Iceland – No Haven for Internet Activists

Julian Assange, The Pirate Bay and Edward Snowden may not have many things in common: Assange being the freedom of information radical, The Pirate Bay the monumental torrent-service and Snowden a whistle-blower on government surveillance. However, they share one trait: governments are after them. And they all share a craze for Iceland. This has given the small island country a reputation for being a safe haven for online activists looking for asylum. But seeking refuge on the volcanic island may bring nasty surprises.

Elfa Yr Gylfadottir One of the reasons for Iceland’s reputation as the sanctuary of online anarchism is the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), a proposal brought forward in 2010 to secure free speech and define new operating principles for media in the digital age. But IMMI remains a resolution and hasn’t been turned in to policy. Further, the government seems to be just as keen on an initiative to ban pornography online, an obvious contradiction to the IMMI proposal. Netopia has met with Elfa Ýr Gylfadóttir, Director of the Icelandic Media Commission, to get facts first hand.

How come online activists often mention Iceland as a potential refuge?

I assume that would be because of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative – IMMI – which on the contrary to what many believe is not a law, but merely a parliamentary resolution. It has been presented overseas in a way that gives an impression that it is an established fact. So many believe that there is a law in place in Iceland that makes it the best country in the world in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of information. I would think that’s why people like Snowden and Assange and others mention Iceland. So far, it is more a work in progress that has not yet been realized. The project is still ongoing, but there has’s been a change in government [following the April elections – editor’s note] since the resolution was passed. This is a project that will take time, there are many issues that need to be solved, laws to be changed et cetera.

What is the background to IMMI and what is likely to happen next?

I am appointed a member of an expert group that has the task to fulfill the IMMI- resolution from 2010. Back then, parliamentarians in all parties supported it, including the two parties that make up the new government. But we haven’t had a meeting since the new government came into office, so I don’t know what direction the expert group will take. We will stay on course as before, but it has only been about changes in legislation here in Iceland, like changes to the administrative law et cetera. We have also looked into the protection of whistleblowers, but that is not only a legal matter, they also need further help after having blown a whistle – a network of people which can aid them. It is always difficult financially and socially if the whistle-blower comes out with big news.

IMMI also covers changes in legislation in terms of institutional transparency and ease of access to information from government agencies. This can help journalists and others to for example find out how resources are spent and so on. At the same time, IMMI suggests protection for employees in government agencies. How to protect those who have found out that something illegal is going on? How should the whistleblower-protection be set up for civil servants? Other important questions are: What is media? Who needs this protection? What is a media organization? What is the balance between rights and obligations? Should all sorts of media – in a broad meaning of the word media – have the same kinds of obligations? We don’t have an answer to that yet.

There seems to be a strong internet anti-regulation movement in Iceland, and at the same time there is a proposal for banning online pornography. Why is the Icelandic debate so polarised?

Unfortunately, there is not enough debate about this in Iceland, really. There are some issues that take shape in the public discourse and surface and then you discuss that, but there is a lack of a wider view and policy. That is why you can have both IMMI at the same time as the government inquires about what can be done about online pornography? I know that this can seem to be contradictory, and it would be in many other countries. There is more of a holistic perspective on internet governance issue abroad than what has been the case in Iceland. Here there are separate groups or initiatives that bring up certain aspects, rather than a debate involving questions like “what is the bigger picture?”, “how do we see the Internet evolving in the next five or ten years?”.