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SXSW 2014: Julian Assange Speaks Out On NSA, Journalism, and the Internet

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First Posted: Mar 08, 2014 08:37 PM EST
Assange
The hidden microphone was placed in the embassy, ostensibly to spy on the Ecuador government's relationship with Assange. (Photo : flickr.com/New Media Days)

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange kicked off the South by Southwest Interactive conference on Saturday with a Skype-powered video chat with the tech geeks gathered in Austin. Speaking from his imposed house arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange talked with SXSW attendees about his life, the National Security Agency, and the new era of journalism and activism.

As we previously mentioned, South By Southwest Interactive, the Austin-based tech expo that precedes the film and music festival, has a serious, global undertone to its sessions and speakers this year, in addition to the usual tech startup love-fest. Besides Assange, who is by all intents and purposes a fugitive from Western authorities, speaking at the event by remote, sessions with ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald will be held -- both, also, with the key attraction video conferencing from remote locations.

Saturday kicked off the serious global-teleconferenced discussions about the post-Snowden world. Assange was interviewed by marketing agency rep. Benjamin Palmer about his life in the embassy, the NSA's actions, and the state of advocacy, journalism, and national security reportage.

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Asked about living in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he has been protected from answering sexually-based criminal charges coming from Sweden since mid-2012, according to the Guardian, Assange answered, "It is a bit like prison. Arguably prison is far worse in relation to restrictions on visitors, for example, and the level of bureaucracy involved." 

Assange, who became a lightning rod for media and Western authorities when he was charged with rape, unlawful coercion and three cases of sexual molestation in Sweden and has had a European warrant out for his arrest since 2012, revealed he's still under pressure in London, with a dozen police officers stationed outside at any given point. "The UK government has admitted to spending $8 million so far just on the police surveillance of the embassy," said Assange.

Part of that pressure undoubtedly has nothing with the charges from Sweden, but from the fact that Wikileaks was behind the effort to make huge number of secret documents public, before Edward Snowden's name was known to the world. On the topic of Snowden, Assange said, "The NSA has grown to be a rogue agency. It has grown to be unfettered ... the ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there, and arguably will be there within a few years," according to the Guardian. "And that's led to a huge transfer of power from the people who are surveilled upon, to those who control the surveillance complex."

On the reporters who helped cover the Snowden revelations (and Assange, rightfully or not, seems to be putting himself in this boat), Assange told the audience, "national security reporters are a new kind of refugee," referring to Glenn Greenwald (and others), who is currently living in Brazil and will teleconference into SXSW next week from remote, since he's unsure of what would happen to him if he physically landed in the U.S. Difficulties aside, Assange described the new global diaspora movement of national security reportage as a positive and necessary phenomenon.

"I see this as quite a positive phenomenon," said Assange, according to the Verge, "that where people would have been completely crushed and not able to work anymore, they are able to use these basic tenets of classic liberalism like freedom of movement ... to keep working." Later Assange talked about the broader political consciousness created by the internet, saying, "The internet, about four years ago, was a politically apathetic space ... but whenever you start to engage in any space, you run into state powers, you run into the deep state."

On the NSA's activities within this space, Assange said, "Now that the internet has merged with human society... the laws that apply to the internet apply to human society," according to the Guardian. "This penetration of the internet by the NSA and GCHQ is the penetration of our human society. It means there has been a militarization of our civilian space ... a very serious matter."

Expect more serious matters to be discussed next week at SXSW, when Greenwald and Snowden both take the (virtual) stage.

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