Iceland is a cold, small, and isolated island in the northern Atlantic. It is a place of sublime landscapes and awe-inspiring volcanic activity. There are more sheep (500,000) than people (323,002) living in Iceland. There is also a small group of activist working to position Iceland as a key player in the international battle over the right to privacy and free speech. As the Director of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, Guðjón Idir, told Hopes&Fears, their goal is “to legalize actual journalism.”
The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, an effort that grew out of Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008, was passed by Parliament in 2010. Iceland was one of the hardest-hit countries in the world when the financial crisis happened and they're serious about ensuring that it doesn't happen again. The failure of journalists to properly investigate the sudden boom is considered a key factor in the collapse. The initiative, shepherded by the Icelandic Modern Media Institute (IMMI) aims to make Iceland the safest country in the world for journalists. IMMI seeks to collect and enact the world’s best free speech and privacy laws and thereby ensure that Iceland becomes a bastion of free speech in an era where surveillance runs rampant worldwide.
There is a growing sentiment that the cyberutopian dream has failed. The idea of an internet that transcends physical boundaries and limitations and thus creates a free world where code is law and not the silly work of corrupt politicking; well, that ship has sailed. Professional and citizen journalists in Ethiopia, Egypt, Vietnam, and Azerbaijan and elsewhere in the world, have been arrested for violating local laws that would cause most citizens in Europe and North America to balk. Meanwhile, the West cannot point fingers. With Barrett Brown serving prison time for sharing a link, Edward Snowden stuck in Russia for exposing systemic violations of the US Constitution, and Chelsea Manning being tortured and held in solitary confinement for whistleblowing war crimes. As journalism continues to be one of the world's most dangerous professions, Internet access and publication of information remain begrudgingly tied to local culture and practice regarding the lawful scope of free speech. And Iceland is entrenched in an issue that matters for all who wish to speak truth to power.
The Switzerland of Bits
Just as Snowden had to flee his country for one that guaranteed his safety, IMMI wants Iceland to become a safe haven for information and those who report on it. As John Perry Barlow, a prominent activist and one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it, Iceland could become, the “Switzerland of Bits.”
Director of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative
Guðjón Idir has been IMMI’s Executive Director since January 2014. His background is in philosophy, psychology and activism. As an activist he has fought for information freedom and human rights. He has also worked with refugees.
The motivation for Iceland to lead this charge comes out of a first-hand knowledge of how devastating a lack of transparency can be. Iceland’s financial crash of 2008 was catastrophic to the country, and few had answers until Wikileaks began publishing documents the local reporters were legally blocked from airing. The general public, justifiably feeling robbed, saw Wikileaks as the purveyor of important knowledge that they were being denied.
Regarding the crash, Róbert Marshall, a former editor, now an MP and the leader of the Social Democrat party, recently pointed out: "Nobody asked where the money was actually coming from. Journalists failed to follow the basic rule: follow the money.” When a nine-volume investigation was finally published, after the fact, an entire volume was dedicated to the media's failures.
From its inception, IMMI has sought to ensure that the type of assistance Iceland was forced to rely on from Wikileaks would never be necessary again. I sat down with IMMI Director Guðjón Idir at a café in Reykjavik to learn more about IMMI.
“The IMMI objective is to create in Iceland the best access to information and a media environment where real journalism can flourish, which is vital for an authentic participatory democracy,” said Idir. That dream was more complex than the people of Iceland had hoped, and so, understandably the battle is far from over.
Slow and steady
“We've already affected legislative changes, and we will continue that work, but we will always be focused on the implementing of the whole picture,” Idir explains. The legal system is a complex web that interacts with local and international law, private businesses, and governments. For instance, if Iceland were to pass a whistleblowing law that protected people like Edward Snowden, which Guðjón does want to do, the nation would also need a law to make the future Snowden’s extradition illegal, or it would be a hollow promise of protection.
IMMI has been collecting the best laws, keeping a tab on the ever-changing legal landscape around such issues as transparency, free speech, and privacy. These laws, as well as the businesses and technology that affect them, are in a constant state of flux, especially after Snowden. Translating all of this into functional laws for Iceland, is a monumental task.
IMMI is working hard to draft legislation that will pass through parliament and it is collaborating with MPs to find the most effective way to do that. Working against massive data retention by telecommunication carriers, IMMI has sought more substantial encryption with less storage, weakening the potential for mass surveillance, as well as making a court order with specific demands and rationale for the data required. Guðjón is very hopeful about this work, especially after last year when the EU Court of Justice ruled that the Data Retention Directive was invalid and a gross violation of privacy. Although Guðjón expects that it will require more work, IMMI has also introduced a progressive whistleblower protection act to Parliament this year.
While there is much to do, IMMI has not been without successes. In 2013, IMMI helped pass the Information Act, which helped broaden the public's access to information as well as source protection, thus nudging some of IMMI’s core goals forward. A few days after our meeting, IMMI joined with other organizations to repeal Iceland’s 75-year-old blasphemy law, making blasphemy no longer an illegal act in the country.
Smári McCarthy, one of IMMI's organisers, had told the Guardian, "Sweden has a really progressive law on the protection of sources ... Journalists are actually not allowed to reveal sources there. IMMI's proposal for source protection is based on that.” The IMMI believes that if this hybrid approach (using the best legislation) is successful, then journalistic outfits will want to base their servers in Iceland to enjoy the same protections.
A Pirate Party Parliament
Exciting again: however, since the initiative was passed, Birgitta is now one of three of Iceland’s Pirate Party members in the Parliament – the first group of Pirates to be voted into office in a national election – and a recent poll just ranked the party as the most popular in the country. There is a feeling that more progress is imminent. Those involved in IMMI’s work “feel that legislative reform is a matter of urgency,” Guðjón says, “and they don’t want to work for a year to just see what happens.”
The Pirate Party: The moniker has been adopted in various countries and while they are not all directly affiliated, they share the principles of support for civil rights, direct democracy, open content, information privacy, network neutrality and reform of copyright laws. The party first emerged in Sweden as a political platform opposed to intellectual property. Its members included the founders of The Pirate Bay BitTorrent tracker. From there, it proceeded to spread to countries like Austria, Germany and Australia. Iceland has seen some of the most substantial success for the party with Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Jón Þór Ólafsson and Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson all being elected to parliament.
Although Guðjón is committed to working across party lines and is not a Pirate Party member, he is cautiously optimistic. With a shift in political support, “so many things are possible. In my opinion that represents the biggest stumbling block, lack of political will.”
Þórgnýr Thoroddsen, First Deputy City Councilmember of the Pirate Party, wrote me that despite the slow speed, he remains hopeful about IMMI's work. "I expect we'll be able to push forward when and if the Pirate Party gets into a majority coalition in the future."
However, despite the new support, IMMI’s work requires, "a time consuming method even if you have all the momentum you want.” Even if the Pirate Party has IMMI as a main objective and they gain a majority, the changes cannot happen overnight. Guðjón adds that, of course, “we would love to see another country beat us to it."
Ben Valentine is a writer and organizer who has worked with SFAQ, The New Inquiry, Motherboard, SXSW, ACLU and Hyperallergic.