Sunday, September 25, 2011

Legalizing Freedom of Information

My speech from Kapittel Stavanger International Festival for Literature and Freedom of Speech

Norway 22nd of September 2011

First of all I want to express my gratitude to the USA Department of Justice for their attempts to have my personal backend information handed over to them from my Twitter account because of my volunteer work for WikiLeaks. It has raised my awareness about the lack of civic rights social media users have and thus given me reasons to fight for these rights.

Before my Twitter case I didn't think much about what rights I would be signing off when accepting user agreement with online companies. The text is usually lengthy in a legal language most people don't understand. I think it is save to say that very few people read the user agreements, and very few understand its legal implications if someone in the real world would try to use it against them. It is simply virtual until case is made in the real world.

Many of us who use the Internet, be it to write emails, work, browse its growing landscape, mining for information, connecting with others or use it to organize ourselves in various groups of likeminded, are not aware of that our behavior online is being monitored. Profiling has become a default with companies such as Google and Facebook. These companies have huge databases recording our every move within their landscape in order to groom advertisement to our interests. For them we are only consumers to push goods at, in order for them to sell ads in a clever business model. For them we are not regarded as citizens with civic rights in their world. This notion needs to change. To be fair, I guess no one really knew where we were heading when these companies were start ups. Neither us the users, nor the companies hogging and gathering our personal information for profit. Very few of us had the imagination that governments that claim to be democratic would invade our online privacy with no regard to rights we are supposed to have in the real world. We might look to China and other stereo type totalitarian states and expect them to violate the free flow of information and our digital privacy, but not our very own democratically elected governments.

What I have learned about my lack of rights in the last few months is of concern for everyone that uses the Internet and calls for actions to raise peoples awareness about their legal rights and ways to improve legal guidelines and framework online be it locally or globally.

I guess the problem and the dilemma we are facing is that there are no proper standards, no basic laws in place that deal with the fundamental question: are we to be treated as consumers or citizens online? There is no international charter that says we should have the same civic rights as in the offline world.

Our legal systems are slow compared to the speed of online development. With the social media explosion many people have put into databases very sensitive information about themselves and others without knowing that they have no rights to defend themselves against attempts by governments to obtain their personal data – be in locally or like in my case globally. According to the ruling of the judge in my Twitter case, we have fortified those rights when we agree to the terms and conditions by the company hosting our data even if it is not kept on servers in the USA, the company would only need to have a branch in the USA for authorities to be able to demand the information to be given to them. We have to rely on, for example, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter to look out for our interests. It might not always be in their interest to look out for us.

I want to stress that Twitter did fight for the interests of their users in my case by going to court to unseal a document demanding them to hand over personal backend information about me and four other users connected to WikiLeaks. The document Twitter managed to unseal stated that they were to hand over our personal information without our knowledge within three days. If Twitter had not managed to unseal the document we would not know how far the DoJ is reaching to get their hands on our data and how difficult it is to guard our privacy in the borderless legal jungle. I am for example not a USA citizen and because of that I am not protected by the 1st and 4th amendment in the USA constitution. Users from the USA are protected in the same case by these fundamental rights.

The reason we humans make international treaties and declarations about human rights is because somewhere along the line we agreed that certain rights are sacred and universal. We need to make the same principles applicable to our human rights online as they are offline. These two worlds have fused together and there no way to define them separated anymore.

If is too easy to obtain the information stored online and thus it is too easy to abuse. If someone wants to go through all my regular mail they would have to obtain a search warrant in advance. No such thing happened in my case. I am according to the DoJ not under a criminal investigation yet they demanded Twitter to hand over my personal messages and IP numbers without my knowledge. If authorities want to tap your phone they need warrants, but not in order to get your IP number. If authorities want to search anything of personal nature or spy on someone in the real world they would have to get warrants. It has never been as easy for big brother to pry into all our most sacred information without us ever knowing.

I find it important to shed light on the fact that USA authorities have reached so far in their attempts to criminalize WikiLeaks that they are demanding backend information from a Member of Parliament from sovereign nation. This is a whole can of worms that I am not sure that the USA wants to open. What about the USA senators that want to apply themselves in the international field of human rights issues. Abuse of human rights in for example China, Tibet or North Korea. Can USA authorities protect their own Senators from demands of probing into the personal data from China? I don't think so.

Members of parliaments all over the world are encouraged to use social media to be in touch with their voters. Many people don't understand that sending a message on Facebook or via Twitter or gmail is not an official pathway. The voters might send sensitive information about themselves to their MP's online. With court ruling in favor of exposing this information to a foreign government – the line of privacy and sovereignty of individuals in cyberspace has taken a new dangerous direction.

Merging the Online with the Offline world

The reason why I felt so at home online when I discovered it 16 years ago was the fact that I am born on a small island at the edge of the world with only 315,000 people sharing it with me.  My island has natural borders, with roaring Atlantic Ocean making a shield against the rest of the world.  That shield can cause an intense sense of cultural and personal claustrophobia. Being a poet with such a small language zone writing political poetry when that was not so cool in Iceland, I felt prior to the times of internet isolated and alone at times. The internet allowed me to break out of that limitation. I was the first poet in Iceland to create a website and to publish my work and the poetry and art of others through various adventures online. Later I learned I was among the first in the world.

One of the prime influences in shaping a profound understanding that I don’t belong to one nation, that I belong to all of this planet was my participation in co-creating the landscape of the new online world.  In 1995, I started working with the shapers and pioneers in the internet landscape in Iceland and beyond.  One of my passions was to merge creative spaces. Music, poetry, and art all bleed well together in the multi-creative space of the internet.  But that was not enough.  After all, this was a new world, without borders and without limitations, other than the limitations of our imagination.  Likeminded people found each other, no matter where they happened to be located in the real world. We could work together — trans-border, trans-culture, transgender, trans-party, trans-race.  It was a world of transparency, almost beyond duality. Borders, just an optical illusion. It was as close to paradise as I could get in this human vessel.  It was almost spiritual; it was as if the collective consciousness had taken on tangible shape in a virtual world that was influencing the real world at an increased speed every day.  My dream was that this world we created with the free flow of ideas, information, and understanding could manifest itself outside the virtual.

The internet has given us the tools to empower ourselves in the real world, with knowledge beyond the cultural conditioning we acquire within our own culture.  The internet has given us the tools to work together beyond traditional borders, and it has allowed us to create real windows into the real world that reach far beyond our cultural beliefs about other countries.  However, this world beyond borders is now under serious threat, a threat that is growing at an alarming rate.  I have seen the development of the internet since its early visual stage.  I have seen how it can improve and enrich the quality of life.  I have also seen how those who hold the reigns of power in our world have discovered that the internet needs to be tamed, like the rest of the world, and brought under their control — to be industrialized in the same manner that other media have been brought under control by industry and the state.  My last hope of gathering momentum in stopping this development is through the free spirit within the wilderness of the internet — where the conditioning and the reigns of control have not been able to tame the free spirits who roam with the hackers’ manifesto singing in their hearts.

I have seen new stories and new myths emerge out of the language of the internet, where people speak together through Google and translate new languages; and I have seen the library of Alexandria materialize with free knowledge and torrents of information wash upon shores otherwise impossible to reach.  I have seen the alchemy of stories take on real shape in a collective online effort; and the truth seeped into the real world.  As the untouchables try to hide their secrets for the chosen few, those secrets keep spilling out in a whirlwind of letters in every digital corner of the world.  They sweep through the streets of Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, China, Iceland, Spain, Iran, and the United States — confirming that the rumors are true: “corpocracy” is the new global empire, and it thrives in local corruption.

The internet has given people access to information that should remain in the public domain; yet it is a trending policy within the belly of the all embracing system to make everything secret by default. It is time to reverse this tendency a create a consensus about the process of keeping secrets.  Transparency and open access to information are the only real pressures on governments to remain true democracies.  If you don’t have freedom of information and expression, you are not living in a democracy; rather it is ruled by dictatorship with many heads. 

Many people don’t realize that if we won’t have freedom of information online, we won’t have it offline.

Media Morphing into Cyberspace

The media is in transition – morphing from the traditional format into the online media format. Most people want to be able to access news online and usage of traditional media is shrinking day by day. The mainstream media has not figured out how to make profit or how to survive online without cutting off many of the services we have learned to depend on and regarded as their main responsibility, such as investigative journalism and in depth analyzing of complex matters in simple easy to grasp terms for the general public.

In this fragile morphing stage the media is faced with increased challenges from international legal firms that specialize in gagging the media. More out of court settlements are occurring every day. Super injunctions, prior restraints, and attempts to alter our historical records online is on the rise. Criminalization of whistle blowing and filtering of online content is also of great concern.

People feel that mainstream media has failed them and thus they turn to alternative media online and the culture of cracking secrets is on the rise. I want to stress that i am shocked by the lack of courage by the USA media in relation to WikiLeaks. Shocked because WikiLeaks simply acted as the middle man. The save box in cyberspace that received the brown envelope from the source and handed it over to the media. Shocked by the ignorance from the media, for it's obvious to me that if WikiLeaks will be taken down or the people behind it, it will be harder for other media to stay on a firm ground when under attack for publishing leaked material from whistle-blowers and secret sources.

I feel there has been too much focus on the people behind WikiLeaks, not the content they have provided. This has taken the focus off the historical significance of the leaks and created something of a frenzy around sensationalism around cults of personalities. If we allow ourselves to step away from the persons and look into the achievements of WikiLeaks it is obvious that because of them we have the state of freedom of information on the agenda, all over the world, and of course the issue of whistle-blowing as a option when witnessing criminal behavior in the public, military and private sectors.
I left WikiLeaks about a year ago for various reasons. I might not agree with how it has developed but its significance remains the same. We need many more leak sites until we have real laws in place that protect content, whistle-blowers, sources and journalists.
The culture of free flow of information is still strong online, and every attempt to block, hinder, or erase information is met with increased creativity.  Yet those of us who care for freedom of information have to step-up our quest to remove the gags, tear down the firewalls, and dissolve the invisible filters. 

The telecom companies have gained incredible power and tend to cave-in under government pressure, as we saw happen in Egypt in early 2011. We also saw Amazon cave-in under political pressure and kick WikiLeaks off its cloud. Corporation and specialized law-firms have figured out the best countries to use as a medium to attack and gag journalists, writers, publishers, and the rest of the media because of weak laws to protect the media. They have become so good at it that important stories have vanished from the public domain.  Modern book-burnings occur every day in every library in the world by a click of a button. Libel tourism, prior restraints, gag orders, out-of-court settlements, and tampering with our online historical records are altering our current history in real time and robbing us of the possibility to be informed about the activities of the most influential corporations and politicians in our world.  We have to do everything in our power to stop this development — through lawmaking and creative resistance.  

The “Icelandic Modern Media Initiative” (IMMI) is an attempt to raise the standard and upgrade the current legal framework in order to strengthen freedom of information, speech, and expression in our modern world. The creation of a save haven for freedom of information has to start somewhere – Iceland is a good place because we learned the hard way, the destructive nature of lack of transparency and where culture of secrecy can lead us. People yearn for change and thus this crises can be used for something that will be beneficial for us and hopefully for the rest of the world. You can learn more about the project that is currently being written into law in Iceland at

I gave a speech at Nordic Tech Politics in Oslo earlier this month, I met many inspirational people from Norway and from speaking to them the idea of creating a Scandinavian shield inspired by IMMI was not only born, but a determination to making that vision into reality. We have been blessed in this part of the world for having strong foundation for freedom of information. Sweden has set the standard for the rest of us in many ways.

It is interesting to note that societies of transparency have more equality.
I have learned to embrace times of crises and make good use of it because times of crises are the only times we can push for real change in our societies.

The crisis in Iceland has helped us transform from secrecy to transparency and encouraged people to take on more responsibility when it comes to co-creating our society. Never before has it been easier for people in power to hand over the power of information to the rest of us and for us to reclaim our power.

This process of transformation takes work and dedication. By giving over our powers to religious or political leaders we can never expect to live in our dream world – only by applying our time and vision can we hope to co-create our dream into reality.

Constitutional dreaming together

One of the most positive results from our Iceland crisis is the re-writing of our constitution. The main reason i helped create a political movement in the wake of the meltdown was to create the tools for the general public to be able to influence law making, and also to inspire people to be part of decision making. Chief aim was to have our old copy paste Danish constitution re-written by the people of Iceland. That process has taken place and the parliament of Iceland has been handed over a bill by the people we elected to write it with us.

The constitutional committee encouraged the general public in various ways to be part of the process, such as encouraging people to comment on each new segment via the facebook comment system. More on that here: Icelands crowdsourced constitution

The new constitution includes some pretty awesome freedom of information laws plus net neutrality. The big task is to get the bill into national referendum before my co-workers at the parliament attempt to thin it out.

The parliament needs a strong mandate from the nation on what it wants to keep of the new bill and what not. I hope by 2013 we will have a constitution that is what the nation dreamed together into reality. An agreement on what sort of society we want to live in together. I think perhaps all nations should allow each generation to have a go at the constitution – for it is a brilliant platform for a healthy debate on what we envision as societies together. It is important to note that it has been foreseen that the 21st century will be the century of the common people.

Finally I want to leave you with the wisdom of Alan Moore who claims that writes are the modern day shamans, I agree with him. One word, one sentence can mean live or death, joy or grief. Lets treat the world of words with that knowledge of power.

Many thanks to the EFF and ACLU for offering me strong legal support in my Kafka nightmare through the USA legal system.


KeithX said...

Thanks for posting this, I tried to watch the stream, but the net from Norway to Colorado wasn't so good that day.

The thoughts about US citizens being more protected non-citizens is often not true. They haven't bothered with warrants in many cases where they should have since the Patriot Act was passed. Whether legislators who were responsible for oversight were misled or closed their eyes, the misconduct was both incontrovertible and quickly covered over, with no arrests.

As a student of Roman history, the parallels are at times striking. The Roman Senate reached the same point of stasis as the US legislature has today, with factions preventing any progress on the real needs of the people. They defaulted to providing bread and circus in a way that reminds me of pizza and Sunday football.

Would the new Icelandic constitution support the founding of a that would be all but untouchable by the US government? Are you willing to attempt to stand against today's Tiberius, tomorrow's Nero or the Caligula that will come? Because, in my my experience, the military-industrial giants control our Federal politicians. They have taken over in a wave that began to build with the death of John Kennedy.

Would your Federal police arrest George W. Bush if he happened to land there in transit to Europe or elsewhere? He's a self-acknowledged war criminal who has committed war crimes against humanity and ordered an unlawful war, both capital crimes as defined at Nuremberg.

I think not, however, in the interest of the long success of your new constitution, please consider that the US seems to be passing the point where voting can produce change. The pols are too well-trained and well-fed by the time they get to the Federal level. The corporations buy their votes with "contributions" and they are very loyal.

Hope this provided some food for thought. Thanks much for all you have done and continue to do! Best always, -K

Marina said...

Thanks Birgitte, you speak the words so well of what is in the hearts and minds of so many of us that are waking up to the reality of our circumstances. Without your words we would be discouraged, perhaps unbelieving of what we can achieve. Your humanity and sense of justice shines through all the tireless work that you do. What you write brings me almost to tears, it is hope, inspiration, community.I wish you all that you dream of and hope for all that we as the ordinary citizen can realize and achieve together. Iceland has shown that with a positive and hopeful mindset great things can be done by ordinary people. I have great hopes for the Nordic countries to get together with IMMI and hope that Orkney and the Shetland Islands will also be included.

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