WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took the stage at SXSW Interactive on Saturday -- via Skype, at least, where his name showed up as "Bruce Willis" -- to criticize government surveillance as part of a series of conversations on privacy happening this year.
His appearance on two giant screens was greeted with resounding applause and some cheers. But his location in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he is holed up to avoid extradition to Sweden on allegations of rape and other offenses, soon made for a difficult conversation, modern technology notwithstanding.
Interviewer Benjamin Palmer of digital agency The Barbarian Group could no longer make himself heard in London after about fifteen minutes, and so had to make do with alternating between typing questions via the chat box and letting Mr. Assange wax poetic about his views on the increasingly "totalitarian" world we live in. Many of the topics that Mr. Palmer previously told Ad Age he planned to cover, such as internet culture on a global scale and how Mr. Assange's work has impacted media organizations, weren't really covered.
It was still one of the more interesting and different sessions for SXSW attendees, who thus far have been inundated as expected with expensive and often pointless brand activations. Mr. Assange's assertion that "people are products sold to advertisers" when talking about Google wasn't necessarily a new one, for example, but it stood out amid the more typical fare.
Mr. Assange also touched on the nature of public perception, arguing that an organization like the National Security Agency doesn't necessarily need to delivery on total information awareness -- it just needs to make people think that it has unfettered power. "The perception of the ability to strike back, that's all that's needed to rule," he said. "They don't need to be able to kill you, but make you think they're able to kill you."
He also talked a little bit about information transfer, which he says is now lateral rather than top-down, and increasing. "We're educating each other at a speed that's unprecedented," he said.
As for his redoubt in the Ecuadorian Embassy, Mr. Assange said it was a bit like prison, if of course better than the thing itself. An "important" new WikiLeaks release of information, meanwhile, is in the works, he said.