An offshore information haven? Welcome to Iceland

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations…We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.” Aaron Swartz

In June 2010, the Icelandic Parliament adopted a proposal called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative which sought to “protect and strengthen modern freedoms of expression”. This radically promising piece of legislature could only come through a parliament in a time of crisis.

Iceland in effect had a history of only eight years of the international banking system before it itself went bust. Before this Iceland’s banks were all domestic publicly owned institutions. In 2000, in what has been described by Prof. Robert Wade at the London School of Economics as “in a hasty and politically driven process. Ownership went to people with close connections to the parties in the conservative coalition government which had scant experience in modern banking.”

The catharsis needed for Iceland, the information that could strengthen its understanding of how to ensure a crisis never unfolded again came through Wikileaks. On 29 July 2009 WikiLeaks published a confidential 21o internal report of the lending practices of Kaupthing Bank, at the time the largest bank in Iceland. The report showed the enormous high risk loans that the bank had engaged in and perhaps most painful for the Icelandic public, was dated 25 September 2008, days before the bank collapsed (and to be later nationalised). It’s probably good at this point to remind ourselves that it was on September 29 2008 that Brian Lenihan passed the bank guarantee in the Dáil. Just over a week later, the Kaupthing Bank was nationalised.

On the publication of the Wikileaks report on 29 July 2009, Kaupthing Bank moved to block media coverage of the damning evidence of its affairs and obtained an injunction against the RÚV (Iceland’s national parliament) preventing a broadcast on the loan book raised in the WikiLeaks report. Broadcast instead was the news presenter explaining why the report could not be discussed and explaining the information sought could be found on WikiLeaks. Live on national air a television presenter was telling to a country financially destroyed by Kaupthing Bank, that it could not give the details of Kaupthing Bank because Kaupthing Bank had effectively gagged the national broadcaster. Sound familiar?

After a legal letter from the same bank, Wikileaks stated on its website: “No. We will not assist the remains of Kaupthing, or its clients, to hide its dirty laundry from the global community.”

For a country that had prided itself on freedom of speech, it was told that it was not permitted to look at the answer to their trauma.

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“Never waste a crisis.”

Out of this came a crisis of trust in governance, financial institutions and crucially the media. In Ireland, we were hit with the first two crises initially but really the credibility of the media was not undermined in the same manner until a few years later. We still believed the hype.

In Iceland, a group of digital freedom campaigners founded the Icelandic Digital Freedoms Society, a group that intended to be a grassroots lobbying group intent on the protection of internet openness and neutrality. Although formed before the financial crisis, as a result of it, the ISFI (Icelandic Abbreviation) were in a good position to begin the task of discussing and proposing new legislative action that would not only improve internet openness but aimed to make Iceland into a kind of journalistic haven, something akin to an offshore tax haven but in this case an information one. At their 2009 conference, it was agreed to advocate for legislative action and in 2010, a proposal by MP Birigitta Jónsdóttir of the grassroots Citizen Movement was passed by parliament.

I spoke to Guðjón Idir, IMMI’s executive director and asked him about the role of IMMI and its relationship with the proposal passed in parliament back in 2010 called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative.

“The people who established the International Modern Media Institute, were also the people who drafted the IMMI resolution in 2010. The institute’s role was first and foremost back then to safeguard and help draft the laws the resolution lays out. IMMI’s role since has been to keep work on the resolution going, but also to help connect journalists, and assume a watchdog role in free expression and FOI matters in Iceland and abroad (bearing in mind that our capacity is extremely limited, this has also been limited).
There were of course more people involved with drafting the original IMMI resolution than just those who established the institute. Wikileaks were in Iceland and some of them were part of drafting the IMMI resolution – the original idea was to make sure that true journalism had a home somewhere. Where actual journalism was truly protected. IMMI is currently working within two Ministerial working groups. One tasked with implementation of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (the IMMI resolution) and the other tasked with implementation of “Utilization of the Internet and Protection of User Rights”.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, passed in 2010, intended to open up radically the confidentiality of Iceland’s government bodies to public scrutiny and for all information to be published online. In combining the best of legislature from all over the globe in dealing with freedom of information, source and whistleblower protection, strong limitations on prior restraint and process protection (which aims to prevent small independent publishers from being crippled against wealthy claimants) as well as a host of other far thinking and far reaching ideas, IMMI has the potential to be the most comprehensive framework for granting journalists the tools to challenge power. Five years later there is still much work to be done as Idir explains.
“IMMI is focusing on an Intermediary Limited Liability – to remove censorship roles (and liabilities) of intermediaries, keeping the Internet free, safeguarding free expression and transparency. IMMI is also drafting a Whistleblower Protection law within the IMMI working group, arguing for the removal of Data Retention. [IMMI is also] working on a Defamation Law reform, mainly by moving it from the penal code into the civil code (whereby no prison terms can be the result of expression) and trying to gain broad support to draft and implement Data Protection (Iceland now has a growing industry of Data Centers, some of whom think Iceland already has rock solid data protection law, which Iceland does not have.”

“We’re also focusing on Virtual Limited Liability Companies, which would enable companies to virtually register in Iceland, say a blogger/news site in country x, hosting material in Iceland and registering here, thereby enjoying the jurisdictional protections here so – if critical of its local government/regime, it won’t be issued with a take down order as it belongs to another jurisdiction.”

As IMMI’s website itself states, “Here (Iceland) exist the ideal conditions to create a holistic policy where a legal environment ensures the protection of freedom of expression, the work of investigative journalists and of those who publish materials carrying important political weight. The information society has little to offer if ways to disseminate information relevant to the public are constantly under attack. Although some countries have implemented progressive laws in this field, no one country has unified them all to create a safe haven as the one we propose. Iceland has a unique opportunity to take the lead in the field by putting together a solid legal framework that is built on best practices from around the world.”

How close is this to being achieved?

Who knows but certainly the momentum is on their side. With last months’ Panama Papers revealing that the former Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð had a major connection with Landesbanki (the second largest bank in Iceland to have failed) through his offshore company, the heat is on again for transparency and the need for the links between the political world and the financial world to be exposed. After major protests in Iceland in the last week, the Icelandic Pirate Party (who have been top of the polls for a considerable time now) are leading the way to benefit from the political uncertainty that continues to dominate the country.

Formed out of a number of digital freedom activists, a number of whom were involved in the drafting of IMMI, the Icelandic Pirate Party run on the basis of direct democracy, information freedom and two years ago proposed a bill in parliament to make Edward Snowden an Icelandic citizen.

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Jónsdóttir described the party’s platform on Democracy Now as “like the Robin Hood of power. We want to take away the power from the powerful and give it back to the people, which should be how democracy functions… we want to empower people. We want to have a proper, true division of power. We want to have a modernized system of democracy where the general public can be engaged in co-creating the reality they live in. And I guess we are, in a sense, more like Podemos, but we are sort of unique, because—and I think that we might be able to learn a lot from the others, and they might be able to learn something from us. And that is the beauty of being in politics today, is that we are indeed a globalized world.”

How close this to being fully achieved rests on the Icelandic Party Party being acquitted to power but even then they face the hugely daunting battle of working within a parliamentary system that languishes very quickly such optimistic progress. Yet what Jónsdóttir states on living in a globalized world and about learning is where I see the greatest optimism for Ireland lies. Uncensored information has a transformative power thats impact shades even the most crippling economic crises. Information crushes the mask of austerity and along with it takes the swagger from established media and the political system alike. Any grassroots party in Ireland must be aware of the means of a sustained resistance to the hegemony of power in traditional politics is to weaken their trump card, their ability to control the media.

Last month, Gemma O’Doherty spoke at Journalism in Crisis, a weekend conference hosted by the University of Limerick. One thing of note, in which she stated of journalism as it stands in Ireland,

“We work in an era where a culture of fear and timidity stalks many of our newsrooms. It has bred a generation of journalists who behave less like dogged agents of the public interest and more like compliant diplomats and spin doctors constantly looking over their shoulders and towing the party line. They have forgotten or chose to ignore the true function of our still noble vocation: to hold power to account, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to defend the public’s right to know, to seek the truth and report it. In this new media landscape where many Irish journalists can no longer do their job without fear or favour, the greatest loser is democracy. A robust, independent, adversarial press is the lifeblood of a functioning democracy and a free society. In Ireland in 2016, we have nothing close to that.”

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I asked Idir what would the international significance have for countries like Ireland to which he replied,

“The International angle is both that the IMMI resolution has global significance, as if we manage to establish a safe haven in Iceland for free expression and freedom of information, we’ve had a game changer that affects the global digital world. Media could be hosted in Iceland, NGOs and human rights orgs could operate from within Iceland, or, if possible, virtually. It would also create pressure on other allegedly forward thinking countries to adopt the same measures.”

Interesting to think then how adopting even a small few of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative would work here in Ireland.  Just think of their proposal on Prior Restraint, a pre-publication censorship that gags the person before the information is even publicly declared and which IMMI seeks to impose strong limitations on such. (Denis O’Brien and RTÉ? Denis O’Brien and the Oireachtas?)  Or their proposals on what they call ‘Process Protection” which is “the guarantee of equal access to justice as well as protection from abuses of legal process that can create a chilling effect upon investigative journalism and free speech. The IMMI recognizes that wealthy plaintiffs can stifle probing inquiries into their activities by embarking on legal battles that they do not expect to win to force the defendants to incur mounting legal costs that eventually make it financially unfeasible for them to pursue the case.” Remember that O’Brien letter to Waterford Whisper News after their satirical story running with the headline “Denis O’Brien To Sue Everybody”. Jesus, it verges on the absurd, doesn’t it?

In at least beginning a conversation on journalistic integrity, of a discussion on a new form of journalism, one that relies on raw information, of power speaking to power, journalism can again be feared. As O’Doherty stated at the weekend, this environment does not exist in Ireland. Yet in looking toward Iceland there may be a glimmer of hope of how we regard information freedom here and even if it cannot be offered here, that a haven exists to work on exposing the conglomeration of power in Ireland in an environment that gives refuge to some work rather than intimidates and threatens.

The political impact of leaks in the last five years has been unfathomable, not quite on a revolutionary scale but as some sort of hope, where at least here, we can begin to lay into legislature the means for journalists and whistleblowers to expose the bare skeletons of the ideologies that enrapture us. Having a right to information and a protection of those that provide us information is something that at least can provisionally protect us from power’s worst excesses.

Such vanguards are the only way any grassroots organisation can succeed in Ireland or anywhere if it does not have the will to be part of the establishment as its prerogative.

IMMI is currently looking for your support. IMMI currently relies solely on project based funding and individual donations. You can support their indiegogo fundraiser here.  https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/switzerland-of-bits–4#/

 

To Journalists

http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/oct/29/why-does-irish-media-mogul-denis-obrien-launch-so-many-legal-actions

http://www.wired.com/2010/02/the-icelandic-modern-media-initiative/

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