if you don’t have freedom of information, it’s not a democracy

Extraordinarily interesting reading: Information Without Borders?

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), founded last year in tandem with a proposition to drastically overhaul the country’s freedom of information laws, is responding to the new info-climate by proposing a legislative framework that could effectively make Iceland into an international transparency safe-haven.

An amalgamation of legal provisions from around the world that deal with source and libel protection, freedom of information and transparency, the IMMI proposal has garnered international attention as the most comprehensive legislative protection package for investigative journalism and free speech that the world has seen to date. Notably, three of the five primary authors of the Parliamentary proposal— Julian Assange, Rop Gonggrijp, and Birgitta Jónsdóttir—are among others being probed by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the ongoing criminal investigation into WikiLeaks’ disclosure of thousands of leaked State department cables beginning in November 2010.

In true open-source fashion, they’ve looked around the globe for various examples of what is actually in use and working, to incorporate into the initiative. No real surprise, given the make up of the committee writing it. Some of the motivation behind it is extremely interesting, especially in light of other conflicts going on in the U.S. that don’t seem at first related to the need for transparency in the realm of information:

“When Iceland’s economy collapsed,” says Smári, “what we saw was that every single failing that caused that collapse was a lack of information flow. The regulators, the banks, the auditors, everybody throughout the chain either had insufficient information, or whoever was supposed to be regulating them had insufficient information. So the entire thing can be to some degree understood as just a failing in information flow. And of course if you don’t have the information you don’t have accountability, you don’t have any of the safeguarding structures actually functioning. So in essence you do not have anything that is in any way akin to a democracy, if you don’t have information.”

Actually, I note that this observation is also the same observation that prompted the creation of Homeland Security in the U.S.: part of the problem behind 9/11 was at the time perceived to be due to the lack of communication between various government agencies. But the solution there was to create an “umbrella” organization that may have addressed the issue of interagency communication, but at the expense of U.S. civil liberties. The correspondingly larger Homeland Security, with its correspondingly larger “size” of security may well be, if not the primary reason a major reason behind the Obama administration’s equal if not stronger pursuit of secrecy than the Bush administration ever was.

In any case, Iceland is taking a different approach to dealing with financial (and other crises) through lack of information by sidestepping a common solution (regulation) in favor of a much more radical one (information transparency). The other cool thing about “crowdsourcing” the laws included in the initiative is

“We cherry-picked all the best laws from around the world that are dealing with the issue of freedom of information, speech and expression,” says Birgitta. “And what we did was not only cherry-pick the best laws, but the laws that are actually functioning as the best laws. They don’t only look good on paper. The reason for that is that if our law would come under attack, because we’re a relatively small nation, then it would be an attack also on the law in Sweden, or Belgium or the United States, or France.”

There’s more interesting material that delineates the differences between Wikileaks and Openleaks — the latter wants to stay away from the journalistic model that Wikileaks has taken. It’s a good summary regardless of where your own opinion stands (I actually see a use for both these models).

The article goes on to give a few more motivations for implementing this initiative:

“The economic benefits to being the safe-haven for free speech are very well known” says Smári, “because the last country that did it is still the dominant empire on the planet.”

“Well , kind of .”

”If you look at how the U.S. did things in the early days,” he continues, “they basically ignored European copyrights and patent laws and just said, ‘well, we want people to innovate here.’ They took a very interesting stance towards information freedom. Iceland can do that. And we can do it a lot faster.”

What follows here is an astonishing list of the ways in which information is being redacted, suppressed, and even removed from the historical record. One thing I note in the examples given is the involvement of the corporate hand in these examples. They’re the ones with the sufficient power, money, and lawyers on retainer to muzzle individuals including journalists. It’s a model that the U.S. appears to be trying to emulate (hence the “kind of” above 🙁 ). Also pointed out is this:

In fact, Smári tells us this isn’t even the first ‘cyber war’. The first war was waged through the last decade of the last century, he says, and ended with a Supreme Court ruling whereby encryption was taken off the U.S. Munitions List. ‘Bernstein v. United States’ decreed written software code as a form of speech protected by the First Amendment; prior to 1999, cryptography had the same export restrictions as nuclear warheads, meaning that one had to be licensed by the State Department as an arms dealer before one could “export” software code by posting it on the internet.

“Basically if you lived outside the U.S. you didn’t have access to good crypto,” says Smári. “And if you lived in the U.S. you didn’t really use good crypto anyway because you might accidentally export it and land yourself in jail for a long time. In 1999 that barrier dropped and suddenly e-commerce became possible. The fact that we can buy stuff online is a direct result of the hackers winning the first cyber war. So imagine what good it could do for the world if we win the second one.”

Now that’s interesting, seeing the dots connect up like that. I would add that probably part of the pressure prior to 1999 was the increasing size and connectivity of the Internet — the more people on it, the more pressing the issue of decriminalizing cryptography becomes, especially when two parties need to use the same methodology on either end of the communication pipeline.

I will leave you with this thought from the article (which you should definitely go and read in its entirety):

”If you live in a democracy,” Birgitta says, “and don’t have freedom of information, it’s not a democracy. And people have to understand that if you don’t have freedom of information online, it’s not going to be offline, either.”

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