Hacking Politics Itself

During his talk at the 2008 Icelandic Digital Freedoms Society in Reykjavík, American activist John Perry Barlow seeded an idea: “My dream for this country,” he said, “is that it could become like the Switzerland of bits.” Barlow’s suggestion was by no means a fleshed-out policy proposal; it wasn’t the centerpiece of his talk. But Barlow was speaking to a room full of Icelandic hackers. And after that meeting, some of them got to work.

Two years later, a resolution called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (also known as “IMMI”) was unanimously passed in the Icelandic parliament. It proposed to mix and match the world’s most “information friendly” legislation in order to make Iceland a unique jurisdiction—a “haven” for data, where information could be safely stored and freely spread. The premise was this: if a company was registered in Iceland and its data was stored on servers there, then that data would be subject to Icelandic law. If Icelandic law was designed to maximize freedom of expression, government transparency, and strong protections for news sources and online intermediaries, then Iceland could serve as a kind of global clearing house, protecting information and the people who provide it. For example, rather than trying to shift the global standard on whistleblowers who expose government or corporate corruption, IMMI only needed to pass Icelandic protections and create the conditions for others to access them. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, one of IMMI’s architects and champions put it this way: “Iceland will become the inverse of a tax haven; by offering journalists and publishers some of the most powerful protections for free speech and investigative journalism in the world. Tax havens aim to make everything opaque. Our aim is to make everything transparent”.

The hackers and politicians who assembled IMMI exploited Icelandic law and governance in order to extend Icelandic protections beyond its shores. And for this, IMMI has been described as a kind of political “hack”:  a simple, clever, and elegant solution, executed with more than a touch of subversive pride. By inserting Iceland as an intermediary in global exchanges of information, it disrupts the conventional contract between a state, its people, and its stuff. In IMMI then, we see not just hackers doing politics, but politics done in a particularly hackerish way. Here, political solutions (or tactics) take inspiration and shape from one meaning of hacking: turning a system against itself in order to improve it.

At the time of this writing, Iceland has yet to become a “Switzerland of Bits.” Over the course of ten years, four governments, and several steering committees, some of IMMI’s provisions have moved forward, passing as legislation in Parliament. But recent updates have noticeably backed off the narrative of Iceland as catalyst for global change. In part, this is because creating a true “haven” for data would require more than legislation: its protections would also rest on industry and infrastructure. Some have expressed doubts, for example, about the viability of a national safe haven given the NSA’s capacity to tap fiber-optic cables around the world. IMMI, then, remains an aspiration. But whatever its outcome, its lasting impact may lie in the possibility it points to: of hacking politics itself.

Back to Hacktivism