Interviewed by Sam Knight
These past few months I’ve been interviewed by virtually every news agency I can think of, and many that, until recently, I couldn’t. It’s been fun, but a lot of work has gone into getting the right information out, and despite everybody’s best effort sometimes minor errors and misquotes slip through.
Sam Knight, who I met when he was in Iceland last autumn, interviewed me the other day for a post in Truth Out. It’s a good article, although it follows the same trend as many other articles on the subject, so I got his permission to post his questions and my answers to them, since the interview happened via e-mail. It’ll give some more details about both what’s really happening (straight from the horses mouth) and how I feel about what is happening.
To be honest, I did edit the answers a bit – for posting here, I wanted to elaborate a bit on a few things that I know Sam already knew, and cut out a few things that are private jokes between me and him, that he understood as such. I also added some links to provide background and further details. Apart from that, this should (apart from being informative) give an accurate image of how I deal with interview requests… and why I’m always a bit peeved when journalists haven’t done any homework. Sam’s questions were actually unusually good, which I attribute to his professionalism on the one hand, and his having followed the development.
**Sam Knight: On the process of reform: Basically, the way I understand it, the Ministry of Culture and other Ministries are going to help rewrite laws and regulations. The changes will be subject to approval by Parliament before the proposals in the IMMI become law. This should take about a year. A simplified version, perhaps. Is it accurate?
**Smári McCarthy: **This is accurate. A year may be too optimistic, but pessimism should be spared for better times.
***SK: ***Briefly, when it comes to freedom of speech, and freedom of information, what do you think are the most restrictive practices of the liberal democracies? Which are the most infuriating restrictions, in your opinion?
SPM: It is absolutely intolerable when people use child pornography as an excuse for censorship, in particular Internet censorship. There are two fallacies in this tendency.
One is that by sweeping the problem under a rug and denying access to it to those who have no interest in access to it, it goes away.
The second is that by legalizing secret censorship lists on the basis of something generally socially unacceptable it will become possible to filter things that certain parties consider politically or financially unacceptable.
The former fallacy puts people, not least the children that are to be protected in real danger, and the latter is based on the assumption that the truth will not be exposed by tenacious people who really care about their freedom.
Both are dangerous because they’re giving a lot of power to the wrong people. Both are idiotic at best.
***SK: ***What sort of media related businesses are you expecting to set up shop in Reykjavik? Care to name any names?
SPM: It’s hard to say which sort, it could be all sorts. I know that some Internet publications are interested, and some major publications have at least internally speculated on the subject. There’s also a huge interest in data centers, cloud computing and colocation here, so anything’s possible.
To date I have personally been contacted by four organizations – a Thai anti-censorship movement, a German anti-fascist movement, and a US organization fighting for the rights of patients suffering great physical pain, and a German organization trying to expose charlatans practicing pseudoscientific “medicine” – which is remarkable in that I haven’t exactly been advertising myself as somebody who services such requests, although I’m deeply honored that they feel that contacting me is a natural step.
***SK: ***In five years time, when people say “If it wasn’t for IMMI…”, how do you expect them to finish that statement? In other words, what do you think the impact of IMMI is a few years down the road?
**SPM: **I doubt the IMMI project will be more than a minor footnote in the history books. I expect the sentence rather to have the form, “If it wasn’t for the information freedom reforms…”
The impact of what we’re doing will be assessed by future generations. I very much hope that what we’re doing is the first step towards redefining the concept of free expression in a way that is acceptable to an information-savvy age. The concept of freedom of expression as we know it comes from the French and American revolutions, and has been with us for two hundred years with no major changes. Since then we’ve had an industrial revolution, two world wars and the beginning of the information age. The assumptions behind the original form of freedom of expression are no longer valid, but the concept is more valid than ever
SK:* And is there anything in the IMMI that addresses the issue of media ownership? What if Rupert Murdoch tried to buy Morgunbladid and Frettabladid?*
**SPM: **IMMI doesn’t address a number of things that it rightly should, including media ownership and so-called “intellectual property”. We intentionally left out some things that we thought were difficult or contentious because we felt we were already in danger of appearing too radical. That doesn’t make these topics any less important, it just means that we’ve saved that fight for another day. And that day will come.
The reality is that the IMMI proposal wasn’t radical at all. Because it only suggests implementing laws which exist elsewhere, and all of them can be justified on the basis of existing problems with media rights and free speech, we’re actually making a very conservative proposal, just one that may seem radical to people who’ve been living on a tiny island in the north Atlantic and somehow managed to miss what’s going on in the rest of the world.
***SK: ****I’ve read on some blogs that certain Icelanders think the country should keep clear of sticking its nose in other people’s dirty laundry. Are you afraid that IMMI could be making Iceland powerful enemies? Are you at all concerned by becoming isolated?
**SPM: **I think that’s a weak defeatist argument at best. Let’s keep in mind that the dirty laundry we’re talking about here is people being murdered for expressing themselves, people being killed for opposing their government, people being imprisoned or worse for being homosexual, or for talking about fiscal policy, being an alleged reincarnated lama, leading a minority culture, asserting their independence or exposing the truth.
Any country that wishes to have even the most meager claim to supporting freedom of expression will support this initiative and Iceland for having taken these steps. Every single suggestion we have made is based on laws which exist in other countries. At the absolute minimum we should be able to get the support from those countries for the implementation of their own laws.
Iceland will not become isolated by this. Far from it, it will become more connected. It is only the governments of those countries which oppose this which will become isolated, not only from the global discourse, but also from their own people, who will eventually rise against them.
***SK: ****Now time to play a bit of devil’s advocate: If you’re demanding an open society for everyone, why not journos and whistleblowers? How can the public trust that confidential sources and anonymous whistleblowers are being entirely truthful?
**SPM: **This is a question of threat models. If our society were truly open and honest today, there would be no fear of reprisal for exposing the truth. But this is not the case, and those who expose the truth are often ostracized, sometimes outcast, and in some cases killed. We must be willing to grant anonymity and protection from disclosure to those who are willing to take such risks in order to create the society we wish for.
On the other hand, the public shouldn’t trust those who are anonymous, and in general don’t. What anonymous sources provide is information, and that information can be checked against existing evidence. Anonymity and pseudonymity is extremely valuable. If not for these, the Federalist Papers would not have been written, nor Alice in Wonderland. 1984 and Animal Farm would not have been published, nor the works of Mark Twain. There are millions of reasonable uses of anonymity and pseudonymity, they just call for greater scrutiny in political discourse.
***SK: ****Now for the inevitable Wikileaks questions: Since IMMI has been passed, do you expect the nomadic ways of Wikileaks to be over? In other words, will Wikileaks find a permanent home base in Iceland?
**SPM: **No. Wikileaks is a distributed organization for security reasons, it cannot and will not function out of one country. Anybody who claims otherwise is obviously entirely oblivious to how Wikileaks is organized and seemingly incapable of logical induction based on public knowledge.
IMMI is not for Wikileaks, it is for all of the organizations that do not have the technical capacity or legal ability to operate under the same model as Wikileaks does.
***SK: ****This one I think you’ll want to answer at least: How would the release of a video like Collateral Murder have been easier if reforms posed by the IMMI had already been passed?
**SPM: **It was in no way hard to release the Collateral Murder video. Preparing it was a lot of work, and took a lot of energy out of everybody involved. A friend of mine recently said that he had been worried about my health while we were working on it, that I’d appeared ghostlike from lack of sleep. I was in no way the person under the most stress there, by far.
But releasing, as such, wasn’t hard. It took a lot of planning, and unfortunately it took a great deal of secrecy. If anything these reforms should make the need for secrecy go away.
***SK: ****From your personal observations, how intense is surveillance on Assange/the Wikileaks operation?
**SPM: **I know that it is nonzero. Beyond that it’s hard to estimate. I am aware of one person being approached by an undercover US official requesting information about Julian Assange’s whereabouts, but that had absolutely no effect. Honestly, I think the US Federal Government has a lot of better things to do than trying to monitor Wikileaks. One suggestion would be that they open up their document repositories and datasets before Wikileaks does.
***SK: ****In Brussels, Assange briefly mentioned concern about statements made by the US government in private. Do you know what he’s talking about? *
**SPM: **I honestly have no idea. I have absolutely no knowledge of most of the things that are happening around him, or Wikileaks in general. I’m not a Wikileaks member or employee, although I have had the honor of working with them on a few projects and expect to continue to do so in the future.
The way I see Wikileaks from my perspective as an information freedom activist is it’s a crowbar. In the tool chest of the information freedom movement we have many tools, some precise and subtle, some blunt and effective. We have things like FOIAs and the news media, tools like Wikipedia and diplomacy and communications networks. We’ve got tools that help us organize rallies and tools that help us change the course of discussion. Wikileaks is our crowbar, it’s what the free information movement uses when all else fails. Sometimes it’s used preemptively, because you just know that some walls won’t come down without some brute force encouragement, but in a just world the crowbar should always be the last resort.