By John Rogers
Nov 20, 2015
Alþingishúsið, The Parliament House, is a hulking grey stone building that sits on the edge of the sleepy Austurvöllur square in downtown Reykjavík. It’s the seat of Iceland’s Alþingi, an institution that was famously inaugurated in the year 930 by a coalition of chieftains who, in essence, founded the world’s first parliament, and began governing over what many claim to be the world’s oldest functioning democracy.
One or two things have changed in Icelandic politics during the intervening millennium. For example, people no longer gather annually around Lögberg, the Law Rock, at Þingvellir national park, to hear the new laws of the land being read out. Blasphemy is now legal (thank fucking god). And you can’t kill Basque sailors on sight in the Westfjords these days. After more than a thousand years, though, democracy remains quite popular with the Icelanders, with around 80% of Icelanders voting in general elections.
Now, the Alþingi might be heading for another big moment in political history. This summer, Píratapartýið (The Pirate Party)—a small, radically forward-thinking, activism-based political organisation—stormed from being a marginal presence with three sitting MPs (out of 63), to being the front-runner in the national opinion polls. Amongst many reformist policies, their agenda includes an eye-catching reboot of democracy itself, via increased voter participation that allows the people to guide parliament on key issues via e-democracy, direct influence on policymaking, and referendums.
The Pirate Party is an international organisation that began in Sweden, and first made their name championing copyright reform and freedom of information. But the Icelandic group took an ingenious next step when they extrapolated their political philosophy into a framework they call the Core Policy. These guidelines were employed to create the Pirate Platform—a wide-ranging manifesto that covers everything from fishing quotas and healthcare to internet porn and data protection (both the Core Policy and the Pirate Platform can be found on their website).
Their message has clearly resonated with the public, with the impressive poll numbers holding steady since March. At the last count, the Pirates had 34.5% of the vote, making them de-facto favourites to lead Iceland’s next government.
Two years is, of course, a long time in politics. But should this current swell in popularity hold until the 2017 parliamentary election, the Pirates will be tasked with governing Iceland. And they’ll be aiming to make those thick stone walls a lot more transparent.
Pirates in parliament
After years of articles and movies about terrorist threats, “ring of steel” security, armed police guards and elite bodyguard units, it’s a strange feeling to walk up to Alþingishúsið completely unchallenged and just try the handle. I find the building’s imposing front door locked and no longer in use—around the corner, there’s a modern metal and glass extension, where an old security guard takes my name, checks the computer, hands me a clippy visitor’s badge, and waves me inside with a minimum of fuss.
In the airy atrium lobby I find former Wikileaks volunteer, freedom of information activist, Icelandic MP and sometime Pirate Party figurehead Birgitta Jónsdóttir, dressed in a smart skirt-suit, a colourful scarf draped over her shoulders. She’s standing with a camera crew, and shoots me her trademark mischievous smile from beneath a distinctive shock of black hair. “I’ll be with you in just a minute,” she says, “I just have this interview.”
I wander down the hall, feeling like something of an invader, looking at framed prints and glancing into half-open doorways. Austere meeting rooms sit ready for use, with pitchers of water and plates of uneaten pastries (the Prime Minister must be away). One room is different—the shades are drawn, and there’s a large pirate flag hanging over the window, next to ‘V For Vendetta’ and (hand-altered) “Free Bradley Chelsea Manning” posters. A laptop covered in stickers (Tor project, pi symbol, pirate flag) sits on the table, and a wall-mounted TV blares out the ongoing discussion of the Alþingi’s chamber. Birgitta soon reappears and shows me into the Pirates’ parliamentary office.
I ask if things are always this hectic for an MP. “You know, I didn’t realise until I got here how badly organised all this is,” she says, smiling breathlessly. “And I think it’s intentional. You can never fully prepare yourself before you enter the chamber, because you just get to know the agenda in the morning… you can’t do the research. I almost always miss the Foreign Affairs committee meetings because I’m in another committee at the time; and all three of us Pirate MPs are in our main committees simultaneously, so we can’t even have someone jump in for us. And the office of parliament shows no will to change it to make it work.”
The hacker perspective
Coming up against the bureaucratic realities of government seems to act less as a deterrent than as an additional motivation for the Pirates. Their shared interest in hacking—that is, examining systems, identifying their characteristics and weaknesses, and modifying them through experimentation—comes in useful. In fact, as the Pirates seemingly come from disparate points on the traditional left/right political spectrum, this methodology is part of what unites them.
“I definitely approach this job from the perspective of the hacker,” explains Birgitta. “I don’t want to learn what isn’t possible, because as soon as I know about limitations, I start to respect them. It’s better to pretend you don’t know the limitations, so you can break them.”
Birgitta employed this wilful naiveté to great effect during the formation of IMMI—the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative—a bill that she championed and shepherded through parliament and into law. The result was a groundbreaking piece of legislation designed to protect freedom of expression for both the press and private individuals. The bill sailed through Alþingi, achieving an unprecedented level of cross-party support.
“It was a big job,” recalls Birgitta. “We tasked the government with changing ten different laws in four different ministries. Not only was it a vision on where we were going as a nation, but it set the bar high—we wanted the best laws in all those fields. The bill was unanimously adopted, which had never happened before. And something all good activists know is that once you’ve crossed a threshold, the way is open for others to follow. So there’s been much more of this type of work in parliament since then.”
Even so, Birgitta has found that bringing the different laws through the system and into effect is a long road. “It has been a disappointment for me and many others how slowly the writing of the laws has progressed,” she says. “It’s an ongoing process of applying pressure on all fronts in order to make sure that the various different laws of IMMI will be written and adopted. The good news regarding IMMI and the tasks involved is that the IMMI laws are being written by a very active steering committee in one of the ministries.”
Former occupation: Poet, web developer, journalist, graphic designer, translator, maker of books
Favourite band of the moment: Muse
Favourite book: ‘The Master & Margarita’, and most recently, ‘The Dispossessed’
Political hero: “I can’t think of anybody I’d define as political hero, but I seek inspiration from fellow writer Vaclav Havel—and I think the current Pope is a rock star.”
Favourite Reykjavík swimming pool:Seltjarnarnes
Top 3 problems that we most urgently need to solve in Iceland:
- We need the new constitution to be made into law.
- We need to show with legislation that we learned something from the banking crisis so that we will not repeat history (very soon).
- We need to make the Heart of Iceland into a national park, before it’s too late to conserve it.
Fishing and porn
The rejection of party-political dogma that the Pirates demonstrated in the IMMI process is perhaps part of what’s endeared them to an electorate jaded by traditional politics following a catastrophic economic crash, and the subsequent return to “business as usual.” Ásta Guðrún Helgadóttir is the newest Pirate MP in parliament, having recently completed her political history studies and stepped into the seat vacated by retired MP Jón Þór Ólafsson. She’s a perfect testament to the power of the Pirate Party’s inclusivity—a newly-minted 25-year-old MP who’s been in the job for just a week when we first meet.
“I started in Icelandic politics in 2013,” says Ásta, sitting in the Pirate Party office on the nearby Austurstræti. “I’d been following what happened after the crash in 2008. A lot of kids were pretty disengaged, I don’t think they realised the seriousness of it—at least amongst my peers, I was the only one who was following it. But in 2013 the Pirate Party came along. The freedom of information aspect attracted me—I’m very much against censorship.”
One idea being mooted at the time was the blocking of porn sites in Iceland, which set alarm bells ringing for Ásta. “According to Icelandic law, pornography is illegal,” she says. “It’s a law from the 19th century, and it hasn’t been enforced for fifteen years now. Then the idea of building a ‘pornography shield’ around Iceland came up. And I thought, ‘No, you can’t do that! It’s censorship!’ And they were like, ‘No, it’s not censorship, we’re thinking about the children!’”
“The Pirate Party is trying to infiltrate the system and change these ‘heritage laws,’” she continues, “because when you read a law, you have to understand the root of that law—when was it written, what was the context, and the culture. And now we’re in the 21st century, with the internet, which changes everything.”
Ásta is a keen study of Icelandic political history, talking in broad strokes about the country’s traditional social conservatism and market liberalism, the historical legacy of the powerful farming and fishing lobbies, and ongoing debates in everything from censorship to industrial reform.
“Iceland is an unusual place, politically speaking,” she says. “There’s a void in Icelandic politics when it comes to liberal parties. In Denmark and Sweden, there are many liberal parties, so there is less space for a Pirate Party. They have parties that are consistently liberal, and have been since the ‘60s. There’s a reason Denmark was the first country to legalise porn in 1969. In Iceland there’s a lot of social conservatism, even though people want to be libertarians as far as the market, etcetera. What the Pirates are trying to do is more of social liberalism.”
She pauses, stressing her next point word by word. “We don’t want to micro-manage the market, but my way of thinking is: first we want to protect the individual; then the society; and then the market. If a policy protects the market, but is not good for the society or the individual, then in my view it’s a bad policy.”
And this is one area where the touchstone Pirate issue of transparency comes to the fore. “As a party, our platform has been evolving, and is still evolving,” says Ásta. “Our core policies are moral and ethical guidelines about how we want to function as a party. Explaining for example, what transparency is—it’s something we can apply to governments or institutions. Individuals are not transparent—me for example, you cannot apply transparency to me. But you can apply it to my work as a legislator. Public figures are also individuals, and therefore have a right to privacy.”
Ásta G. Helgadóttir
Former occupation: Student, and then working for the Democratic Society and The Tactical Tech Collective
Favourite band of the moment: “I don’t listen to music.”
Favourite book: Currently, ‘The Book Thief’. Otherwise I’m a boring Harry Potter fan.
Political “hero”: “The Suffragettes, Sylvia Pankhurst and others. They were basically punks that made a statement about women’s suffrage rights.”
Favourite Reykjavík swimming pool:Vesturbæjarlaug
Top 3 problems that we most urgently need to solve in Iceland:
- Figure out what to do with the fact that we now own two banks, instead of just one, and what we’re going to do with it.
- We also need to have a broad discussion about the future of the Icelandic króna and its sustainability as a currency if we’re going to move away from capital controls.
- Fix the constitution.
We know where you live
In practice, protecting individual rights is a thornier, more difficult task than it might seem. The joins between Iceland’s traditional, sometimes antique civil infrastructure and new information technologies give rise to some worrying questions.
Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, the third Pirate Party MP, has been considering such questions for years. A former programmer and hacker, he’s become something of a popular public figure of late for his studious approach to politics, whether speaking in Alþingi, or responding at length in the comments section of a fellow politician’s blog. Sporting a plain t-shirt, a tidy ponytail and small spectacles, he combines a confident, fluent speaking style with a self-admittedly nerdy sense of logic and precision.
“Iceland has a number of things that have always been considered normal, okay and not dangerous,” he says, in an American-English drawl. “For example, the national registry. In Iceland, you’re bound by law to tell people where you live. But if you’re a controversial figure, let’s say, you’re arguing with Muslims, or you’re a Muslim arguing with atheists, or you’re a homosexual Jehovah’s Witness… you might want a little anonymity. It turns out that’s not legal here. You have to have a national ID number, and be in the register. You also have to register your religious beliefs, because the state sort of assumes it depending on the religious beliefs of your parents. The government has a central database of individual religious beliefs, which is used to apportion money to the different religious organisations. They don’t allow that in Germany any more. And you know why?”
He pauses for effect, before continuing: “Yeah, you do! Of course you know why. But the thing is, here, people don’t realise the threat this creates. Our entire national database has leaked a billion times—any hacker in the world has free access to it. A plethora of quite hackable systems have a copy of it. And we think it’s okay because we don’t have anything to hide. But here’s the thing—innocent information can be abused. If someone has your name, address, phone number and bank or ID number, they can do bad things even if you have nothing to hide. I think people are slowly—and, slowest of all, in Parliament—recognising this. And they don’t know what to do about it.”
Helgi H. Gunnarsson
Former occupation: Software engin-eering
Political hero: Edward Snowden
Favourite book, band, pool: “I have no answers to the remaining questions.”
Top 3 problems that we most urgently need to solve in Iceland:
- Adopt a new constitution, as has been the intention since the founding of the so-called Republic. The current constitution is a royal constitution, and this fact is not merely symbolic but actually permeates all the way down to how elections are confirmed.
- Figure out how on Earth we’re going to retain any semblance of a sane economy alongside a floating króna.
- Find ways for people whose rights are fragile to seek and defend their rights, most notably the elderly and handicapped people. It’s extraordinarily difficult for these groups to seek and defend their rights under the current system.
3D printed, drone delivered handguns
This high level of engagement with contemporary issues is what attracted Helgi to the Pirate Party in the first place. “The big problem is that information technology evolves quite a lot faster than society and politics,” he says. “So policy tends to be outdated as soon as it’s born. The Pirate Party is the first political movement, that I’m aware of, which recognises this.”
“It’s a problem even for us,” he continues. “For example—drones. What are we gonna do about them? Then there’s 3D printing—we now have people exchanging instructions on how to make homemade guns with a 3D printer. That immediately changes a bunch of things. It requires us to acknowledge a certain powerlessness, and to rethink prior solutions to particular problems—and to know what we can and can’t do in response.”
The policy of staying on-point with breaking topics and emerging technologies has slowly made more traditionally-minded MPs in Alþingi realise the Pirate MPs are a valuable resource. “At first, we were perceived as somewhat childish,” says Helgi, “and maybe some of that is fair. But as we run into more and more ‘told you so!’ situations… like when we’re the first to see something coming, and then we have to remind people. Or when we have a point of view that nobody else realises beforehand, until they start thinking about it… people do respect us now on certain areas. If you have a new problem—3D printing and drones are just two examples—people might want to see what the Pirates have to say about it. They’re happy to have us as a resource, and pride themselves in being able to ask. Just as we should pride ourselves in being able to listen to them.”
A big megaphone
Listening to the Pirate Party is something Iceland’s political establishment might have to get used to. The Pirates have topped the Gallup opinion polls for six consecutive months, and currently sit at 34.5%—more than the combined numbers for the ruling coalition of Independence and Progressive parties. But the three MPs are at a bit of a loss when it comes to explaining their impressive rise in prominence.
“First we went to 14.2%, and I was like: ‘Woah, that’s a record!’,” recalls Helgi. “We’d usually been polling around 10%. When it’s at 8% we’d start to worry, when it was at 12%, it’s a good day. Then it spiked to 14.2%. When it went to 21%, I thought: ‘Okay, surely it’ll go down after this.’ The same day, I learned that the Foreign Minister had just unilaterally withdrawn Iceland from the EU negotiations. A lot of people put these events together as the cause of our poll numbers, but we’d started spiking before those were public knowledge.”
“I preferred the slow growth, I think,” he continues. “We knew where it was coming from. And so many things will happen between now and the elections—other parties will adjust.”
How Do You Like Them Pirates, Gov-ernment?
Compiled and Translated by Gabríel Benjamin
“They fight for civil rights, like they said on TV yesterday, but I want to point out that their battle involves a certain double standard, in that they are fonder of some civil rights than others—this includes, for example, the ones I think are the most important ones, property rights. It is, or was, a left-wing idea, to think of the individual and their property as irrelevant, as part of the greater whole. This is just the old left and right politics. Their most experienced MP [Birgitta Jónsdóttir] says, and has been quoted as saying, that property rights are part of society’s ills. She has said that repeatedly, and people are obviously aware of [the party’s] opinion on property rights. That’s why I say they’re really just a normal left-wing party.”
-Brynjar Níelsson, Independence Party MP, radio X-ið 97.7, April 8, 2015
“If people’s resentment were to lead to revolutionary parties—and parties with very unclear ideas of democracy, and parties that want to revolutionize the foundations of society—to come to power, it would be cause for concern for society as a whole […] it would lead to society going on a completely different course, in which it would be difficult to preserve the values that we’ve championed in the past few decades.”
-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Progressive Party, DV, June 25, 2015
“You’re really asking me if the Pirates are a party that can govern. I don’t think anyone is in a position to disqualify those with a strong democratic mandate. But I feel certain individuals in the party are not well grounded […] for example, I believe Birgitta was first seen in Parliament as an employee of the Left Greens. Then she went to Borgarahreyfingin as an MP, but that party didn’t live long so she started working with Hreyfingin. Then she ran with the Pirates. To run the country with any integrity you of course need some grounding. The big question regarding new parties like the Pirates is: What do they stand for? Do they have any grounding? I think the Pirates are mostly a blank page.”
-Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson, Independence Party, DV, August 28
In fact, there are signs they’re adjusting already. Prime Minister Sigmunður Davíð slammed the Pirate Party’s growing influence as “cause for concern for society as a whole” (see sidebar). “In their defence,” laughs Helgi, “whenever someone in government speaks about the Pirates, we go up in the polls. It’s actually surprising how weak their attacks are. They’re kind of shallow and borderline childish. We wonder whether to answer them or not. It says more about them than us, and that’s a mistake. These old forces are used to a discourse confined to newspapers, television and linear schedules. It’s manageable, polite, contained and slow. But now, when the Prime Minister says something, it’s immediately talked about publicly, via social media. The public is part of the conversation about news. It’s not just friends and family members talking—there’s a conversation and exchange going on that wasn’t there before. They cannot control that. Smirky, clever one-liners about the opponents don’t work any more. People are used to it. It doesn’t appear clever. To be clever now, you have to say something with content and information. Those kind of quips and sound-bites just seem throwaway—like a Facebook comment. People are past this.”
Ásta is also circumspect when it comes to interpreting the polls. “In honesty, we don’t exactly know why we’re getting so much support,” she says. “But we’re very thankful, and we’ll continue doing our work. The next issue becomes scalability—we’re now asking, ‘Can we become so big, so fast, without failing?’ It’s a big question—how we’ll scale the policy work, and the grassroots work. Like asking: ‘If we had fifteen people in Parliament, how would we work together, and what could we do?’ We will figure it out as we go. It’s worked for us so far—we have clearly been doing something right, and we’ll keep doing it.”
Veteran campaigner Birgitta takes a pragmatic view of the numbers. “I know from a life full of experience that the tide can completely turn,” she smiles. “You can’t take the popular winds of the moment as hard fact. But as activists, we now have a very big megaphone to put forward our vision—and people are listening to what we are saying.”
Do, make, fix, break
“However, people should not allow themselves to believe that we are going to save them,” continues Birgitta. “They are going to save themselves, and we’ll give them the tools to do it. We want to look for the wisdom of the masses. No one person is going to get us out of this mess we’re in… both as Icelanders and as a human species. It’ll happen through collective effort.”
“Anyone who cares can walk into a Pirate Party meeting,” says Ásta. “And they do—we’ve seen a vast growth in the number of people engaging. People come in and say ‘hey, I have expertise in this, do you want to know about it?’ And of course, we welcome that. I think it has something to do with the hacker ‘do, make, fix, break’ culture—the idea that, to know or feel the ethical or moral guidelines of how we want our society to be, you don’t have to be an expert. You just need to be able to debate, to learn, to process and understand information and arrive at a good conclusion.”
One example of this M.O. in action is the Pirate Party’s policy on fishing quotas. While it’s an issue that lies far outside of the international Pirate Party’s core mission, it’s a hot topic for Icelanders, and the Core Policy meant there’s a framework for its creation according to an agreed foundational criteria.
“Our fishing policy is a good policy in my opinion,” says Ásta. “We in the parliamentary group didn’t touch it, but what came out is a really good policy. At the moment, the rights belong to boats that were allowed to fish years and years ago, bringing no revenue to the state. The conclusion reached by our grassroots members, after talking to people working with fishing rights and the quota system, was that the quota should be put on the market and sold to the highest bidder, which is how it’s done in most places, and is a known format for dealing with natural resources. The grassroots members made this, without any parliamentary experience or expertise—they were quite able to find the people they needed to talk to, figure out the problem, discuss it, and reach a conclusion. And that’s great.”
Empowering members in policy-making is just one facet of the Pirates’ commitment to direct democracy. All three MPs express enthusiasm for creating structures that allow for much greater political involvement than putting a cross in a box every four years.
“We would have done more direct democracy initiatives already if we had more people in Parliament,” says Helgi. “We currently have just three MPs out of 63, which is not even 5%. So it wouldn’t have that much impact if we opened up our votes that way. Also, it wouldn’t work on every issue, because we need to go by the party’s core policy first. But there are certain issues where we would like the populace to decide for themselves. Preferably not even through MPs at all.”
Another form of direct participation is the website Ventill.is. This intentionally non-partisan online voting platform allows individuals—having been validated by their “Icekey” digital ID—to upvote or downvote the political questions of the day. It’s an experiment, and Helgi admits the results are skewed by the fact that the majority of the site’s users—those aware that it exists—are Pirate-affiliated at this early stage. But it’s another illustration of the creativity that the Pirates want to apply to crowd-sourcing opinion and feeding the results into policy positions.
WTF IS HACKING?
Ever since first the term first entered public discourse in the 1980s, the stereotypical “hacker” has been conceived of as a nefarious young male, hunched over his computer in a dank basement, surrounded by heaps of pizza boxes and crumpled cans of Generic Energy Drink™. Read full note.
Wanting to be heard, and to be more active and more involved, is a sentiment that’s sweeping through democracies (and non-democracies) far outside of Iceland. From the Arab Spring to Bernie Sanders’s internet-led, grassroots presidential campaign, to Podemos (trans: “We can”) in Spain, Syriza (trans: “From the roots”) in Greece, and a newly invigorated Labour movement in the UK under veteran socialist MP Jeremy Corbyn, change is in the air. Around the world, old political parties and established power structures are creaking under a desire for real change from individuals who have more access to information than at any time in history.
“To know or feel the ethical or moral guidelines of how we want our society to be, you don’t have to be an expert. You just need to be able to debate, to learn, to process and understand information and arrive at a good conclusion.” – Ásta
“It’s all a part of the transformative times we’re living in,” says Birgitta. “People are realising their democracies are not what they are supposed to be. That’s why it’s important for us to strengthen the powers of Parliament here in Iceland, so the people can have more access to what’s happening—how policies are being formed and put forward. Or even a chance to form policies by themselves. Young people in particular find it unacceptable that they can only wield influence once every four years.”
Birgitta believes the disparate international movements are all energising the same demographics, including a disenfranchised new generation with an appetite for a different kind of politics, and other groups who feel excluded and ignored, including ethnic minorities, people in low-wage jobs, and the disabled and elderly.
“Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and the Pirate Party are all attracting these people,” says Birgitta. She pauses for a moment, coming over serious. “And I hope these movements don’t take away that hope by disappointing them. If you make a mistake, you’re not forgiven. It’s an emotional tie, and it’s important not to play with it. It’s important to take it seriously.”
And the Pirates do. They offer an alternative to the mainstream parties to a public who hope that the Pirate Party’s sharp-eyed, technologically literate, forward-thinking take on politics can help make sense of a rapidly-changing world.
“I think it’s very important that people understand that we have to start to develop a vision for what kind of world we want to live in,” finishes Birgitta. “I sometimes ask people: ‘Have you thought about how you want things to be in 25 years?’ As a writer, I know it’s important that we start to tell each other stories, to start this discussion—to develop a collective vision, through all means possible. It doesn’t have to be utopian… but this is a fucking fantastic world.”
“And I’d like to see people thinking more about where it’s going.”
Photos by Hörður Sveinsson and Anna Domnick