FREEDOM AND SAFETY
In elections last month, Iceland’s Pirate Party – known for its focus on technological issues from surveillance to copyright – tripled its share of the vote to become the country’s joint-second-largest party.
Once a niche movement, the Pirates have taken nearly 15 per cent of the vote and claimed 10 seats in parliament with their proposals for direct democracy, greater government transparency and a clampdown on corruption.
Party leader Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a self-described “poetician”, tells New Scientist about her party’s interests in technology and direct democracy, and how the Pirates have evolved in Iceland to attract broader support.
Internationally, the Pirate Party has a reputation as a group of tech enthusiasts who don’t like copyright law. Is the same true in Iceland?
No, absolutely not. If you look at the number of Icelanders who feel that they can vote for the Pirate Party, we are appealing to a diverse group that is interested in changes. We want our reputation to be more like Robin Hood and a band of pirates. We propose taking money and power from the rich and giving it to the people. That is direct democracy.
Can direct democracy actually work?
Look at the way that we create our policies. You don’t even have to be a member of the Pirate Party to put forward a policy. Everyone then comes together, from the grassroots upwards, to make that policy as good as it can be. Then, members of the Pirate Party vote on an online platform to see if it becomes one of our policies. We’re facilitating real ways for people to have real impact.
Would you like governments to use similar online platforms?
I would love that. If you exclude some things like human rights issues, it could really work. We want people to become more engaged citizens between elections. Living in a democracy doesn’t just mean voting once every four years; we have to be innovative to fight against political apathy. That is the beauty of the Pirate Party. We’ve actually created a movement where so many people who didn’t feel like they have a place in politics now feel like they can bring ideas and expertise that can be valuable to society.
How important is technology to the movement?
It’s really important. One of the reasons that I was first inspired to start this party is that human rights in the cyber world were completely overlooked.
I come from a web development background and perhaps in the beginning people were a little bit naive about how the internet and technology would change the world. But it is great how it has given us access to information, access to ideas – good or bad – and access to other people.
Many people seem uninterested in core Pirate Party issues like online privacy. How do you catch their attention?
You need good wordsmiths to make people relate to what’s really happening. Nobody understands when you say, “We have to protect your metadata!” How are you going to get your grandmother to relate to that? It’s impossible.
When I told people about the FBI illegally accessing my Twitter metadata in 2011, nobody understood why that was upsetting [The US asked for Birgitta’s Twitter data as part of an investigation into Wikileaks, for which she used to be a volunteer]. So I wrote an article saying that the FBI broke into my home and looked through all of my drawers reading my old letters. I explained that they didn’t come in through the front door, but instead they used the digital backdoor. That actually allowed them to find out more about me than if they had physically broken in. That story made it relevant to people’s ideas of privacy.
How should digital privacy laws change?
We already have a lot of resolutions that need to be put in place. The Council of Europe, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the United Nations have all produced resolutions, detailing brilliant solutions and guidelines, but they’ve mostly been ignored. Let’s start using them.
In my opinion, privacy is in a very serious state. It just doesn’t exist anymore. We won’t understand how bad that is until it’s in the hands of extremists, like far-right parties or Donald Trump. If they have databases in which they can tick a box and they have all the Jews or all the anarchists, they could target them very easily. So we should do something about it before that point.
An awareness about technology is very badly lacking by a lot people, especially in political parties. We need to change that.