The SXSW Interactive Featured Session Feature: Julian Assange

Written by Hugh Forrest | February 19, 2014

Julian Assange speaks at SXSW on Saturday, March 8

Featured Sessions at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival showcase some of the world’s most innovative thinkers. Today’s installment of the Featured Session Feature focuses on Julian Assanage, the founder of WikiLeaks. At SXSW, attend his session “A Virtual Conversation with Julian Assange” session on Saturday, March 8 at 11:00 am. Today's Featured Session Feature is written Melissa Smolensky. A 14-year SXSW veteran, Smolensky now works at Chartio, a Y Combinator data visualization startup.

No matter what side of the fence you fall on, Julian Assange has an international presence that is heard and felt throughout the world. Best known for his site WikiLeaks, Julian has recently made waves by his support of Edward Snowden.

Shuttered away in an Ecuadorian Embassy, I am anxious to hear his thoughts on surveillance, Edward Snowden and the future of the Internet. When I started writing this post, I jokingly said, “I may be put on a NSA watch list, but I’ll do it.” But that fear is exactly why I want to hear Julian Assange speak, whether I agree in what he has done to date or not.

At the intersection of technology and government, there are heated debates happening, determining the future of the Internet. My first memory of online surveillance and how it affected me is when I worked at Rackspace. I remember in December of 2010 when WikiLeaks no longer had a hosting company and US-based Web companies were turning left and right to block WikiLeaks at every turn. I remember sitting at my desk in the corporate communications department thinking this is big. Little did I know this was just the start of a bigger debate.

Fast forward fours years to today, to the Edward Snowden revelations, to people taking to the streets “against mass, suspicionless surveillance” in The Day We Fight Back to Restore the Fourth protests and it is evident the magnitude and importance of Internet freedom.

It is just as predicted in 1999 by Sam Seaborn on "the West Wing" (one of my favorite shows and characters): “In the '20s and '30s it was the role of government. '50s and '60s it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I'm talking about the Internet. I'm talking about cell phones. I'm talking about health records and who's gay and who's not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”

It is why leaders like Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit and author of Without Their Permission and Lanham Napier, former CEO of Rackspace, have stood on the front lines to push and educate our policy makers. The government’s ruling on digital privacy affects a free Internet and affects the way international companies may or may not use our services.

‘Software is eating the world’ and our reliance on that trend is not going away. I am 32 years old and all twelve years of my career in tech I have never been privy to a debate as impactful as this one. The Internet is everywhere and an extension of everyone - especially as the “Internet of Things” emerges. We, as a SXSW Interactive community, and as a collective group of early Internet users and Web-based company adopters, must actively participate in these talks, whether we agree or disagree. This is our future.

So as controversial as he may be, I’ll take a moment to listen to Julian Assange and hear his opinion so I can freely and openly debate what is the right path for our connected-lives.

Register now to be part of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival and to attend the Julian Assanage session on Saturday, March 8. For the full picture of all sessions and evening events at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival, visit the day-by-day schedule. Also, learn more about the best of the best programming for the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival by visiting the new Recommendations page.

Julian Assange photo by Allen Clark.