Google executive Eric Schmidt and former Secretary of State advisor Jared Cohen, who runs Google Ideas, decided to pay the WikiLeaks founder a visit in 2011, according to transcripts recently released by WikiLeaks. They met with Mr. Assange as part of their research for a book they wrote, entitled “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business,” which is being published on April 23.
The book details how technology serves as a source of political power and how people and institutions may use it. It stems from an essay the two of them wrote in November 2010 that predicted technology would empower citizens to stand up to despotism, similar to the Arab spring and other movements, according to the New York Times.
The transcript details a five-hour conversation they had on July 23, 2011. They covered a wide range of topics, including Bitcoin, the Patriot Act, and the influence that WikiLeaks may have had on the Arab spring and the Kenyan election of 2007.
“I am certain we influenced it [the Arab spring],” he said.”And that’s...a great moment. Something I am certain about is that we changed the outcome of the Kenyan election in 2007. There has been many ministers whose scalps were taken and people being forced to resign and so on. Those are concrete and clear actions and one might argue that they are positive if you didn't like the guy, and you would argue that they were negative if you did like the guy, so I don't really want to mention those ones.”
Roy Gutterman, who runs the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, says the book would not be the same without the insight Assange gives. The Internet activist, he says, is a major player as someone challenging government officials on classified information and national security.
“He sees the Internet as a great equalizing force to give voices to the voiceless and to challenge governments and regimes,” says Mr. Gutterman, an associate professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. “In some ways he's right, in some ways he's a little off. The power of being able to command a global audience to disseminate information in a variety of formats is really undeniable.”
Assange debated the power of disseminating that information with Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen and its morality. At one point, he asks that Google leak information.
“We wouldn't mind a leak from Google, which would be, I think probably all the Patriot Act requests,” Assange says.
One of the biggest concerns, however, was the US government’s requests for data on users. Officials have used the Patriot Act up to 999 times a year to ask Google to provide information, where they’re listed as National Security letters, as Quartz notes. Because those letters are meant to be secret, Google does not list specific numbers.
Amid the debate among the three of them, Schmidt says he has criticisms about the Patriot Act because of its lack of transparency. However, he maintains that Google would not take the risk and break the law.
“The answer is that the laws are quite clear about Google and the US. We couldn’t do it. It would be illegal,” he responded.
Mr. Gutterman describes Assange as a hybrid activist and journalist, making comparisons to former CIA official Daniel Ellsberg and his leaking of the Pentagon Papers. Talking to Assange allows Schmidt and Cohen to see how the Internet may be shaped by different power players, from government officials to the people. The documents released by WikiLeaks also gives a glimpse into the political conflicts that continue to unfold on the Web.
“Nowadays most people can create their own website their own document dump,” he said. “It shows how the media landscape has changed in the last four years.”
[Editor's Note: The original version of this article misidentified where professor Roy Gutterman works. He works in the Newhouse School of Public Communications and is in charge of the Tully Center for Free Speech.]