Meet The Political ‘Pirate’ Who Could Become Iceland’s Next Leader

By Jesse Norton

The Icelandic government is in ruin. Following the recent release of the Panama Papers, which leaked damning information about world leaders, politicians, and public officials around the world, the country’s Prime Minister has been forced to step down amid a scandal centered on offshore bank accounts and blatant tax avoidance. A handful of the country’s other politicians have also been implicated, including both the finance minister and the interior minister. It’s already been announced that Iceland’s elections will be held in the autumn, six months ahead of schedule.

The woman whose party may very well win those elections, thereby making her Iceland’s next Prime Minister, is Birgitta Jónsdóttir — a free speech advocate and prominent activist who’s far from your average politician.

The Icelandic parliamentarian is no stranger to digital surveillance. Since working with WikiLeaks in 2010, Jónsdóttir has been the constant victim of invasive NSA spying programs. Despite this disregard for her privacy, she recounts the experience with mischievous glee. “It was incredible, even if it was very invasive, because it gave me hands-on experience of how far big powers are willing to go to spy on nations and parliamentarians that are supposed to be their allies,” she tells me via Skype.

Having worked as a web developer, poet, and journalist, Jónsdóttir now finds herself commandeering Icelandic politics with the Pirate Party. But her journey into politics was not straightforward. After the financial crisis battered Iceland’s economy in 2008, she and other activists took to the streets to protest the corruption and complacency that had led to economic downfall. But it soon became clear to her that real change could only be achieved from within parliament. So, with just eight weeks until the next election, she co-founded the Civic Movement Party — a “hit and run” project that would dissolve after one term whether it was successful or not.

“We were trying to bring legislation into the 21st century with more focus on digital rights as basic human rights. My intention was actually never to run for office, but we were targeting six constituencies and only one woman put herself forward,” she explains. “I felt a bit embarrassed, so a few weeks before the elections I decided that I would offer to lead in my constituency — and then all of a sudden I was in parliament.” But once there, Jónsdóttir felt stifled by the lack of innovation and forward thinking. So she made the radical decision to become a pirate.

Political parties under the “Pirate” banner have been cropping up across Europe since 2006, when the first band of political pirates came together in Sweden. Fighting primarily for issues like government transparency, net neutrality, and digital privacy, pirate parties across Europe have often found it difficult to convince voters of the importance of tech-related issues. Jónsdóttir’s Pirate Party first ran for election in Iceland three years ago, managing to achieve 5.1% of the vote — a mere 0.1% over the required threshold to form a parliamentary party. But, unexpectedly, the pirates wouldn’t be languishing in last place for long. In 2016, they have risen from relative obscurity to become Iceland’s most popular party.

From November 2014 to March 2015, the Icelandic Pirate Party jumped from 9% in the polls to 29%. Now, a year on, the pirates are soaring to heights of 42%, more than the two coalition parties of the current government combined. Jónsdóttir seems almost apologetic about this unexpected rise in popularity: “My intention was never to run again, then we became hugely popular and I realized, shit, if we get even just half of the votes we’re expected to, it would mean that we’d be really able to make a difference.”

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, digital privacy is an issue that has particularly resonated with Icelandic voters. It’s also an area in which Jónsdóttir has firmly established her credentials during her time in power with the Civic Movement. At the Icelandic Digital Freedom Conference in 2009, Julian Assange approached her with a bold plan to transform Iceland into a data haven as a response to “draconian” measures introduced by other governments to restrict digital media. “The main ideas behind it were to legalize the functions and the processes of WikiLeaks, to ensure proper source protection, to have encouraging whistleblowing laws, and to ban data retention,” she explains.

Jónsdóttir’s response was to immediately begin crowdsourcing a total of 10 different laws. She laughs as she remembers being warned by her colleagues that her goals were too drastic and ambitious:

“I got a unanimous vote in favor of this new vision for Iceland. It’s never happened in the parliament before or after, never. For me, this was a sign; if you act quickly enough in times of crisis, you can actually get fundamental changes through that will help create a better society, instead of only getting bad stuff like the Patriot Act and the new surveillance laws in France after the [Charlie Hebdo] terrorist attacks.”

The party’s single proposal packaged together several provisions borrowed from legal systems around the world to protect journalists and whistleblowers in Iceland. “All of these laws are really innocent one by one,” she tells me. “When you put them all together, you get something really strong that could be a new standard on how we tackle these legislative realities.”

Because of her involvement with WikiLeaks, Jónsdóttir became a target of the U.S. authorities. Rather than feeling intimidated, she reacted with rebellious joy and used the attention to take her vision to the international stage: “It’s brilliant, because with all this invasion of my privacy, I’ve been able to get on the agenda with the International Parliamentary Union. The Human Rights Committee for parliamentarians made a kick-ass resolution about it.”

The resolution that she drafted was titled “Democracy in a Digital Era with Respect to Privacy and Individual Freedoms.” It was unanimously approved by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and adopted by 166 countries.

In spite of her victories in legislation, Jónsdóttir is hesitant to take sole credit for the Icelandic Pirate Party’s success. While early critics dismissed their rise as a temporary blip, the popularity of the party continues to grow. “People feel that we are popular for a thousand different reasons. It’s really never happened in Icelandic political history. People are expressing their dissatisfaction with the way things are run — not just now, but how they were run in the past, too.”

I ask Jónsdóttir, who was one of the first journalists to interview Edward Snowden during his brief stay in Hong Kong, if Icelandic citizenship is something she’d like to see the whistleblower offered — seemingly an achievable goal given Iceland’s current political climate. “If he asked me, I would definitely do it. We put forward a symbolic bill to give him citizenship last year. If he were to request it and we had a majority in the parliament, I’d definitely put forward a bill and vote for it,” she replies.

Despite her industrious enthusiasm, Jónsdóttir does concede that developments like the ongoing FBI-Apple court case threaten to undermine the values she has worked so hard to protect. “What’s happening now is that, because we’ve been so complacent, lazy, and careless, Americans might actually wake up in a few months realizing that Donald Trump has access to all of their most personal data. Can you imagine?”


Lead image: flickr/Guido van Nispen

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