Published November 23, 2012
On Saturday, the pirates will party.
The fledgling Icelandic Pirate Party will hold a founding meeting tomorrow at the Grassroots Centre on Brautarholt. The party will join a network of political parties that seek to promote democracy through freedom of information, direct representation and data liberation.
At the meeting, the group will establish an agenda, member list and otherwise become a recognised political party in Iceland.
Although their name elicits jokes and conjures images of Jack Sparrow characters, the party runs on a serious platform of freedom of information. Despite being the birthplace of IMMI, the International Modern Media Institute, some say Iceland is not all it’s cracked up to be in terms of open access to information. In some cases, the data is there but not conveniently accessible, and in other cases it isn’t collected at all.
“The thing is that the public information isn’t really that public,” says Stefán Vignir, an Icelandic web developer. “You are supposed to be able to get public information like getting a book at the library. There are so many things that could have been prevented for the last several years if everything had been on the table.”
How Accessible is information?
As the birthplace of IMMI and as a generally tech savvy country, Iceland seems to be the ideal place for a Pirate Party. As of 2009, 83.2% of Icelandic households had broadband internet access, and it’s likely that number has grown since then. Despite this, Herbert Snorrason—former spokesman for OpenLeaks and former WikiLeaks volunteer—says the laws regarding freedom of information in Iceland have remained largely unchanged since the 50s.
What’s more, he says the Icelandic Freedom of Information Act, which was enacted in 1996, does not include specific polices about what information should and should be available, is inconsistent between institutions and lacks a convenient way to search for and request documents. Herbert says it’s also difficult to find and request documents under the act even when they do exist.
“All requests have to be for very specifically identified documents,” he says. “You can’t ask for all documents relating to X, Y and Z, you have to ask for exactly this document and exactly that document. It’s a restrictive requirement, especially because there is no way to find out which documents exist.”
Large data sets that would typically be available in other countries are also difficult to obtain in Iceland. Take for example the government budget, says Smári McCarthy, executive director of IMMI and one of the original Pirate Party initiators. He says the budget itself is available for the public to view every year, but it does not include an itemized list of what money was actually spent on.
“So you don’t know if the money bought expertise, paid staff, bought bagels, paid for housing or whatever else,” he says. “The details aren’t there.”
Without this information, the public can’t act as a watchdog on government spending, which could be problematic in a number of ways, Smári explained. “The reason why this would be useful is first of all as an accountability method. Frankly, we currently have no idea, whether or to what degree if there is a culture of slush funds in Iceland. We don’t know where the money is going.”
Anarchist hippies on the Internet
While the members of an infant Icelandic Pirate Party would have enough on their plates in terms of crafting legislation and policy, perhaps their biggest obstacle is convincing the Icelandic people that the party is something worth paying attention to. Some associate the group with the contentious Pirate Bay file sharing website, or view the party as an exclusive group of elite computer techies and subversive hackers.
Herbert and Smári do not outright deny that they aren’t these things; they just insist that there is more to their party platform than hacking into your neighbour’s wireless and leeching off their Internet.
When asked how the party plans to convince the public that they’re more than a group of anarchist Internet hippies, Herbert, a self-proclaimed historian and anarchist quips, “You mean how do we go about convincing them we’re not only anarchist hippies? I don’t think we can convince them we’re not.”
The party platform has a distinct “fight the man” vibe, and both Smári and Herbert laugh and shake their heads when I ask if either of them consider themselves politicians. Both expressed frustration with the political system, saying ordinary Icelandic citizens have little chance of making it high enough in the ranks to make decisions, and most are too discouraged from the start.
“The thing is, on one hand, the entry points for any individual who wants to get involved in politics are very high up and you have to go through a kind of a certain weaning process before you get admitted to any actual decision making,” Smári says with his jovial Icelandic-Irish hybrid accent. “And then you have the fact that most people don’t want to get their hands dirty. They say, ‘why would I want to get into party politics? It’s a mess.’ And you know, it is a mess. It’s an absolute mess.” Both agreed the ideal situation would be to slowly shift away from the “career politician” to giving power directly to the people. But they understand that they have to play by the rules before they begin creating their own, and Smári admits that although it would be a slow process at first, Pirate Parties around the world have made progress shifting legislative power.
The party has established itself mostly in European countries, particularly Germany, Smári says. In September of this year, the first Pirate mayor was voted into office in the Swiss town of Eichberg with a 63 percent majority vote. In October, Libor Michálek, from the Czech Republic, became the first Pirate elected to a national government seat when he won a spot on the Czech Senate.
“This is not a kind of, ‘hey let’s get some kids together and form a political party. Yes, there are people related to the party who are just anarchist hippies on the Internet, but there’s also people who aren’t,” he continues. “There’s lots of very reasonable people who see the Pirate platform as a way of achieving much bigger social goals.”
Where the party differs most notably from other parties is through their system of representation. Smári and Herbert are quick to point out the ills of representative democracy, noting that Parliamentary members can’t be expected to be an expert on every piece of legislation that comes their way, and as a result some members may be creating or voting on legislation for an issue they have little to no understanding of. “When they’re not, which happens quite frequently, the hilarity is only overshadowed by the tragedy,” Smári says, referring in particular to a famous incident in 2006 where Alaskan State senator Ted Stevens referred to the Internet “as a series of tubes.” Ironically, Stevens was also the head of the committee charged with regulating the Internet at the time.
Instead of voting on a set of elected officials who would then make decisions for a period of time, they explained that the Pirate platform offers a much greater range of flexibility. The model the Pirate Party in Germany runs on, for example, is based on creating legislation through a crowd-sourced consensus, where members are allowed to view all policies in place, make edits, propose changes or create a counter policy. The whole system works much like editing a page on Wikipedia.
“Slowly but surely over many weeks, all of the party members are capable of coming to a collective conclusion,” Smári says.
The system also eliminates the “series of tubes” issue they noted earlier. Instead of relying on one politician to be knowledgeable about all areas, people would have the opportunity to pick and choose specialists in a particular field to vote for them.
“For example, on issues like agriculture, I don’t have any real opinion. But I know people who are quite clever about agriculture. So you say, well, I’m not an expert, but someone I know knows a thing or two about [agriculture], so how about I just give him my vote. I give him a second vote and he speaks on both of our behalves,” Smári says. “If this sounds like representative democracy to you, then that’s exactly what it is.”
The entire system, then, becomes more reflexive and responsive to the electorate.
“So you are not locked in for four years, you are not being forced to rely only a very small set of individuals either,” Smári says. “It isn’t like we forward our power to 63 people for a duration of four years and hope for the best. It’s ‘now, I’m going to trust this guy for four minutes and then this other guy for a few days, and so on.’”
A climate for change
Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic Member of Parliament, chief sponsor of IMMI and Pirate Party supporter, noted that the Icelandic political climate is rapidly changing, leaving gaps for parties like the Pirate Party to fill. After the financial crash of 2008, Birgitta says many people’s belief in the government was shaken, and long established parties began to splinter.
Pre-crash, she describes a political climate that was based more on knowing the right person than doing the right thing.
“There were decades of nepotism and corruption in Iceland. Everything is infected by the nepotism,” she says. “It’s like grand Sicily—you have to know the right family, you have to be part of that family. It’s Cosa Nostra.”
Now however, with the creation of IMMI and the formation of a Pirate Party on the frontier, Birgitta expects to see positive changes in the way people interact with policy-making and legislation. “IMMI has been an inspiration for the freedom of information, expression and speech. And it’s natural for the Pirate Party to head in that direction. I really want to know how to get the general public to participate and co-create their society.”
At an informational meeting on November 11 at the Grassroots House, Halldóra Mogensen sips coffee from a plastic cup as tells me she had never been involved in the hacker community so often associated with the group, and only has a basic knowledge of computers. Still, she says after the crash she realised how important it was to take a more active role in becoming educated about government spending and digital freedoms.
“After the financial meltdown in Iceland it became very important for me to make the correct choices when it came to companies I wished to endorse with my patronage,” she says. “Every kroner spent became a vote of confidence in a product.”
In some ways, she says that the Pirate Party’s platform of a direct democracy could breathe life into a political system that has become stagnant and complicated. She says people can no longer rely on government institutions to make positive changes, and the people themselves must take initiative themselves.
To take this initiative, Herbert and Smári say the Pirate Party operates on a platform of transparency, thereby allowing citizens access to the necessary information to make informed decisions. Along with the continued progress of IMMI and the legislation it hopes to establish, the Pirates are entering into a new political arena where freedom of information and government transparency increasingly pushed to the forefront.
These new modern day pirates don’t have much in common with the historically violent pirates and thieves with which they share their name. In fact, they differ greatly: the Icelandic Pirates, at least, are taking back what was always theirs.
For more about the Icelandic Pirates, see their website orFacebook Page.