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April 8, 2013

Birgitta Jonsdottir: Cyber Poet

By Marianne Hoynes

Birgitta said, "I was so fond of this American idea of freedom of democracy and the freedom of expression, which just no longer exists today in the US. We have an entirely different way of communicating now than ever before, and so we need completely new laws created, to encompass all of the new technology. We are living in an entirely different world, so all of our laws are outdated...


(Article changed on April 7, 2013 at 23:17)

Parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir with Marianne Hoynes
(Image by self)
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Parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir with Marianne Hoynes by self

As a journalist I do not usually write in first person, especially when going to interview Birgitta Jonsdottir; a member of Icelandic Parliament, an Artist, a member of the Pirate Party, and an integral member of Wikileaks. But interviewing Birgitta even though we had not met before, was like sitting down with a close girlfriend and fellow activist for a chat. The most remarkable thing about Birgitta next to the intelligence and passion behind her very blue eyes is how incredibly warm and personable she is. Though we were talking about the very real and weighty issues of the world, US politics, Bradley Manning, freedom of information and the upcoming election in Iceland, we also took a moment to chat about how cute and fearless the squirrels were in Washington Square Park, and that we might be the only two people in the world who like the smell of skunk. I was completely drawn into the moment.

The other reason I was so drawn into my own interview was that to my surprise, the interview was filmed by the renowned filmmaker, Judith Ehrlich (The Most Dangerous Man in America, Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers), for an upcoming documentary film called, Open: Outlaws and Pioneers of the Electronic Frontier. 

Filmmaker Ehrlich has been following Birgitta for the last two years for this documentary. It is narrated by Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who was one of the pioneers of the internet. He coined the term "cyberspace", as he watched Grateful Dead fans, the "Dead Heads", create a virtual community of groupies, who followed the band around the country nearly 30 years ago. 

Birgitta Jonsdottir is central to this film. She is a Poetician, and artist politician. She co produced the film Collateral Murder, with Julian Assange, as a member of Wikileaks. 

Birgitta also founded an institute called IMMI, or International Modern Media Initiative. The intent of this foundation is to make Iceland the avant garde safe haven for cyber whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. In its creation, the IMMI consulted an international community of the greatest minds in technology today, well versed in international media law and censorship issues, as well as journalists and whistleblowers; because as Birgitta said, they more than most, understand the need for privacy and freedom of expression. 

This documentary film-in-the-making, also features the late Aaron Swartz, cyber prodigy, co-founder of Reddit, who since the age of 14, was involved in the greatest online initiatives of our time. In the film, Aaron talks about Birgitta and the IMMI, about the great role that such a small island country like Iceland could play by becoming the first global safe haven of online transparency. Later, as I sat with Birgitta and watched a piece of the film that had Aaron Swartz talking about Birgitta with wonder and excitement, I was moved to tears. Aaron recently took his own life at the age of 26 because of threats by the US government, after he downloaded millions of scholarly articles that he believed belonged in the public domain, and was facing 35 years in prison for this action. 

I asked Birgitta if she felt it was possible to create laws in the US that the IMMI has proposed; to task the US government with creating laws to strengthen freedoms of expression and information, as well as providing strong protections for sources and whistleblowers, given the current climate of our political and judicial systems. Birgitta lived on and off in the US during the 1990's. 

Birgitta said, "I was so fond of this American idea of freedom of democracy and the freedom of expression, which just no longer exists today in the US. We have an entirely different way of communicating now than ever before, and so we need completely new laws created, to encompass all of the new technology. We are living in an entirely different world, so all of our laws are outdated, especially as pertains to their original intention".

Birgitta has a wonderfully innovative idea to create and test some new laws for online freedom and protection. Her idea is to choose a group of people who as a community, already have their own unique set of laws inside the US, and some power to control and develop these laws. She mentioned in particular the Tribal Councils of Native American populations; that these communities would be a great place to start to implement and experiment with new laws that govern cyber security, protection for whistleblowers and online communication. 
Birgitta said, "There are lots of bad things happening because we made the original people into third world nation states, so if anyone wants to blow the whistle there it is very difficult, because like Iceland, Native Americans live in small communities". 

Birgitta also suggests that the creation of these new laws might happen at the state level, so that one state could could be a trailblazer and set the standards that other states could implement. Birgitta invites any state leaders or tribal council leaders who might want to work with the International Modern Media Initiative, to work together to create new laws for online freedom of expression. 

Birgitta expressed her hope for the future. She would like for Iceland to create a bridge between Europe and the US, as it is situated centrally in the Atlantic between the continents. Iceland would be a great hub, she said, for new media start-ups, free press, journalistic expression, human rights groups and internet data centers. She would like to strengthen our democracies internationally through the power of transparency, using the IMMI as a standard. 

"I am hoping that some trailblazing statesmen might contact me, so that we could begin to put this into action. It would be a really beautiful thing," Birgitta said. "There are currently discussions in Europe to create a fortress around Europe for their civilians, so that their data cannot be abused in the US. I think that this is a very troubling trend. Just the fact that the US Government actually went as far as to probe into Icelandic Parliamentarians private information, is unacceptable by any stretch of the imagination. This behavior does not just affect  my privacy and safety, it is about the safety of all of my voters. All of the communications between my constituents and I, are now on the table of the US FBI. That is absolutely unacceptable."

Birgitta went on to say, "We need some trailblazers to begin to craft some 21st century privacy laws for the US, that will sustain us for the next seven generations of people to survive on this planet".  

Birgitta said after the death of young Aaron, "In Aaron Swartz was the embodiment of the future for the information age and its freedoms we hold so dear. The Internet was our mutual home and I feel even if I never met him in person that I lost someone from my tribe". That is how I felt after sitting with Birgitta; she made me feel like I was part of her tribe. 

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