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SXSW: Julian Assange Beams Into Austin

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AUSTIN – Two of the biggest names at South by Southwest this year aren’t even coming to Austin.

In fact, they won’t be on the same continent. But let’s just say traveling for these two isn’t so easy.

On Monday, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden will participate in a live satellite interview from his home in Russia. And Saturday morning, SXSW linked up with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

One of the areas of focus for this year’s Interactive conference is data security – something Alan Melson wrote about this morning.

There were a few technical glitches in the Assange conversation, but overall things went pretty smoothly. Here are some highlights from the conversation (though the paranoid among us might want to shield their eyes. Assange paints a dire picture):

On being confined to the embassy:

“Yes, it is difficult. But, I am able to continue working. And to some degree I exist in a situation which is every national security reporter’s dream – which is to be in a land without police, in a land without subpoenas. In this embassy, the British embassy cannot come in, the Ecuadorian police cannot come in, no subpoenas can come in. It is, to a degree, a no-man’s land as far as coercion is concerned.”

On starting WikiLeaks:

“It became clear to me that one of the best ways to achieve justice is to expose injustice. And you can be simplistic about it – which some people are. It’s not that when you expose something automatically there is justice. But rather, you create a general deterrent for anyone believing that they can construct an unjust plan in a serious manner which affects a lot of people and get away with it.”

On government organizations spying on civilians:

“Now that the Internet has merged with human society … the laws that apply to the Internet apply to human society. This penetration of the Internet by the National Security Agency and GCHQ (British intelligence) is the penetration of our civilian society. It means that there has been a militarization of our civilian space. A military occupation of the Internet – our civilian space. It is a very serious phenomenon. We and others are fighting back against it in a serious manner.”

On the role of individuals in fighting surveillance.

“Well, you’ve got no choice. It’s not the case anymore than you can hide from the state – that you can keep your head down. That you can hope through sucking up or being innocuous, you can be spared. Arbitrary injustices isn’t arbitrary! Even General Petraeus – the head of the CIA – was knocked off as a result of what’s going on. A consummate insider – someone who should be able to have all the protection for themselves – they were not able to protect themselves.”

On our perceptions of the world vs. reality:

“We are living in an illusion, where the true history of the world – the true nature of our environment, the true nature of the way human institutions behave … is all obscured by some kind of fog. We’re walking around constantly through this fog where we can’t even see the ground. We think we can see the ground, but we’re wrong. And every so often, a clearing in the fog happens when there’s one of these grand disclosures. And we see the ground, and we’re surprised.”