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A Magazine for Sheffield

Julian Assange: In Conversation with Wikileaks Founder

We have invited Julian Assange to speak in Sheffield via video link on Thursday 12 May, talking primarily about geopolitics, whistleblowing and Wikileaks as part of the Festival of Debate. We have had different reactions to this event from individuals and organisations, ranging from excited support to vocal condemnation. Julian has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012. In 2010 two women made allegations of sexual offences against him, for which he was initially questioned by Swedish authorities and released. After a 'preliminary investigation' was reopened, he was granted asylum by Ecuador due to fears he would be extradited to the US via Sweden for his role in the Cablegate leaks. In February, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that he was being 'arbitrarily detained' and called for the UK to allow him to leave the embassy freely. He has repeatedly asked that he be questioned by the Swedish prosecutor in the embassy in order to progress the investigation. Given how much information is available online about the case, and how little has changed regarding it, I chose not to ask Julian about the topic in this interview. However, we welcome questions on any topic from the floor during the Q&A section of the event on 12 May. While the main focus of the 'in conversation' element will be on geopolitics, we have no desire to shut down discussion and debate or to silence concerns about the allegations. I spoke to Julian over the phone from the embassy two weeks after the Panama Papers revelations. We've been having some difficulty providing a platform for you to speak in Sheffield. The student unions at both universities pulled out, but thankfully Sheffield Students' Union have agreed to host the event after consulting with students. For you, what links these experiences? I think, spreading out of US universities from about five years ago, there is a new culture of censorship on campuses and it is spreading to the UK. It doesn't really exist anywhere else. I think it's fine if there's limited resources, a limited number of lecture halls, for students to decide that there's a greater demand for one speaker or another. The problem in this case, for me and for numerous other people, is that there is very high demand from students, but censorship at the management level. Fortunately Sheffield did the right thing and reversed that course of action. Only a tiny fraction of the 11 million Panama Papers documents have so far been published. How do you feel about this? They've done some marketing tricks. Actually there's only 4.2 million documents, but that's still an important and large potential leak. I say 'potential' leak because less than 200 of those documents have been published. The primary newspaper involved, Süddeutsche Zeitung, has published zero, the Guardian has published two, and there's a statement of intent by the group that's organising the papers, the ICIJ [International Consortium of Investigative Journalists], that they're going to continue on in that way. The plan is to keep the overwhelming majority secret forever. That's not the Wikileaks model. We see scandals as just a way of marketing our archive, because it is the archive that has gone on to produce more than 3,000 academic papers and hundreds of citations in various court cases. For example, the German citizen [Khaled] el-Masri - a case of mistaken identity, kidnapped by the CIA, tortured, put in prison in a black site for more than four months and then dumped on the streets of Albania. He won his European human rights court case because of our archive. His lawyers found that material in our archive. If the [Panama Papers] archive had been opened, you would have all the tax police in the world, people involved in commercial litigation, people worried who their sister was going to marry looking through that material. When you're dealing with millions of documents, you need millions of people to look at it, not just 300 journalists, part-time and according to the agendas that they have personally and the agendas of their news organisations. The largest cash reward you're currently offering through Wikileaks Most Wanted is for the release of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. You've said recently that the secrecy of TTIP and its sister documents "casts a shadow on the future of European democracy". Why? Understand that these are not simply agreements. These are agreements in perhaps the sense that the European Union is an agreement. These are binding legal obligations, treaties, that are highly invasive, rejig nearly every aspect of the economy and a great many other laws which you think are not to do with the economy, but it turns out are. For example, freedom of information on the Internet, of course, connects with everyone supplying a service on the Internet, which can be defined as anyone doing anything, almost, on the Internet. Similarly banking, which is another service which operates across borders using electronic transmissions. So now you've roped in all currency transfers and the free movement of people. It's a strategic agreement, in the geopolitical sense. Hilary Clinton calls TTIP "an economic NATO". The Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, last year called TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], which is the Pacific equivalent, more important for engaging with Asia - by that he means China - than another US aircraft carrier. So you see the Defence Secretary and Hilary Clinton are putting these explicitly into a geostrategic, military context. The result of these agreements is to lock a particular political model, namely advanced neoliberalism, into Europe in a treaty form, which is very hard to modify because it requires the other countries to agree to modification, for decades, and also to lock in a geostrategic alignment with the United States. Do you see a leak of TTIP as the only way to defeat it and how likely is such a leak? I guess [a TTIP leak] has the highest reward for effort spent. Of course, if you took several billion dollars and you funded a big PR campaign that would have a substantial impact as well, but there's no-one around with several billion dollars willing to do it. I think it is likely that we'll get parts of it. I think that's quite a reasonable expectation. The whole thing is less likely, unless it's quite soon, because they've split it up. Different groups are handling different parts. But that paranoia, which is largely caused by this reward of over €100,000 that we've raised, also slows down the process, because their ability to work on these documents in a free and easy manner is reduced. [Ed: Greenpeace Netherlands leaked a large portion of the TTIP negotiation documents at the beginning of May. Link] WhatsApp recently announced that they had introduced end-to-end encryption. Given that WhatsApp has over a billion monthly active users, is this a significant victory for personal privacy? It is a partial victory. It is a significant step. It's a victory in the ideology that we have espoused for so long, and that ideology has to do with protecting democratic will by not allowing the state to become too powerful. That said, the reason it's only a partial victory is because the metadata is not properly encrypted, so they can still tell when you logged onto WhatsApp, and who you were trying to speak to, and when, even if the content of the conversation is protected. There is another way to look at it, which is very interesting. If you think about the borders between states, how do they come to be? They come to be by opposing armies saying, 'You shall not cross.' Those physical borders are maintained by extreme coercive force - armies. The digital equivalent can be done through maths using cryptography, which individuals can deploy when communicating with each other. Just like armies are a basic structuring element of nation states, and cultures that exist within nation states, cryptography can be a basic structuring element of the equivalent of states on the Internet. Julian Assange will be in conversation with Kerry-Anne Mendoza, editor-in-chief of The Canary, at the Foundry, Sheffield Students' Union on Thursday 12 May, followed by an audience Q&A. Tickets are available via the SU box office for £10 or £8.50 concessions plus booking fee. )

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