From Iceland — The Equaliser: Haraldur Þorleifsson On Power, Misinformation, And Leveling The Playing Field

The Equaliser: Haraldur Þorleifsson On Power, Misinformation, And Leveling The Playing Field

Published June 3, 2022

The Equaliser: Haraldur Þorleifsson On Power, Misinformation, And Leveling The Playing Field
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Ari Magg

Haraldur Ingi Þorleifsson wears many hats. While ostensibly an entrepreneur and businessman who founded the creative technology services company Ueno in 2014 (which was subsequently acquired by Twitter in January 2021), he has also made a name for himself in Iceland for his generosity, his convictions, and his consistently putting his money where his mouth is.

In a time where we see numerous examples of men hoarding vast wealth, either shunting it off to overseas tax shelters or spending it on space vanity projects, Haraldur has decided to use his material gains for the benefit of the less powerful. As will be a common theme in this interview, power imbalances matter a lot to Haraldur. And he hopes to help equalise them.

More money, more problems

Haraldur downplays the origin story of Ueno, calling it “not that inspiring”, and was primarily motivated by his thinking that starting his own company would be “a good way to put myself into a different context. Putting myself forward as a company meant that I could get bigger projects. I later pulled together some freelancers who I got to work full time with me.”

Over the seven years from its founding, the company grew at a rapid pace, and they received “dozens if not hundreds” of offers for acquisition.

“We’ve accepted the fact that at some point, we expect people not to pay their taxes.”

“I turned all of them down,” Haraldur says. “And if it wasn’t for 2020 and the effects of COVID, I would not have sold. Twitter actually asked me before COVID if we were interested, and I said no.”

As was the case for many businesses, the pandemic hit Ueno hard. At one point in 2020, it seemed the country would go bankrupt within months. Layoffs followed, and morale was low. But then things began to turn around, due to many companies realising that technology was playing a big part in how people were navigating the pandemic. The clients came back, and soon Ueno was “the busiest we’d ever been. At the end of the year, our revenue had risen far beyond what we expected.”

However, the financial success was not accompanied by existential happiness; quite the contrary.

“I had months where I was so tired and depressed that I worked out of my bed,” Haraldur recalls. “We moved back to Iceland, and I realised that yes, we had made it through this, I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to keep doing. I loved building the company, but I was really burned out. All the financial rewards were there but I didn’t feel like there was anything else left for me to do. There was nothing left that I cared about.”

Paying your taxes

In the midst of this malaise, Twitter came calling to Ueno, albeit not for the first time. Interestingly, it was the US presidential elections in 2020 that helped Haraldur take the decision to green-light the acquisition.

“Twitter had been talking to us for a while,” he says “The week of the election in the US, after it became apparent that the losing party was not going to accept that they lost, I saw that there was a huge problem here where facts don’t seem to matter anymore. There’s a huge divide. We’d recently gone through the protests with Black Lives Matter in the US, the election was happening, there was this existential problem with climate change. There’s so much happening that is in large part influenced by what is said publicly, and a lot of that happens on Twitter. I thought, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist. I can’t save the world. But with my skills, this is probably the place where I can have the most impact.”

A giant like Twitter buying a company started by an Icelander would normally be news for the business section of the newspaper. But Haraldur made headlines following this acquisition for another reason as well: he tweeted that he intended to pay his taxes in Iceland, which Haraldur himself is still bemused by.

“A lot of things that become news are not because of the person or event or what they say,” he says. “It’s because the media decides that it’s news. In this case, I just tweeted about [paying taxes in Iceland]. I felt it was important enough for me to say it, but I didn’t feel that it was a huge statement. Any normal person pays their taxes, and so that’s the interesting part of this. Why is it news? Why is it interesting to people? It’s because we’ve accepted the fact that at some point, we expect people not to pay their taxes. It would not be news if you paid your taxes. The news part here is that we accept as a fact that this happens, a lot, so much so that it is news when people don’t do that.”

Why, then, was it important to say publicly? Here, Haraldur’s desire for a fair and just society shows.

“It’s important to me because I grew up here in Reykjavik,” he says. “I grew up with parents who did not have a lot, I have a disease, and there’s a lot of things that are needed in my life that our society has provided for. I know that if I had been born in other countries that don’t have the same kind of system that we do, I would not have been able to do what I did. School was free, health care was free, I went to university and got a couple degrees, which is mostly free. If I had been raised in, for example, America, that would not have been possible. We have a functioning society, and I believe the tax system is the best way to pay for all that.”

Empowering the powerless

Haraldur has done more with his wealth, and more for Icelandic society, than simply paying his taxes. Earlier this year, in the midst of numerous women coming forward to talk about the abuse and degradation they endured at the hands of powerful men, some of these men threatened to sue for defamation. Haraldur saw this happening and responded by offering to cover the legal costs of those being targeted by these lawsuits.

“I think that a lot of the problems that we face in the world are because of power imbalance,” Haraldur says. “I think if we could even the playing field in terms of power, in general, our world would be a lot better. In this particular matter, there’s a group of people who have a lot of power based on their positions and their wealth, and then there’s an even larger group of people who have very limited power. I can’t stop these things from happening, but the obvious thing that I can do is try to lift up the people who don’t have power. It felt like such an easy way to support an important cause. I grew up in Iceland and I understand a lot of the power dynamics and the misogyny. It took me a long time to unlearn, and I’m still trying to unlearn a lot of the things that I picked up while I was here. I hope we can have a future society where our kids and our grandkids do grow up knowing better, that the power that they have over someone is something that they shouldn’t abuse.”

“People don’t handle power well. I don’t. I think almost nobody does. If people are on equal footing, I think they can solve most of their problems”

The response he received to his initiative was so great that he had to be selective.

“Part of the problem is that there are so many problems,” he says. “If this happened once every decade, it would be huge for that person, but it wouldn’t be a societal problem. But this is a societal problem, and that means that it happens all the time. Even though I have some money, if I were to focus solely on this, I would spend all my money very quickly. So I decided to focus on a few cases because I believed that would help not only those individuals, which is important, but also the cause, to help things move forward and change perceptions. Women often fight these things alone. As a person with power, I think it’s important to use that in a way that helps the people that need it.”

For Haraldur, this initiative was his own effort at working towards the more equal, future society of the grandkids he mentioned.

“People don’t handle power well,” he says. “I don’t. I think almost nobody does. If people are on equal footing, I think they can solve most of their problems. If someone is lording over someone, it creates this huge rift in society. So yes, I think we should try to even the playing field when we can.”

Ramp up!

Haraldur has also spent his money on an initiative called Ramp Up, which aimed to put 100 access ramps in Reykjavík, and has since expanded beyond the confines of the city. Haraldur has a genetic congenital muscle disease which compelled him to begin using a wheelchair when he was 24, so he’s experienced firsthand how inaccessible Reykjavík can be.

He says the response to Ramp Up has been “extremely positive. This has always been a problem looking for a solution, and a lot of people recognise that this is a problem that hasn’t been solved–and this, by the way, won’t solve it. There’s a long way to go. 95% of the people that I’ve talked to have offered help. The city helped with changing some of their processes so that we could do this in the way that we did and as fast as we did. People have volunteered. There’s overwhelming support for this because we as a society recognise that it’s not OK the way it is.”

Haraldur sees mobility access as something that faces two fronts.

“The future-facing problem is actually the one that I get bummed out about the most, because every day we’re building things that will create these problems in the future,” he says. “Even though there are fairly good laws and regulations, we’re allowing for shortcuts. That to me is the most immediate thing that we need to fix. It should be a relatively simple solution. Let’s look at these laws and regulations to see what we can do there, but mostly, let’s just enforce them, and make sure that everything we build from today is accessible. The more complicated problem is the past. We live in a city that’s a few hundred years old. Most of the houses in this area are 50 to 80 years old, and obviously none of these considerations were put in when we built them. It’s relatively cheap to do it when you’re building it, but afterwards, it can be incredibly complicated.”

While the initiative has been very successful, Haraldur believes there is still a very long ways to go.

“The first thing I thought was, let’s just have people being able to get into the building,” he says. “But once you’re in the building, there are multiple other problems. Is there a bathroom? Is there an elevator that works? Are the doors wide enough? And this is just for mobility issues. There’s obviously people that are blind who have different needs, there’s all sorts of needs that we need to address. So the thing I hope we can nip in the bud and do fast is the future problem, and then we collectively keep working on the past problem.”

Combating misinformation

Circling back to the US presidential elections and how “facts don’t seem to matter anymore”, we get to talking about misinformation, and what can be done to combat it.

“There’s a huge role that the government plays in fighting misinformation,” Haraldur says. “The EU passed a very important act, the Digital Services Act, that addresses this. And I think that’s probably the best way to handle this. There’s no perfect solution. There’s so many different problems that each solution creates. But I do think it’s best if we as a society create some kind of standards for how we want these things to operate.”

That said, Haraldur cautions that the state cannot be the end-all-be-all in this fight; speech should be as free as possible, to his mind.

“Power and people don’t mix well. In a perfect society, we would all be on equal footing.”

“Freedom of speech is hugely important,” he says. “And that includes the freedom to say stupid things, things that are just blatantly wrong. I think in almost all cases, the government should not punish citizens for saying things. But then there’s a step down from there to some of these places that really amplify misinformation. I think it’s a fair limit on freedom of speech if we have some restrictions about your ability to spread misinformation indefinitely. Anyone can go down to the corner and give anti-vax speeches. I don’t agree with the point of view, but that’s their right. But then the scale of some of these companies means that you recruit, and you do it in a way that is far beyond what I think people are talking about when they talk about the importance of public speech. It always takes a long time, and it probably should, for governments to catch up. They are reactive in many ways, and this is a huge societal shift.”

On the horizon

Given all the ways Haraldur has used his material wealth so far, his plans for the immediate future are perhaps unsurprising.

“I’m working on a restaurant/cinema/bar that’s named after my mom, Anna Jóna,” he says. “I’m really excited for that to open this fall. That’s been a very long journey. I saw this space over a year ago, and it was for sale. As I said, I grew up in this area, and my mom died when I was 11. I’ve always wanted to do something to honour her. Even though I’m not super social, I like to create circumstances for other people to be social, and I like the idea that across the street from me, there will be people eating and drinking and laughing and talking because of something that I helped create.”

He says he’s also about two years out from being about to launch an artists’ residency in Kjalarnes, where he and his wife bought land, which he describes as “a place where artists can come and work that’s secluded enough so they can focus but still close enough to the action in the city.”

Haraldur has discussed power imbalances throughout, and they matter to him in both word and deed. But is power itself the problem? Yes, he says, concluding optimistically: “Power and people don’t mix well. In a perfect society, we would all be on equal footing. There’s other problems with human nature that mean we can’t create that society, I believe, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.”

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