Assange: Internet is greatest spying machine ever

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has dubbed the Internet the "greatest spying machine the world has ever seen", and says it's an obstacle to free speech.

Speaking less than a week after a court forced US-based micro-blogging site Twitter to hand over details of accounts held by three WikiLeaks associates to federal authorities, the Australian told students at Cambridge University that social networks in particular provided governments with wide-ranging opportunities for surveillance.

Assange illustrated the point by telling his audience about a "Facebook revolt" that took place in Cairo three or four years ago: "It was very small... After it, Facebook was used to round up all the principal participants and they were then beaten, interrogated and incarcerated."

Paradoxically, for the head of an organisation that has used online technology to shine a light on the inner workings of world governments and other secretive organisations, Assange claimed that the Internet was helping to bolster oppressive regimes.

"It is not a technology that favours freedom of speech," the 39-year-old said. "It is not a technology that favours human rights."

"Rather, it is a technology that can be used to set up a totalitarian spying regime, the likes of which we have never seen."

Turning to his tormentors in the United States, Assange claimed: "Censorship by the US is every bit as pernicious as well-documented censorship in the Soviet Union.

"Wikileaks is facing attacks from the very peak of the United States media, and media in the western world more generally," he said, adding that the companies that dropped WikiLeaks "were acting at the behest of a global system of patronage which has its centre of gravity in Washington."

Assange went on to defend the role of his online whistle-blowing site in increasing global transparency, claiming WikiLeaks had helped to spark the ongoing uprisings in Arab states.

He told students that the outing of US diplomatic cables concerning Tunisia had "changed part of the dynamics" in the country, resulting in the overthrow of the country's former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

"The battle between those who want to use the Internet as a tool of liberation and those who want to use the internet as a tool of control, mass control, is not over," said Assange. "It’s only just beginning.”