In July 2008, John Perry Barlow, the veteran digital activist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, delivered a speech at the Icelandic Digital Freedom Conference that contained a radical proposal. Iceland, he urged, must become an island where information could be safely and permanently hosted, visible to anyone around the world.
“My dream for this country is that it could become like the Switzerland of bits,” Barlow said. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a poet and digital activist, was in the audience, and remembers Barlow's call as a turning point, a provocation that would help forge Iceland into a political home for a new generation of internet-enabled activists. Barlow, she said, issued a fervent appeal: "I would call upon you to do everything you can to give people the right to know."
A few months after Barlow's speech, Iceland’s economy collapsed. The per capita share of the national debt exceeded $400,000, a financial devastation that was virtually unprecedented in world history given the relative size of the country’s economy. Systemic malpractice by three of Iceland's largest private banks, and a lack of transparency and oversight of the banks was the cause.
Feeling betrayed by their banks and government, Icelanders demanded an early election; after extended protesting, one was scheduled. Jónsdóttir decided to run for Parliament as a candidate of a party called "The Movement,” formed in the wake of the crisis, with a platform focused on transparency as well as government and corporate accountability.
Even though the party was created mere weeks before the elections, Jónsdóttir, a newcomer to the world of professional politics, earned seven percent of the vote, and was elected to Parliament on April 2009. Icelanders were looking for a change and Jónsdóttir’s open loathing of politicians and power, it seems, was exactly what they wanted.
Jónsdóttir was also arguably the most wired politician Iceland had ever seen. At 22, she had published her first book of poetry with a highly respected Icelandic publishing house, but her perspective shifted after being introduced to the World Wide Web in 1995. Jónsdóttir was then working for an online advertising agency and volunteering for an arts fair when she fell in love with a nascent web: “I dove into the internet and haven’t been out of there since," she told me recently at her office in Reykjavik.
Her rise coincided with a much larger battle over information. As the shadowy world of mass surveillance, extralegal global renditions, and military black-ops has grown, journalists have struggled to keep up. Platforms like WikiLeaks, Global Leaks, and The Intercept have risen as formidable counters to long-held state and corporate-approved communication. If not for WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning, 15,000 Iraqi civilian deaths may never have been known. If not for Edward Snowden, we may never have known about the extra-legal systems of mass surveillance and encryption-breaking tools the NSA has come to use on US citizens and others.
But as journalists, activists and other defenders of free speech face extraordinary pressure from governments and companies, this tiny country of just over 320,000 people is seeking to become their de facto safe house, and largely because of Jónsdóttir.
Jónsdóttir was born in Reykjavík in 1967 to Jón Ólafsson, and Bergþóra Árnadóttir, a well-known Icelandic folk musician. From the outset, Jónsdóttir sought to combine her art and her politics, “by looking holistically at issues artists could bring new perspectives,” she said. To this day she calls herself a ‘poetician.’
I dove into the internet and haven’t been out of there since.
Perhaps because she lived on an island country—or perhaps because she is a self-proclaimed geek who grasped the power of the web right from the start—Jónsdóttir began shepherding art events around the world online. In 1996, she organized CU-SeeMe, Iceland's first livestream and a predecessor to our Skypes and Hangouts of today. “I became part of this global community that recognized we could change the offline world with what we did online,” Jónsdóttir said.
She was coding in no time, combining art and politics with the latest in networked technologies for a global audience. When the US began ramping up global surveillance after the attacks of 9/11 and governments were ruthlessly pursuing WikiLeaks, Jónsdóttir understood what was at stake. The speech by Barlow and the economic devastation were crucial turning moments in Iceland's recent history, but there was one other event that propelled the country to become a global haven for free speech.
John Perry Barlow at the Icelandic Digital Freedom Conference
After the country's bankruptcy, another spark of rage was set off when the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, RÚV, received a legal injunction barring them from broadcasting a story about malpractice by Kaupthing, one of Iceland's largest and most culpable banks. Instead of simply not airing the story, the anchor, Bogi Agustsson, told viewers that RUV had been prohibited from broadcasting the facts. Agustsson then directed viewers to look at the information for themselves on WikiLeaks.
“Through this pathetic and lame attempt to quash this broadcast of information that was available to everybody, Icelanders became aware of what WikiLeaks was and stood for,” said Kristinn Hrafnsson, a journalist who was on the RUV investigative team behind the blocked Kaupthing story and now works as a spokesperson for WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks was celebrated in Iceland for its resolve to publish the truth. Where RÚV had failed, due to legal impediments, WikiLeaks prevailed. “After the shock to the system in 2008,” Hrafnsson told me, “there was a big thirst for more transparency and of course more accountability.”
Ultimately Hrafnsson’s involvement with the investigation into Kaupthing earned him ten months of litigation defending himself against Iceland’s Bank Secrecy Act. While he was ultimately not charged, Hrafnsson understood the legal pressure against serious journalism in Iceland all too well. Shortly after the incident, Julian Assange and his then-assistant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, came to Iceland and, during a talk show appearance, reissued Barlow’s call to make Iceland the "Switzerland of bits."
The public loved it. While most of the new members of government were celebrating their Independence Day, Jónsdóttir met with Assange and Domscheit-Berg to talk about how to turn this idea into reality.
"'Julian, I want to do this,'" Jónsdóttir told Assange. "Being both a writer, journalist, activist, and geek, I thought this was an incredibly good idea and we started to work on it immediately."
While Assange and Domscheit-Berg had a cryptographically strong, well-distributed leaking platform, in order to keep their information as safe as possible and in the public sphere, they worked to implement a stronger legal shield. Jónsdóttir’s political appointment and understanding of networks made her a perfect partner for the work.
"Up to that point," Hrafnsson explained, "the laws pertaining to information freedom, the protection of sources, whistleblowers, and more were in rather bad shape and needed urgent reform." So Jónsdóttir and WikiLeaks collected a team to research and compile the strongest working free speech laws in the world.
From anonymity of sources, to legal protection for journalists, publishing platforms, data retention, and the servers the information is hosted on, the group sought to create a set of laws to protect the entire media ecosystem. In a documentary about the project, Smári McCarthy, a hacker and activist deeply involved with the work said, "Assange gave us a list of laws which they had noticed were very good and they had considered useful to their operations in WikiLeaks."
Calling the work the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), the collected best-practices were written into a proposal—not a law—that laid the foundation for Iceland to finally become the Switzerland of Bits. The IMMI was a roadmap to that dream.
Just after the release of Collateral Murder and at the peak of WikiLeak’s international popularity, the IMMI was unanimously passed by Parliament on June 16, 2010. In 2011 McCarthy became the Executive Director of the International Modern Media Institute, which was charged with figuring out how to take the piecemeal group of laws they had gathered, and build them into a functioning and holistic set of laws that would work for Iceland. There were at least ten laws with international ramifications that needed to be changed.
Since the IMMI resolution, Iceland passed a new Information Act in early 2013 which moved two of its goals forward, albeit imperfectly. The IMMI website states the Information Act "does not satisfy the IMMI resolution’s level of quality and assurance, as referred to with regards to the public’s access to information." The IMMI is currently reviewing whether the Information Act provides sufficient source protection.
Jónsdóttir admits that the work has not been easy, but she never thought it would be. “It’s not enough to have local laws, we have to take into account all of the national laws we are a part of,” she told me. Free speech laws intermingle with many different aspects of government, business, and international partnerships. Untangling these relationships and rewriting their proposal was always going to be a challenge, particularly in light of the fact that the IMMI team is few and money is always short.
In 2013 Jónsdóttir became one of three members of the Pirate Party to win seats in a national election. By focusing on transparency and accountability in government, the small but real success of the Pirate Party in Iceland may help move the IMMI proposals forward, but the future remains unclear. While there is a clear radical streak in Icelandic politics pushing to make real changes, concrete movement remains blocked.
After the collapse and the so-called “pots and pans revolution,” Icelanders and the newly elected parliament demanded the creation of a new constitution, one truly by and for the people.
Thorvaldur Gylfason, a professor of economics at the University of Iceland and one of the 25 elected members of the constitutional council charged with working with the public to draft this new constitution, told me that Iceland “had allowed a culture of secrecy to develop,” and that this had helped lead to the financial collapse of 2008.
Despite repeated requests for comment on that and related claims, I've been unable to reach members of both Iceland's Progressive Party and Independence Party, including the chairmen of both, Bjarni Benediktsson, Chairman of the Independence Party, and Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Prime Minister of Iceland and Chairman of the Progressive Party, whose parties are generally seen as more conservative and right-wing than Jónsdóttir's. This article will be updated should I hear back.
At any rate, while the new constitution wouldn’t have proscribed the laws IMMI is fighting for, the newly elected parliament worked to draft new provisions which would have been much more conducive to IMMI’s mission. The new crowd-sourced constitution was tabled last year, despite strong political and popular support.
“It is very difficult to imagine that parliament will get away with committing this violation against democracy,” Gylfason said, “this is almost a coup d'etat.”
This is almost a coup d'etat.
David Ardia, who founded and directed the Berkman Center’s Digital Media Law Project was quoted in The New York Times with this concern: while the IMMI initiative is invaluable, Ardia said, “most journalism is done on the ground — it is great that servers get these protections, but it won’t help local sites.” The IMMI is not a magic bullet for journalists and sources around the world. Nevertheless, should its laws be realized, at least the information they risked so much to publish will be safe.
Carola Frediani, writer for Wired Italy and author of Deep Web and Inside Anonymous: A Journey into the World of Cyberactivism, emailed me regarding her concerns about how robust of a legal shield the IMMI can provide in light of the Snowden revelations. While she sees the idea as very helpful, “ I agree with Edward Snowden when he says that in addition to a “policy response” to mass surveillance activities, we also need a technical response.”
Legislating transparency and security takes time. The work remains slow, while the stakes have grown. Jónsdóttir discovered that she has been the subject of US Department of Justice ordered surveillance since November 1, 2009. The Snowden revelations have proved that the extent of surveillance is far greater than thought, causing greater concern for the IMMI resolution to protect sources.
Under the Espionage Act of 1917, the founding legislation under which the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers during his terms than all former US presidents combined, all the while surveilling allies like Angela Merkel. Now more than ever, it would seem the world needs doubled-down legal protection for journalists, and safe haven for information uncovered, to which the public has a right to know.
One thing for certain is that Jónsdóttir, the poetician and anarchist parliamentarian, will continue to fight the battle in Iceland.