On Monday May 4, the British Court decided that the extradition hearing for WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, scheduled for May 18, would be moved to September. This four-month delay was made after Assange’s defense lawyer argued the difficulty of his receiving a fair hearing due to restrictions posed by the Covid-19 lockdown. Monday’s hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court proceeded without enabling the phone link for press and observers waiting on the line, and without Assange who was not well enough to appear via videolink.
Sunday May 3rd marked World Press Freedom Day. As people around the globe celebrated with online debates and workshops, Assange was being held on remand in London’s Belmarsh prison for publishing classified documents which exposed US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. On this day, annually observed by the United Nations to remind the governments of the importance of free press, Amnesty International renewed its call for the US to drop the charges against this imprisoned journalist.
The US case to extradite Assange is one of the most important press freedom cases of this century. The indictment against him under the Espionage Act is an unprecedented attack on journalism. This is a war on free speech that has escalated in recent years turning the Internet into a battleground.
While he was living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, after being granted asylum in 2012, Assange alerted the public about the oppressive force that is now threatening press freedom around the world. In a statement that was read during the “Organizing Resistance to Internet Censorship” webinar in January 2018, Assange noted how multinational tech companies like Google and Facebook have evolved into powerful “digital superstates”. He warned that “undetectable mass social influence powered by artificial intelligence is an existential threat to humanity”.
Most who care about digital rights are well aware that tech giants like Google and Facebook have long been embroiled with Washington’ halls of power. Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook has been candid about his pro-censorship stance. In his 2019 Washington Post op-ed Zuckerberg shared his belief that Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site with more than 800 million users, should take an active role to control content – for governments.
In “When Google Met WikiLeaks”, published in 2014, Assange exposed the way Google executives used “revolving doors” within the US State Department, and highlighted their close ties to US intelligence agencies like the NSA. Google’s internal research presentation, leaked to Breitbart News from the company’s employees in 2018, revealed government requests for censorship have tripled since 2016. An 85-page briefing entitled “The Good Censor” concluded that the multinational search giant needs to move toward censorship if it wishes to continue to receive the support of national governments and continue its global expansion.
Google has been accused of discriminating against conservative viewpoints and suppressing free speech. YouTube, one of Google’s subsidiaries, is now censoring the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video. Real images of war that exposed the US military’s brutal killing of innocent Iraq civilians, including two Reuters journalists, is now assigned to the “inappropriate for some users” category, severely compromising its viewership. Meanwhile, the many millions of YouTube videos, of which tens of thousands depict violence, are allowed to be played without restriction.
Big Tech’s fight against misinformation
Now, amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this privatized censorship via a monopoly on information became more overt and even normalized. On March 11, after the White House asked Big Tech for help in fighting the spread of “false information” about Covid-19, top tech industry players including Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Twitter and Reddit issued a joint statement on their collaborative efforts to battle against “disinformation” on their platforms.
As measures to quell the spread of inaccurate information and harmful content, Facebook implemented a new policy to direct users who have interacted with posts that contain “harmful” coronavirus misinformation to a “myth busters” page, maintained by the World Health Organization (WHO). In setting forth this company’s new aggressive move to counter misinformation about Covid-19, Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice-president of integrity commented in a blogpost:
We want to connect people who may have interacted with harmful misinformation about the virus with the truth from authoritative sources in case they see or hear these claims again off of Facebook.
Silencing the voices of dissent
Since it declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization positioned itself as a source of legitimacy, setting guidelines and recommendations to direct a worldwide response to Covid-19. Narratives put forward by this Geneva-based global health body began to rapidly shape the scenery of our everyday life.
Images of emergency rooms filled with those who are infected with novel coronavirus have quickly flooded into American homes through major cable news networks. With a daily report of death count increasing every day, fear began to spread around the world. As doctors and nurses at the frontline fight to save the lives of victims in what has now become the “War on Covid-19”, views that challenge the mainstream discourse on the pandemic have emerged on the Internet. Physicians who disagree with the expert opinion of WHO – on the transmission of Covid-19, efficacy of its treatment and/or management of the outbreak – began speaking out.
Recently, a call by two Californian doctors to reopen the economy and to examine the death rate of Covid-19 and justification of lockdown, created a wide sensation, attracting both support and criticism. A news conference held by Dr. Daniel W. Erickson and Dr. Artin Massih, co-owners of Accelerated Urgent Care in Bakersfield, was livestreamed by local television stations. When the online video went viral, being viewed millions of times, YouTube pulled the plug, stating that the doctors were disputing “local health authority” guidance.
In the first week of May, David Icke, the former football player and author of more than 20 books, got deplatformed from Facebook and Google for posting content that questioned the motives of WHO and countered the official narratives on the threat of Covid-19. In deleting his account, YouTube stated that the 68-year-old UK citizen, often labeled a professional “conspiracy theorist”, violated their Community Guidelines on sharing information about coronavirus. Prior to deleting his account, a video of an interview of him by London Real was deleted. That video, discussing misdiagnosis and misclassification of death and economic consequences of the lockdown, is reported to have been viewed over 30 million times.
The disciplinary actions of these digital mega corporations against those who don’t conform to the edicts of the designated health authority resemble the censorship of authoritarian states – such as China. In a name of public safety, efforts to widen discourse and open up a democratic debate were uniformly shut down across major media platforms. This contravention of First Amendment principles does not stop with restriction of the freedom of speech. It also abridges the right of the people to peaceably assemble, prohibiting political dissent. Facebook has now confirmed that the company, after consulting with state governments, is banning promotions for protests that violate social distancing rules.
A little over a year before his arrest inside the embassy, Assange gave a dire warning: “The future of humanity is the struggle between humans that control machines and machines that control humans”. In this digital age, a battle for free speech is not fought on the political ground alone – with legislators, corporate lobbyists, senators and presidents. Civil liberties are being eroded by an algorithmic control dictated by the Silicon Valley tech titans. They use AI in ways that act beneath conscious awareness, manipulating reality at a speed and level that humans can no longer keep up with, to control perception.
Now, the machines seem to be out of control, fueling cyber-warfare. In 2017, WikiLeaks released the largest publication of confidential documents, code-named “Vault 7,” sourced from the top-secret security network at the Cyber Intelligence Center. This release revealed that the CIA had lost control of the cyber-weapons it had developed.
What is alarming is that the CIA became aware of this loss but didn’t warn the public about it. Now, this horrific arsenal that was designed to hide all traces of its own actions, is loosed upon the world and can be used for malicious purposes by cyber-mafias, foreign agents, hackers, and anyone else who eventually got their hands on it.
The CIA’s covert hacking program and their weaponized exploits target a wide range of U.S. and European company products. The series of documents and files categorized in “Year Zero” revealed the specific CIA malware that grants the agency capacity to penetrate Google’s Android phone and Apple’s iPhone software – the very software that runs (or has run) presidential Twitter accounts – and to avoid or manipulate fingerprints in any subsequent “forensic review”. An example of the abuse of this power is found in evidence of CIA espionage, targeting French political parties and candidates in the lead up to the 2012 presidential election.
Rage against the machine
The Framers of the US Constitution believed there is a seed of corruption inherent in humans. This is why Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of America’s founding document, emphasized the vital role of a free press in keeping government power in check. He said that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Although the social and political landscape has significantly changed since his time, fundamentals of democracy have not changed. As our society quickly moves into a 1984 Orwellian technological dystopia, Jefferson’s words that alarmed a nation back then should sound more loudly now. If people care about democracy, a healthy distrust of the government must be restored, awakening moral courage to ignite our rage against the machine.
Through his work with WikiLeaks, Assange aimed to hold people who run the machine to account. As a project of free software, he created an exemplar of scientific journalism on the platform of the Internet. It provided ordinary people with a formidable tool that can help them take back their power to control the machine and end its hostile takeover of society.
The whistleblower behind WikiLeaks publication of Vault 7 (allegedly Joshua Schulte, still held in custody in New York) disclosed CIA documents in an effort to “initiate a public debate about the security, creation, use, proliferation and democratic control of cyberweapons”. In releasing the material, Assange, as editor in chief of WikiLeaks, responded to his source’s call for peacemaking, by affirming the organization’s role as a “neutral digital Switzerland” for people all over the world, to provide protection against nation-states and cyber attacks.
After the whistleblowing site carefully redacted the actual codes of CIA hacking tools, anonymized names, and email addresses that were targeted, it contacted Apple, Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, and MicroTik, stating that WikiLeaks would work with tech companies by giving them exclusive access to appropriate material so they could help create a possible antidote to the CIA’s breach of security and offer countermeasures.
Existential threat to democracy
For these efforts to end the military occupation of cyberspace, Assange is now being aggressively pursued by the Trump administration. At the time when WikiLeaks released a massive trove of documents that detailed the CIA hacking tools, Vice President Mike Pence vowed to “use the full force of the law” to hunt down those who released the Intelligence Agency’s secret material. Calling WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service” that needs to be shut down, Secretary of State and former CIA director Mike Pompeo has taken on and expanded Obama’s war on whistleblowers to attack the publisher.
John Kiriakou, who became the first CIA officer to give evidence of the use of torture, repeatedly said that if Assange were extradited, he would receive no fair trial. The CIA whistleblower, who was jailed for calling this torture unconstitutional, noted that in the Eastern District of Virginia where Assange was charged, “juries are made up of people from the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, the department of Homeland security and intelligence community contractors or their family members” and that “no national security defendant has ever won a case there.”
In his fight against extradition to the US, where he faces 175 years in prison and being subjected to harsh conditions under “Special Administrative Measures“, Assange is rendered defenseless. He is in effective solitary confinement, being psychologically tortured inside London’s maximum-security prison. With the British government’s refusal to release him temporarily into home detention, despite his deteriorating health and weak lung condition developed as consequences of long detention, Assange is now put at risk of contracting coronavirus. This threatens his life.
Now, as the world stands still and becomes silent in our collective self-quarantine, Assange’s words spoken years ago in defense of a free internet call for our attention from behind the walls of Belmarsh prison:
Nuclear war, climate change or global pandemics are existential threats that we can work through with discussion and thought. Discourse is humanity’s immune system for existential threats. Diseases that infect the immune system are usually fatal. In this case, at a planetary scale.
Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency, and decentralized movements. Her work is featured in many publications. Find her on twitter @nozomimagine.
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