Valley’. He also said his own words had been misrepresented and so this strange book is to set the record straight, and more besides.
The interview at the heart of ‘When Wikileaks met Google’ took place in June 2011 in the rural idyll of Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, owned by Vaughan Smith, former army officer, war correspondent, founder of London’s Frontline club and described by the Guardian as a rightwing libertarain. Assange lived for a while in Ellingham Hall under house arrest while he continued to fight the Swedish extradiction case. The conversation coincided with Arab Spring uprisings, anti-capitalist protests and Wikileaks continuing to anger the United States by releasing diplomatic cables online.
The bulk of the book is the long interview, but there is also Assagne’s New York Times review of Schmidt and Cohen’s book, some background on Wikileaks itself and a great polemic on Google, called ‘Beyond Good and Don’t Be Evil’.
The intervierw will appeal to geeks, with its acrymons and initials. There are discussions on keeping information and files safe with helpful responses from Assange about Wikileaks’ own security.
During the interview Assange outlines his philosophy, including that of journalism, and expands on what he calls ‘scientific journalism’. The press ‘has always been very bad. Fine journalists are an exception to the rule’. His scientific journalism is that ‘things must be precisely cited with the original source and as much of the information as possible should be put in the public domain so people can look at it, just like in science so you can test to see whether the conclusion follows from the experimental data.’ Otherwise, he says, ‘the journalists probably just made it up.’ There are extraordinary claims. One is that most wars in the 20th century started as a result of lies amplified and spread by the mainstream press.
What is also extraordinary is Assange’s seeming naievete. He believed Eric Schmidt was a ‘brilliant but politically hapless Californian tech billionaire’. Assange and Wikileaks was ‘under siege’ and Assange ‘had to learn to think like a general. We were at war.’ And then he lets the enemy into the bunker.
This book is about settling scores and Assange does it well. The essay on Google holds nothing back. Assange, who has been described as narcissistic and egotistical, was clearly flattered by the attention of four intelligent, clued in people, despite their backgrounds and politics: ‘I sought to guide them into my world view. To their credit, I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given. I was out of my comfort zone and I liked it. We ate and then took a walk in the grounds, all the while on the record.’
But then Schmidt and Cohen wrote what one reviewer, Evgeny Morozov, described as ‘this superficial and megalomaniacal book’ and Assange hit back, now, presumably, regretting his hospitality three years ago.
When Google Met Wikileaks by Julian Assange, OR Books, ISBN-10: 8189059661 ISBN-13: 978-8189059668 223pp, RRP £10, ebook £6