This is the second part of my interview with Birgitta Jónsdóttir. We got to talking in a bit more detail about her views on freedom of information, transparency, WikiLeaks, and the evolution of media and the internet. She was in town last week to speak to Samara, and shortly before she arrived she received word that she was the target of a US government subpoena, which was trying to get Twitter to provide information about her account.
Q: What is the connection between your general sense that the “system” is broken, and your more specific interest in freedom of information, transparency, and so on? Is the “transparency agenda” that you are interested in a way of fixing government, or is it just something that you think needs to be done because it is in the broader public interest?
A: The latter.
I don’t think that you can “fix government,” you need to fix the entire system. On the bigger scale, when it comes to transparency issues, what I am calling for more than anything is for a dialogue on what should be transparent, what should not be transparent, why should it not, be transparent, or why should it be transparent.
Q: So you don’t consider yourself a transparency absolutist?
A: No. Because it is not my role. But I really feel, and one area where I am an absolutist, is that government should never, ever, decide what to filter out for me, or for you.
Q: So you are an absolutist to the extent that a government should not have secrets?
A: No, that’s not what I am saying. I am talking about lists that governments make of websites that should not be accessible. I am asolutely against that. When it comes to government and secrets, this is interesting because I have participated in sensitive projects like negotiations over IMMI. And if we leaked or published online the drafts, it would have defied the purpose of transparency, because the unfinished draft might have created a lot of fear or misunderstanding and undercut the process.
But once the file is complete, it should be public. And if the question is why it should not be public, there should be a debate over why we need this type of document to be secret. I want to be able to go to a KKK website and know what they think. It’s not going to go away if we take it away from the Internet.
As a lawmaker, I find it crazy to think “I don’t like this thing, it’s really disturbing, I’m going to make a law so no one can see it.” I try to analyze what is it, in Iceland, that should be absolutely secret. And I’m thinking, and thinking, and thinking… and I can’t think of anything! Because all of it is already available somewhere, and the way we have used the Internet since the early days, the earliest webpages, there has been this culture of cultivating fear of information.
Q: What is your general view, with WikiLeaks and now IMMI, of the function of media in a democratic society? Is it part of holding the government to account? Is WikiLeaks a new media outlet? Traditional investigative journalism has had, ideally, some sense of responsibility to the broader nation that it serves. But in the WikiLeaks era, you have information about all governments put out to everyone, so the connection between responsible government and responsible journalism has been severed. Do you see this as a problem?
Q: I see WikiLeaks as originally a sort of add-on, like a plugin that makes your web browser work better. What has confused people is that WikiLeaks has morphed. It began as a sort of button that would lead you to leaks or raw material to work with. And now it is more of an editor, deciding what cables will go out at what times. So it is less of an add-on to journalism and now it is like a cheap editor for a lot of media in a lot of countries.
So it has morphed, and I haven’t been a part of that process. Being a big fan of horizontalism and spread-out responsibilities, I want to turn the information pyramid on its head. I want to support the sites that are popping up that are more like the original WikiLeaks.
I’m not trying to downplay what WikiLeaks is doing with the big leaks, and there could be speculation for a hundred years as to what is the right way to do it. But I would like to see much, much more media with access to the cables, to put it into perspective. Because you have, say, a diplomat in China talking about, say Burma, and someone in the West writing on the same story. And if you only get the story about the cables from one place, you don’t get the three-dimensional picture. I think the countries that can’t afford to be part of the WikiLeaks process right now should be given more access, the more poor countries the better. But I don’t know how they [WikiLeaks] are going to do it, I’ve been trying to encourage them…
I think we are in the middle of a massive change when it comes to journalism. The consumption of traditional media is getting less and less everyday, and they haven’t figured out how to make money off the internet. So I see the media as in a really fragile state.
In the early days of the internet, it felt like the wild west. You were sort of finding new territory, shaping it, and now it is the second big wave, with the internet getting industrialized and corporatized. At the same time, there are a lot of fantastic qualities about globalization, and one of these is the internet. I would not be who I am if I had not stumbled on the internet in 1995, and it has shaped my life in incredible ways, especially as a poet.
When I started my adventures on the internet, I was giving up on being a poet. I was a political “peoples poet,” and that was very uncool at the time. I was being ignored everywhere and it felt very lonely. But I got online, started my website, and suddenly I was part of an international community of like-minded people, who were doing experiments with teleparties, where poets would have events in many different place.
What I want to emphasize is that we have to do everything we can to preserve the freedom of information online. We have to have a dialogue about this, and that is why I am happy the US government is going after my information, because it allows us to have a chance to talk about it.