Reporting From Reykjavik #2: Beware of Pirates

There are laptops galore in this Reykjavik coffee shop. It’s unsurprising. Icelanders are perhaps the most technology-savvy people on the planet. They rank #1 for internet and social network usage.  As I sit – eyes gaping at a stream of Turkish protest tweets – I meet Smari McCathy. (@smarimc)

Smari’s digital resume is where activism meets technology meets academia. As a founder of the Icelandic Pirate Party, a former Wikileaks contributor and Executive Director of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, he crosses boundaries much in the same way as the digital content that he champions.

Digitally speaking, boundaries are not only being crossed in Iceland: barriers are being broken. In my few days here many have spoken of the mirage of the Icelandic revolution. The old government from before the crash has been re-elected. Yet Smari’s experience hints at an untold story – a quiet revolution in Icelandic society that may have profound implications for the Western world and its politics within our new age. He also has a message for Scotland.

We speak about the recent elections, where the Pirate Party had its first break-through. It surpassed the 5% threshold to gain three members of parliament. It was a numerical and normative victory. “We had an impact in changing the debate”, Smari says. “We ran a low on promises, high on facts campaign and not attacking other parties. We looked at the ideas and took what was good from any party. Our main issue were transparency and direct democracy. People have the right to make decisions about their own life.”

The Pirate Party is at home within Iceland’s flourishing digital community. Many look to a new type of politics. The bartender says she voted for them “Because they are normal.” I ask Smari what ideology lies beneath this. He rejects the left-right distinction: “This is the wrong question. The issue is centralised vs decentralised. Most parties are centralised parties whether they are left wing or right wing. Pirate Parties are the first decentralisation fundamentalism party.”

Electoral success may pressurise this. All new political groups face the challenge of moving from protest to power, of beginning to imitate the establishment they originally rejected. For the new government Smari has strong words: “I anticipate them crashing and burning. They have managed to enrage a large number of their voters in a very short period of time. They are back to business as usual.”

This discontent isn’t aimed at individuals or parties but the democratic structure. Representative democracy, in Smari’s view, has failed. “We are bound into a four year cycle. If you make a decision that you later regret, you have to wait four years!” His alternative is ‘liquid democracy’ where technology is harnessed for regular referendums on public policy.

A utopia? Perhaps.

I look back to my twitter stream of Turkish youths drenched in hope and tear gas. The world is changing quickly.

In any case, McCarthy’s politics extend far beyond his party. For the past three years he has been central to the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative: a campaign and think-tank which seeks substantial media reforms in Iceland.

Scotland could learn from this story. “We want to make a Switzerland of the media. A media haven. We brought together the strongest media regulations in the world. This would be a great benefit for human rights and be a great investment opportunity. If we do it other countries can mimic it. There are projects in Ecuador and Spain trying to following our example. I got a phone call from the Minister of culture in Slovenia!”

While the financial crisis was enveloping the political class the IMMI was constructing policy. They want to empower whistle-blowers. They want to empower journalists. They want to protect the privacy of the citizen. “We started off with a set of 14 laws. So far 3 have been changed. That is maybe not a lot of progress in our 3 years. Still that is about as fast as political process in Iceland can take, especially given the financial crisis. We got a new information act. We got changes to the telecommunications act to improve privacy and information security. There’s also a new media act. It makes public the ownership of all registered media and puts a legal obligation on journalists to protect their sources.”

Media freedom could sit alongside water, air and energy as a precious Icelandic commodity. Domestically, changes are slow, yet IMMI is part of a global project: “There are other countries where information regulation is dire. We try to have civilised conversations with those governments. We look for technological solutions to political problems such as providing training to journalists and providing resources.”

As a former contributor to Wikileaks, Smari understands the power of technology and new media. So does Iceland.  Julian Assange visited to work on the now infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ video. It is in Iceland that the donations embargo against Wikileaks crumbled. After a recent court battle MasterCard and Visa face paying substantial damages unless they reinstate the contract.

In Smari’s view this is only part of a wider change in the ownership and production of media. Wikileaks was “the first industrialisation of the exposure of secrets”, while the internet as a whole has made information abundant and cheap. Smari thinks a paradigm shift is taking place: “Any media organisation which does not understand this context is going to go bankrupt relatively quickly.”

Iceland is a microcosm of this change. It is like a miniature experiment. It is possible – Smari says – because of Iceland’s position as a small, independent nation. This model presents exciting opportunity for Scotland.

Smari is clear where he stands:

The main asset that Iceland has is its independence. People here can have a influence on what gets done here. That means that from everything – business, education, health – people can influence the decisions. I think in many ways Scotland is a Nordic country, in terms of its traditions and its politics. I think Scotland should be independent. It will give Scotland the ability to decide its own affairs, to be itself for a change.”

Smari plans to visit Scotland during the referendum – to see if another shift in power and politics will take place not far from Icelandic shores. He speaks of ‘soft power’ and the Nordic model and quotes Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In a new world of technology, our politics is changing. We can watch and learn from Iceland. They are also watching us. What change will they see?

Michael Gray
National Collective




About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.