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By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Omar Todd has committed his exceptional Information Technology talent to noble causes: he’s a dedicated activist in the field of freedom of information and an active environmentalist. Todd’s considerable I.T. skills and commitment to protecting wildlife and ecosystems caught the attention of Julian Assange, who appointed him as his Deputy Chairman for the WikiLeaks Party. No wonder Omar Todd is considered the new Harper Reed, i.e. the man who the took the role of Chief Technical Officer (CTO) for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. Todd will definitely play the same pivotal role as right-hand man to Assange, who has gained fame for having designed a platform for watchdogs, whistleblowers and anonymous sources of classified information. Together, the pair have changed politics and communications beyond anyone’s expectations.
In this exclusive interview, Todd tells us about meeting Julian Assange, forming the WikiLeaks political party, and the dangers of the The Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement.
How did your interest in technology begin?
I was one of the early adopters. I was always involved in computers. I think my father brought the second Apple computer into Australia, way back in the 80s. I remember knowing more about computers than any of the teachers did. We used to potter around at the computer centre and studies in general were a distraction from the fun of handling computers. By the time I was fifteen to eighteen I was writing my own code and was heavily involved in what we used to call the “BBS days” that is the Bulletin Board System, which was the precursor before the internet, which essentially allowed people to dial some phone lines and you would just talk to each other and swap stories, and all the things that we see today on Facebook, but long before it was even in the popular realm. Then in my early twenties I got involved with running an internet service provider, I was one of the founders of a not-for-profit internet provider. From there I got involved with policy decisions as one of the founders of the Internet Society in Australia and helped government form policy on various internet proposals with all the domain name which is structure. So I was involved with the internet at a very early stage, before it was cool and popular.
What was it like working for the big I.T companies, like Microsoft?
I was always working as a contractor for Microsoft and Telstra Corporation in the 1990s, before becoming CEO of Premier Ltd. But one of the most exciting moments I remember was when we created in Australia what was the precursor to the internet exchanges which developed down the road. We were always concerned about how telecommunication companies owned the internet or the telephone lines, so we started getting internet service providers to interconnect with each other and the very first one we created was called WAIX, Western Australian Internet Exchange. That was a very revolutionary idea, where we were able to connect all the internet service providers directly to each other without having to pay the big companies. It was one of my more satisfying moments, rather than contracting for some of the big companies.
Tell us a bit about your environmental commitments
I’m the Technical Director of Sea Shepherd, which is essentially a non-profit conservation organisation, whose mission is to end a destruction of the habitat’s slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and our species, but also to protect our future. In the last five years the TV show commissioned by Animal Planet called Whale Wars really put the organisation on the map, and is now on its sixth season.
How did your collaboration with Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society come about?
Paul also co-founded Greenpeace in 1972, and he felt that a more direct intervention in matters of saving the oceans was more appropriate. I met someone who introduced us and I was entranced by his talks and I became more and more inclined to help. Sea Shepherd has now been around for 35 years and still today I’m very much inspired by Captain Paul Watson and his dedication in fighting for the oceans for so long.
Other than television, your environmental activism also includes being involved in the film industry. Tell us more?
I was involved in the making of the documentary Confessions Of An Eco-Terrorist, which campaigns to diminish the atrocities committed against sea mammals and was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. I also started a social media campaign about the Taiji dolphins, which was discussed in the movie The Cove, and got people involved like Richard Branson and Ricky Gervais. When you get a few celebrities involved it helps because they have a large, popular following. I find films are more effective in getting to people on these causes and we do what we do at the end of the day not because we want to be on television or famous, but because we want a future for the human race. If the oceans die we die, we cannot survive. On the side of that, I’ve been involved in a romantic comedy called Sparks and Embers, which was filmed in 2012 in London and that should be completed and released this year.
What brought you on board the WikiLeaks team?
After I was involved in Sea Shepherd for seven years, I got in touch with Julian Assange’s mother because I truly was enthralled by what he was doing. I was in London when he was at the embassy and asked to meet him, and I found out he was a big fan of the TV show Whale Wars connected to Sea Shepherd and the anti-whaling activities. So Julian invited me to the embassy, this was in 2011, and in that occasion we came up with the idea of forming a political party. When I met him he was already famous, but I found him a very personable interesting fellow. We share a lot of ideals, particularly with my internet background and the fact I feel very strongly about internet freedom.
Why did Julian choose you as his Chief Technology Officer?
His father was very keen to have someone of my skill set involved, especially now with Julian’s physical limitations, being stuck at the embassy. They needed someone in Australia to lead the technology front and because of my work with Sea Shepherd, and the fact I run all the systems and social media, they wanted me to build servers and emails and the entire infrastructure required for an organisation such as WikiLeaks, where people would try to hack you. They were also looking for someone with those abilities who had run another controversial activist organisation. I can say that two of my employers are wanted by Interpol, both Paul Watson and Julian Assange.
Now you are trying to bring WikiLeaks to the Australian Senate…
The WikiLeaks party is a dream come true: it formed early last year, we only had three months before the first selection to really get our paces. We put up six candidates and we got just under 1% of the vote with not a lot of resources, so we were quiet surprised: nearly one hundred thousand people voted for the WikiLeaks party. We did reasonably well considering we are a new party, and it is my job to continue to apply the principles of what we want to bring to the Australian political landscape, which is a party that looks at what the government is doing and we force transparency and accountability, which of course creates justice. So we want to be the party that oversees all the government’s activity. We would be like a group of reporters trying to make sure that the government is kept honest, for a transparent democracy. We are now waiting for the next selection; we didn’t get any candidates in this time unfortunately. It’s difficult to run a campaign when your main candidate is stuck somewhere else.
Have you considered being a candidate?
I have been asked and I have considered. However, the fact that I was working as the CTO of Sea Shepherd would have conflicted, and I would have had to give it up and they were really keen to keep me around.
Are you planning to make WikiLeaks and Sea Shepherd work together somehow?
As a matter of fact, so far the WikiLeaks publishing organisation has helped Sea Shepherd, by releasing documents about a Trans-Pacific Trade agreement, which of course is being negotiated in secret between 12 countries that represent 40% of the world’s GDP deciding about our futures in regards to copyright laws, intellectual property. It’s a very critical document that not many people have heard about, but it actually involves countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, and Brunei.
Sea Shepherd has used these documents to bring awareness to that particular partnership’s consequences to the environment if it’s signed by all these countries. The Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement is one of the most significant contracts that is going around and it’s a very secretive trade pact, nobody really knows what it is about, but what we do know by the drafts that are being leaked – through WikiLeaks – is that as well as affecting us all it bypasses sovereignty. It’s almost like a shareholders’ agreement and protects the corporations. For instance, if in your country you affect the trade of a foreign corporation and sign this agreement, then your government can be sued and you can be sued for damages: so it transcends sovereignty. Down the road, Sea Shepherd will have the consequences of that agreement at its doorstep.
What can be done to prevent this going through?
There are a number of websites that talk about it and one particular page is http://www.fightforthefuture.org/ which is a campaign to stop the agreement being signed and at least force the negotiators to make a public domain.
Amongst your scopes for major change you’re also a philanthropist, director and member of The Blue Seals. What are the goals of this organisation?
The Blue Seals is very similar to Sea Shepherd, but rather than using boats, we use sea planes instead and the idea behind that is that they can travel around the world and get there a lot faster. We are still pondering an idea for a television series based on the sea planes. This organisation has very similar principles: save the environment, keep the biodiversity of the planet healthy and keep a balance with nature. We must look after our planet and this includes especially our oceans.
We talk about this being planet Earth, but really it’s planet Ocean. We are like passengers on a beautiful ship called Earth and we are going in the galaxy and the crew is the earthworms, the bees, the whales, the sharks, which are the doctors of the sea that get rid of all the cancerous disease of the oceans. All these creatures keep the crew of our spaceship Earth going along in the Universe. We are the passengers and at the moment we are pulling rivets out of the ship and killing the crew and at some point, sooner or later, there will be no crew left and the ship will then be in trouble. So we all must work together to keep spaceship Earth sailing steadily and harmlessly in the Universe.