Published July 31, 2013
Over the last several years, there has been a lot of interest in marketing Iceland as a good place for storing data. The logic is simple—to operate a data centre you need three things: reliable energy, reliable connectivity and good jurisdiction.
Iceland’s energy supplies are notoriously plentiful and largely renewable. The country’s power grid is well planned and redundant in most places—only the Westfjords and Northeast cannot provide reliable 99.999% availability, otherwise known as ‘five nines’ in the data centre industry. In terms of connectivity, Iceland currently has three big fat fibre optic cables linking it to the world. It could be a lot better, but it’s really not bad.
And then there’s jurisdiction. The laws of the land determine how things function within it, which contributes to the overall appeal of the country for foreign investment, living conditions, quality of life, and so on. While many countries openly compete with each other on these grounds, from consumerism-heavy ones like Scandinavia, with high taxes but high quality of living, to boutique banking havens like the Caymans and
Tuvalu, there has yet to be a country in the world that has promoted global competitiveness on the basis of the best human rights, data protection and legal transparency.
It is not believed that transparency or human rights are selling points. This happens, despite the current trend of promoting ‘green energy’ and ‘corporate responsibility’ as a marketing strategy. But I can’t blame people for not understanding that. It just isn’t part of our general consensus narrative yet. The general consensus narrative currently says that human rights are nice but don’t impact business’s bottom line and therefore are relegated squarely to the hippy segment of political discourse. Transparency, accountability, privacy: these are things for crazy activists and those with tinfoil hats. Right?
It’s time to alter this narrative, methinks. The importance of information as a non-scarce, non-rival passive commodity to the global economy is growing so fast it’s making people’s heads spin. Governments of the world are reacting against promoting more transparency and greater access to information, and instead are discussing cyberwarfare strategy—I currently advise two governments on the subject (the cheap version of my advice: don’t do it!)
The pressing need right now is somewhere safe for users to store their data. Handing it off to cloud providers like Google, Amazon or Facebook is a very particular form of insanity: Users of these services need to understand where their data is, and be assured that their data won’t be in Indonesia an hour from now just because it’s cheaper. People need to have sovereignty over their data. The same applies to companies and governments.
When your government decides to use cloud services, they are potentially violating the rights of the general public and certainly posing a major threat to national security. When companies decide it’s cheaper and easier to use Google Docs or Dropbox than to run their own collaboration servers, they’re relying on whichever data centre they’re talking to at that time to have five nines, otherwise their staff can’t get the job done, or worse: they might be breaking any number of data protection statutes and putting the state’s secrets at the mercy of the government in whichever country the data is in.
Of course this stuff is complicated. It’s messy and it’s weird. We also don’t possess a language framework for having conversations about it. Our ability to talk about networks is limited by the fact that until about a hundred years ago, nobody had ever dreamt of one. The closest thing we had to a vocabulary for describing them was what we used to explain how your neighbour is related to your grandmother. So we need to sit down, as a civilization, discuss these issues, figure out what is to be done, and build a general consensus narrative around data.
There should be pamphlets called ‘Your data and you!’ and movies where the protagonist is chasing privacy violations. There should be viral campaigns about transparency, rock ballads about accountability, and above all, there should be more dialogue about how much this stuff matters.
In more ways than one, the problem is that political actors in Iceland are largely unwilling to confront these issues and treat them with the severity they deserve. That should change. Some things in the world are simple. For everything else, we have the Pirate Party.