Icelander Smári McCarthy is a man who doesn’t know what his title should be on his business cards. Not only is he a writer, software developer and hacker, but he is a dedicated freedom fighter. With his help, Iceland now has the potential to become a world leader in protecting freedom of information.
McCarthy is an organizer of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a package that has the power to make Iceland an international transparency haven. Organizers have collected the strongest FOI laws from around the world in hopes that they are all implemented within Iceland. The proposal includes protections for sources, whistle-blowers and Internet service providers as well as limits on prior restraint. Among other proposed FOI strengtheners, it also creates an ultra-modern Freedom of Information Act. This summer, the Icelandic Parliament unanimously passed the proposal, and McCarthy and other advocates hope the legislation passes within the next year.
1. You’re a man who wears many hats. What job of yours kick-started the IMMI?
The hat I wear in regard to the IMMI project is that I’m co-founder of the Icelandic Digital Freedoms Society, which is the organization that kind of got the ball rolling on this. We had a conference last December, and that was a moment where all the little cards got together and we had the great idea of doing this.
2. What is the initiative expected to do for Iceland?
We see this benefiting Iceland in a number of ways. Obviously it is good for a country to have the world’s media on its side, but there are clearer economic benefits too. As information services become an ever-growing part of the global economy and the need for vast data centers continues to expand, every major population center in the world will need access to reliable data hosting. Europe and North America are the two most highly developed land masses on Earth, and Iceland sits neatly halfway between them. Further, Iceland has unrestricted sea routes to east Asia over the Arctic sea. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Iceland is in a great place to become the information hub of the world.
3. What was the time frame in getting this proposal passed?
In general, the timeline has been amazingly dense. In January, we had a vague idea of what we were doing. In February, we submitted the proposal. In June, it was passed. Give it another year and we’ll all be impressed, I think.
4. What documents did you read to gain a better understanding of what should be in the IMMI?
I read through laws in various countries. For example, I read the California Anti-SLAPP law (Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16); section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act and its European counterpart, 2000/31/EC; the Swedish implementation of the same (2002:562 Lag om elektronisk handel och andra informationssamhällets tjänster); and the New York Libel Terrorism Protection Act. I also read the U.S. False Claims Act, the Swedish constitution, the Belgian communications protection law and half a dozen different Freedom of Information Acts (including Norway, Estonia, Scotland). For all of these, I familiarized myself with the Icelandic equivalents where they existed, made notes on the similarities, discrepancies, weak points and strong points.
5. Why do you think it’s unethical to stop the flow of information (to, say, print sources) if it’s available so freely and at no cost on the Internet?
When you can copy information at zero marginal cost — that is to say, it costs almost nothing to make additional copies once the first copy has been created — how can it be ethically acceptable to exclude anybody? To hinder the flow of information is to needlessly create inequality. One of the foundations of democracy is that people must be enlightened, which is a fancy way of saying that people should have good and equal access to pertinent information as well as an ability to process that information. If we’re going to allow economic and political pressure to control who gets what information, how can we even begin to claim that we’re operating in a democratic fashion?
6. In order for this legislation to work, 14 different laws now need to be changed that affect four different ministries. What does this entail?
The changes range from subtle changes in wording to massive overhauls in existing legal frameworks. Much of what we’ve suggested needs to be overhauled anyway, either as part of upholding international treaties or directives of the European Economic Area, or simply because they’re outdated. The Ministry of Education and Culture has already proposed a new media law that replaces the print and broadcast laws, into which the idea is to bundle strong articles regarding source protection. In addition, changes will have to be made to laws regarding the obligations of civil servants, the general criminal code, the Freedom of Information Act, the e-commerce law, and so on.
7. Iceland is still suffering from a banking collapse. What economic secrecy issues prompted this forward-thinking legislation?
A number of government organizations were supposed to regulate the banking sector, the corporate sector and so on. They failed to fulfill that purpose and completely lost control of the situation. The banks swelled and corporations played increasingly complicated shell games, hiding assets in offshore tax havens and shifting ownership within their own structures in order to bypass various laws.
The media was entirely docile toward this. Instead of demanding reports from the regulatory agencies to be made public, investigating the behavior of the banks or questioning ownership schemes, privatization, public spending or the fact that the number of private jets in Iceland was skyrocketing, they simply read highlights from the daily press releases from the banks’ analysis departments.
With both the regulators and the media thus crippled, there was nothing that resembled true transparency or reasonable oversight. When everything came crashing down, people outside the banks who should have had the capacity to see what was coming and intervene were blindsided by lack of information and, to a depressing degree, a lack of professionalism.
It would be wrong to blame the regulators and the media entirely for the crash. The bankers and the corporatists were greedy and exhibited a reckless disregard for the stability of the economy. However, if there had been greater transparency and a stronger media, perhaps the blow wouldn’t have been so hard.
8. How do you think Iceland’s media landscape will change in the next five years?
Iceland’s media landscape is notoriously bad in a number of ways. It’s understaffed, underfunded, basically like media all over the world. I think that if there’s more contact, more flow of information between foreign journalists and Icelandic journalists, something’s going to rub off. This is something targeted to helping journalists in other countries as well as proposing this as a business model. You can make a business by being a very friendly area for information.
The statement is that freedom of speech, freedom of expression as we know it came out of the French and American revolutionists, and that was 200 years ago, but there haven’t been any fundamental changes about how free speech has been protected in 200 years. We’re in the information age, but we’ve been doing the exact same thing for 200 years. We need to rethink freedom of expression.
9. What has media coverage been like of the IMMI, in regard to foreign vs. home-turf coverage?
There has definitely been far more interest in this abroad than in Icelandic media. I think it’s mostly attributable to a certain sense of skepticism amongst Icelandic journalists — they’ve seen perfectly good proposals disappear in the system before, and they’ll believe it when they see it. Another issue is that due to the recession, a lot of media organizations are cutting down severely. There’s an entire subculture of out-of-work journalists emerging. Unfortunately this is another example of economic and political pressure disabling the more noble venture.
10. Do you think this will open up opportunities for journalists and whistle-blowers to create more sites like WikiLeaks?
WikiLeaks’ primary advantage is a technical one. Their site is designed by people who know how to protect sources. That’s what makes them special. There’s definitely more opportunities for doing this. I was only half joking when I said maybe the U.S. government should spend less effort on trying to stop whistle-blowers from acting and more effort on exposing their databases and opening up their secret data before we do, because freedom of information activists aren’t going to wait. Exposing information is far easier than hiding information.