Democracy in the Digital Era
By Birgitta Jonsdottir /

We live in remarkable, transformative times. We have the library of Alexandria at our fingertips; all the recorded knowledge of the world is being digitized and made available through the Internet Archive, a free, non-profit digital library offering universal access to books, music, knowledge, news and web pages.1

None of this will help us, however, if we don’t know how to apply wisdom to this vast knowledge.

The problems we face often feel monumental, almost impossible to solve. I am from the generation that lived under the shadow of possible nuclear war and the end of life on this planet. That risk is still there but others threaten the planet in a far more tangible way today – such as global warming and the monumental scale of environmental destruction.

Meanwhile, our democratic models are hollow and crumbling at an alarming rate as we move further into a new era of complexity, technology and interconnectivity.

There is a deep and growing distrust of so-called democratic institutions and of the politicians we elect to represent us.

Protest is on the rise – as is totalitarianism and fascism. A dangerous road to populism is being paved, and we must learn from history to avoid the dark barbarism of nationalism and war.

Democracy is giving way to oppression. The police are militarized against their own people, while the élite or ‘1%’, who are at war with the rest of us, make use of the incredibly complex systems they have created to maintain their power.

Our states are built around systems that are outdated, created in simpler times and for smaller societies. Today, those systems no longer serve the people but are simply self-serving and self-preserving.

Welfare has been hollowed and is on the verge of collapse, often as a way to privatize it. We are running out of planet and our systems are unable to do anything about it.

Draconian ‘anti-terrorism’ laws and secrecy have somehow become the norm. ‘Developed’ democracies have become a freaky mix of Brave New World and 1984.

We are being manipulated every day into believing we are powerless, that there is nothing that can change these systems; but this is a lie.

We have never been as connected as we are today, as able to share real-time stories of success and failure. Therefore, our learning curve is steeper than ever before. We are sharing, downloading, remixing and co-creating every day without knowing the power that lies in the abundance of information we are processing or storing.

Naked in the system

Some of the most amazing innovation and creativity in the history of humankind has emerged in conditions of extreme stress. As human beings we have now reached a stage where we have to evolve to the next level, or we will fail to deliver a sustainable world to the next generation.

But we are naked in this system of interconnectivity, and vulnerable because large corporations and states can download one’s digital persona as ‘commodity’, with no regard for local and global laws.

In a recent addition to the UN charter of human rights our digital persona should, in theory, enjoy the same rights to privacy as our offline persona. But this has had no effect in practice.

It is therefore of utmost importance that we encourage people to participate in digital democracies, that we encourage states to open their data, and that we protect our increasingly violated constitutional right to privacy.

I have travelled the world, met people from all walks of life, physically and through the wonders of cyberspace. I have seen the remarkable progress of the digital era, but I have also witnessed its dystopia.

I know and know of so many people who have been imprisoned, are serving time or have been made stateless for exposing the raw truth, for enabling sharing, for blowing the whistle on the criminal behaviour of those who are supposed to protect us. People like Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Barrett Brown, Peter Sunde, Gottfrid Svartholm, Fredrik Neij, John Kiriakou and Edward Snowden. Jesselyn Radack, Samy Kamkar and Thomas Drake also paid a high price for their principles. While Aaron Swartz paid the ultimate price, taking his own life in January 2013 on the eve of his sentencing.

But there are tools out there for us to use which may free us if we apply them with our collective wisdom.

I am going to tell you a little story about my home-turf, Iceland, a country that many have looked to as a laboratory for a new, more real democracy; a beacon of hope for profound transformation.

Democracy laboratory

Iceland is an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, with a population of 320,001. It claims to have the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world, but this is just one of our cute myths. The island was actually a colony of Denmark and Norway for centuries, and has only been an independent democratic republic since 1944.

We suffer from serious nepotism and corruption thrives. Think of Iceland as grand Sicily. Mafia-style overlords known as ‘the Octopus’ took everything that should belong to the nation and divided it between their families and friends during the transition to independence, like some African countries which declared independence a decade after Iceland.

That might explain why, when the banks were privatized in 2005, stern laws and promises of professionalism were tossed aside and the banks were handed over to bosses who pleased the ‘mafia’ families.

A 2,330-page report from the Special Investigative Commission, appointed by the parliament to investigate the causes of the financial collapse, revealed, among other shocking things, that in April 2010 the buyers of the banks never really paid for them. They lent each other the down-payments. The national treasury never got the full value.2

In addition, Iceland’s bankers had found out how to abuse the European Economic Area banking laws to expand into the European Union market and set up sister banks in Europe.3 The result: Iceland-based banks grew like mushrooms during a moist summer. The Icelandic financial ‘wonder’ swelled to six times the island’s GDP in the space of a few years.

Those financial cowboys claimed we could be the financial leaders of the world, a new banking Mecca. Supporters, including Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, sold the illusion both at home and abroad. I, for one, never believed in the fairytale, but most of the nation participated in the party, enjoying easy access to loans, while soaring property values helped feed the illusion.

The bubbles – and temptations – were many. Gold-eating (yes, they would sprinkle gold dust on their food) and private jets were idolized in a media owned, incidentally, by the bank proprietors.

The financial meltdown in 2008 forced people to realize that everything in which they had put their trust had failed. As many were confronted with the fact that nothing was as it seemed, thinktanks and grassroots groups began to emerge where people discussed what sort of future they wanted to develop together. How they might create Iceland 2.0 – a New Iceland free from the elements that led to the world’s fourth largest financial collapse.

The situation called for soul-searching similar to when individuals are confronted with personal crisis. When an individual is faced with a transformative crisis – for example, a death in the family or a serious illness – the capacity to effect a profound change of course is far greater than during more stable times. The same applies to societies.

When a deep crisis unfolds real changes can be made. A good way to discover the true nature of a society is to open a discussion on what it would like to see reflected in its constitution or ‘social agreement’.

Post-crisis, between 2009 and 2013, the people of Iceland had a shot at doing something parliament had never managed during the 70 years since independence. Through a crowdsourcing process they wrote a new constitution by and for the people of Iceland, based on our values today. In a non-binding referendum the new constitution won the approval of 67 per cent of the people.

In the final stages of the process the people put their trust in the parliament. But parliament ignored the people’s wishes, failed to ratify the new constitution, and a new Centre-Right coalition that came to power in April 2013 has made it even less likely.

We had more success elsewhere. Lawyer and whistleblower Eva Joly advised on how to bring to justice those responsible for the crisis. The Landsdomur, a special court established in 1905 to call parliamentarians to account, was held for the first time ever and in 2012 former Prime Minister Geir Haarde was found guilty of failing to hold emergency cabinet meetings in the run-up to financial crisis.

We also saw dramatic changes in the local elections. Reykjavik elected a much-loved comedian Jón Gnarr (of the new Best Party) as mayor in 2010. The party pledged to use a direct democracy platform called Better Reykjavik, where people can put their ideas forward. The most popular suggestions are then processed by the city council every month.

The April 2013 general election saw two new parties enter the parliament, Bright Future and The Pirate Party, which I helped co-create. I became a Pirate Party MP.

But the election also brought to power the worst government for as long as I can remember. It has given the people who represent the Octopus – the corrupt old Iceland – a mandate to do whatever they feel is good for the 1%. Thanks to their election victory, achieved by manipulation of people’s fears and appeals to narrow self-interest, the silver-spoon leaders are rapidly undoing what Icelanders managed to achieve in the wake of the crisis.

But today people are more willing to accept that they have been conned and protests are starting up again. This time we might get a real (r)evolution; not just an uprising.

Many of the thinktanks are being revitalized and the previous progressive methods are being used to engage the general public in the protests. The most important thing is how to make people aware that if they want to live in a real democracy they need to be part of it, to engage with it. That living in a democracy is work.

It is vital that people start a discussion among their friends and families about what sort of future they want. If we – Icelanders or any citizens of the Earth – do not have a clear vision of where we are heading, we will get nowhere. The élite puppeteers do have a clear roadmap of where they are heading, which enables them to stay several steps ahead of the 99%. I think the lyrics of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon are a pretty good roadmap for us.

Safe haven

One of the main reasons I co-created the Iceland Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) in 2010 was to build a new legal standard for the 21st century, not just for Iceland but for any nation or non-governmental organization that wanted to reuse or remix it. IMMI was envisioned and drafted by some of the best brains in the world, who have created transformative 21st-century alternatives to the current norms. These include, among others, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow (the godfather of IMMI), WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Daniel Domsheit-Berg, Liquid Feedback, Smári McCarthy, Cryptophone, Chaos Computer Club and Rop Gonggrep.

In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein illustrates how crises in societies have repeatedly been utilized and harnessed to push through legislation that infringes civil liberties and to amass more centralized state power, protecting self-interest at the cost of public-interest. Our media initiative has been developed to counter this tradition and use crisis as an opportunity to bring about fundamental changes in the best long-term interests of the public.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative was unanimously adopted as a parliamentary resolution in June 2010. It tasked the government to create a progressive environment for both the registration and operation of international media and publishing companies, start-up companies, human rights organizations and data centres.

Such changes could strengthen democratic foundations, promote necessary reform and increase transparency. This new policy has already enhanced the nation’s reputation abroad and created many economic and employment opportunities, although many of the necessary changes in law are yet to be made, due to the slow working processes of the ministries.

In order to reflect the global significance of our aims, IMMIbecame the International Modern Media Institute in 2011. We have the ideal conditions for creating a holistic media policy, within a legal environment that ensures the protection of freedom of expression, the work of investigative journalists and of those, such as whistleblowers, who publish materials of political weight and significance; and to raise awareness of the importance of protecting digital privacy.

The information society has little to offer if the ways of communicating information relevant to the public are constantly under attack. Although some countries have implemented progressive laws in this field, no one country has unified them all to create a safe haven. Iceland has a unique opportunity to take the lead in putting together a solid legal framework. We have cherry-picked the best laws from around the world in order to create a Safe Haven for Bits in Iceland, available for anyone to use.

It has become obvious that all laws relating to data protection and access are global in nature. They need to uphold human rights in the digital era, not only locally, but globally.

The data cloud moves in unpredictable ways over the unified spying frontiers of the ‘Five Eyes’ – the alliance of intelligence operations involving Australia, Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Britain and the US. Currently there is no shield strong enough to protect our digital persona from such deep and unwarranted probing by mass surveillance.

Legal hacking

Prior to entering parliament, I had two main objectives. One: to involve the public in reshaping Iceland’s legal framework, through national referendums; through co-creation of a new constitution; and through making strong legal foundations for a new system.

Two: to transform Iceland into a safe haven for freedom of information, expression and transparency, with a strong focus on privacy as a cornerstone of democracy.

Once elected, I went inside the system, to the heart of it, the legislative assembly, like a hacker, analysing its strengths and weaknesses.

My conclusion is that the rule of law is an illusion: the rules we vote on do not apply to all, and thus there is no rule of law. Laws should be considered universal and the same rule of law should apply to all, not only the 99%.

I now see most of our democracies as one dictatorship with 100 talking-heads on the neck of a corporate monster.

Looking at different models for how to humanize and modernize how we run our societies, I have come to the conclusion that there is currently no one model that fits all.

We need to experiment and study what works for each type of society, depending on the cultural backdrop of each.

Some amazing experiments are now being implemented with success little known to the world at large.

The first seeds of awareness were spread by Buckminster Fuller in his book No More Secondhand God, where he talked about direct democracy and telephonic voting as early as 1940. At last, we are at a stage where the technology for direct access to power is simple enough that citizens can start using it to form opinion and enforce political change in a genuine grassroots, bottom-up way.

New types of citizen engagement platforms are being created and used to form policy and participate in direct democracy, such as the Pirate Party Liquid Feedback4, Your Priorities5, DemocracyOS6 and WeGov7. There is resistance from those who control the current system but I believe it will be futile because people are creating a shadow form of governance, or rather self-governance. This is happening on the fringes still, but it is moving towards the centre at a steady speed.

We need more studies to see the pros and cons of active voting systems and liquid democracy models, with delegates rather than representatives, for example.

We need to do the opposite of what Russell Brand is advocating, we need to use our votes. Even if we don’t want to engage with the current broken system, we should not use that as an excuse for apathy. We should see it as an encouragement to engage in creating our own alternatives, our new co-created systems; to be creative about it and to connect. Connectivity is the key to a rapid change; but information in itself is meaningless if we don’t know how to decode it into wisdom.

Follow IMMI on Twitter: @immimedia
and Facebook: 
To make a donation to support IMMI's work,

  1. ↩

  2. Report of the Special Investigative Commission 

  3. Special Investigative Commission April 2010 

  4. Liquid Feedback Interactive Democracy ↩

  5. ↩

  6. ↩

  7. ↩

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 479This special report appeared in the January issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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Democracy in the Digital Era