Anyone thinking fireworks would result from the appearance, via Skype, of fugitive WikiLeaks developer Julian Assange at South by Southwest Interactive conference/festival Saturday morning left with a serious case of crushed expectations.
In front of a near-capacity audience of 3,500 in an exhibit hall at Austin Convention Center, Assange — who was speaking from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has sought refuge since 2012 — was not posed any challenging questions and used the hour to make his case about what he sees as the dangers and excesses of government surveillance.
Responding to questions asked by moderator Benjamin Palmer, co-founder of The Barbarian Group marketing company, and the audience via Twitter, the bearded Assange — wearing a black blazer, scarf, and a white shirt — offered no indication as to how much longer he may remain the embassy or what his future plans might be. (He is in the embassy to avoid arrest by Swedish officials on sexual assault charges; he claims the Swedish will then hand him over to U.S. authorities because of his work with WikiLeaks.)
His life, he says, hasn’t come to a stop, even if he does feel like a prisoner who happens to have such visitors as American author Alice Walker, who wrote The Color Purple.
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“It is difficult, but I am able to continue working,” he said, noting that another WikiLeaks revelation may come shortly but not elaborating on what it might be.
While he calls his sequestered life as living “in a no-man’s land,” he says it has its advantages. The police can’t touch him in the embassy while the exposure of his work and that of others such as National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald have grown awareness of the issue of government monitoring. (Snowden is due to speak at SXSW on Monday via Skype; Greenwald is scheduled to appear in person.)
“The Internet for years was a politically apathetic place,” he said. “Now, people are developing some sense that this space that they enjoyed was being invaded [by the government].”
Even though Assange didn’t offer any breaking news Saturday, his participation in SXSW Interactive and that of Snowden underscore just how important the festival has become in terms of discussing issues surrounding the Internet and its effect on the broader culture.
Privacy has become a major issue for many involved in the tech industry. Previous speakers at the festival have included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal founder/Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.