Wikileaks project to make Iceland free information host
Haven for controversial data, protected by press freedom laws
By Rune Pedersen | Computerworld Denmark | Published: 13:00, 13 February 2010
Whistleblower site Wikileaks is helping to create a project that could make Iceland an offshore center for the publication of leaked documents. Wikileaks has worked with parliamentarians, lawyers and other organisations to develop a draft law that will be presented to Iceland's parliament, the Althingi.
If the law is passed, then data centres powered by Iceland's renewable energy sources could, in future, make the country a haven for defending freedom and transparency of information, rather than a tax haven for concealing financial secrets. Icelanders are playing a key role in this process, hoping to do away with the recent past and change society into something better as their country recovers from the global financial crisis.
"One of the things the nation has been calling for is honesty and transparency. We feel that it is important to have a vision for the future," said Birgitta Jonsdottir, who as an artist, Internet pioneer and activist was elected to parliament almost as a symbol of the political transition. "I probably would never have tried to get into parliament or have any chances to get into parliament with my rather radical activist background before the collapse. So people want members of parliament to represent something different than before," said Jonsdottir.
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The aftermath of the financial meltdown has nurtured a rebellious public mood in the country, where street demonstrations and protests against nepotism and corruption have led to the first left wing government in Iceland's history. "We not only had a complete financial meltdown, we had to reevaluate our moral codes," said Jonsdottir.
"Icelanders, after the collapse, feel ashamed of belonging to this society they're living in. Often, when they go abroad, they do not even want to say that they are from Iceland, because of the pictures that have been drawn up of Icelanders, that they're all driving in Land Rovers with plasma screens and so forth," she said.
In order to fulfill this need for transformation in society, the idea was born of creating a law to give Iceland the best protection in the world for freedom of information and freedom of expression. Freedom of expression and freedom of information are being thrown out all over the world, but people do not even realise it, so it is important that at least some countries can serve as protectors of the world's free information, Jonsdottir said.
The hope is that a new law can create a legal sanctuary, to protect people so they can publish information without being chased by lawyers and courts, while information and sources are secured, she said. She described the project as the opposite of a tax haven. Tax adopts regulations from other countries to protect secrecy, while Iceland will adopt regulations from countries that protect transparency, she said. Jonsdottir does not think that it will be a problem to convince the country's conservative forces to support the bill, which is conceived as a joint proposal from parliament to the government.
The timing is ideal, Jonsdottir said, because the political situation is very fragile, and everyone is reevaluating their position. Even conservative Icelanders will go along with it to survive politically, she believes. Elections could happen as early as within the next month. Such political uncertainty makes it far easier to implement an entirely new ideology than when everything is running smoothly, she said.
"We are a small community that can move quickly. If we can do anything that might help the whole world, I would much rather have this as Iceland's legacy than the memory of a nation that fell asleep," she said.
Jonsdottir is not the only one to see opportunity in the turmoil: Daniel Schmitt of Wikileaks is another.
"Never let a crisis go to waste," is how he put it in a video about the project. That narrow window of opportunity is why Wikileaks has been working hard to get the bill in place in time, he told Computerworld Denmark. Wikileaks is participating as part of a group of advisers, because of its experience in publishing sensitive information and in battling media censorship, Schmitt said.
Wikileaks published details of the finances of Icelandic bank Kaupthing, so Icelanders could gain insight into the bank's transactions leading up to its collapse. Kaupthing went to the courts to stop Icelandic television channel RUV reporting on the leaked documents. Instead, RUV simply showed the web address of the leaked document on Wikileaks so Icelanders could find their way to the secret information. Kaupthing threatened those behind Wikileaks with imprisonment.
Wikileaks has some experience with the problems affecting press freedom around the world, and is advising on what should be considered in relation to such a law, Schmitt said. Although a possible change in the law may make Iceland one of the best places in the world to publish controversial information, it does not mean that Wikileaks is moving to store all its information on the North Atlantic island.
Wikileaks is an international organisation operating in a number of jurisdictions, something the group won't change, as to do otherwise would not be failsafe, said Schmitt. It would simply be too risky to use a single law for protection, he said, and that's not how Wikileaks works.
Iceland will be just another nation that Wikileaks deals with, such as Sweden, Belgium or the US, each of them providing certain advantages, he said. The purpose of the draft law is not to tailor a solution for Wikileaks: it must be of benefit to all press activity, Schmitt stressed.
However, if the law is approved by Iceland's parliament, Wikileaks will certainly look at opportunities for hosting there, he said. Wikileaks' experience is that legislative developments around the world are in no way beneficial to press freedom.
More and more countries are creating an unhealthy environment for the press with ever tougher laws, forcing a growing number of publications use Wikileaks as to do otherwise would make journalists and sources feel unsafe, Schmitt said. This, in conjunction with the increased number of restrictions and increased censorship of the net, is making it necessary to move development of the information society in a better direction, he said.
There is a huge opportunity to create a role model, a counterexample, he said, and that's something Wikileaks is putting a lot of energy into.