Democracy in the digital age

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Democracy in the digital age

The models of democracy we have now are old. We need to make something more real and meaningful. Activist and politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir is an activist and politician. She tells us how we could do this.


More protests because of less trust. These Icelanders are protesting outside the parliament in Reykjavik. © ©Johann S. Karlsson / Getty Images

We live in a strange, new, changing digital age. We have all the knowledge we need in the library of Alexandria and on the internet. The Internet Archive is a free, non-profit digital library for everyone. But all this will not help if we don’t know how to use all this knowledge.

Sometimes we have problems that are too big to solve. When I was younger, people said there would be a nuclear war and the end of life on this planet. We still have that problem, and others that are more real eg. global warming and the destruction of the environment.

And our models of democracy are not strong enough. We are moving into a new age of technology, where everything is connected.

Many people do not trust the democratic institutions and of the politicians.

There is more protest; and more totalitarianism and fascism. We must learn from history so we don’t repeat the nationalism and war of the past.

Democracy is controlling people more. The police use guns against their own people. And the top ‘1%’ are at war with the rest of us. They created very complex systems, and they use these systems to keep their power.

The systems we use in our countries are too simple. They were created when societies were smaller and not so complex. Now, they don’t serve the people, they only serve themselves.

The welfare systems will soon collapse. Maybe they will become private. We are using everything on the planet and our systems cannot help.

We now have very strict ‘anti-terrorism’ laws and a lot of secrecy. Our democracies are like a mixture of the books Brave New World and 1984.

People tell us we have no power and we cannot change these systems; but this is a lie.

We are all connected now and we can tell everyone about success and failure. So we are learning more. Every day, we share, download, create with others. But we do not know the power in all the information we work with.

Naked in the system

Some of the best innovation and creativity in history came when people were very stressed. Humans now have to develop to the next level. Or we will not be able to pass on a sustainable world to the next generation.

But there is no protection – we feel like we are wearing no clothes - naked - in this system of interconnectivity. The big businesses and countries can download everything we do, with no respect for local and global laws.

The UN charter of human rights has recently decided that our “digital persona” should have the same rights to privacy as normal people. But this has had no effect.

So it is very important to encourage people to be part of digital democracies. We need to make countries open their data. And we need to protect our right to privacy (that is often broken).

I have travelled the world and met many different people (physically and on the internet). I have seen amazing progress of the digital age, but I have also seen many problems.

I know, and know about, so many people who are in prison or have no country because they told the truth, or helped people share, or gave information about criminal behaviour of people who should protect us. People like Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Barrett Brown, Peter Sunde, Gottfrid Svartholm, Fredrik Neij, John Kiriakou and Edward Snowden. Jesselyn Radack, Samy Kamkar and Thomas Drake also suffered for their ideas. Aaron Swartz took his own life in January 2013, the day before his sentence.

But there are things that can make us free if we use them well.

Here is a story about my country, Iceland. Many people hope that Iceland will be like a laboratory for a new, more real democracy.

Democracy laboratory

Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic, with a population of 320,001. It says it has the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world. But this is a myth; it was a colony of Denmark and Norway for centuries, and became an independent democratic republic in 1944.

We have a lot of corruption. Iceland is like a big Sicily. When they were becoming independent, the powerful mafia (‘the Octopus’) took everything from the country and gave it to their families and friends. It was like some African countries when they became independent about ten years later.

This is why the banks (when they became private in 2005) did not follow the professional laws. They gave the banks to people who pleased the ‘mafia’ families.

When the government studied the financial collapse, they found, in April 2010, that the buyers never really paid for the banks. The country didn’t get the money for them.

Also, Iceland’s bankers abused the European Economic Area banking laws to set up sister banks in Europe. So Iceland-based banks grew too much: to six times Iceland’s GDP in only a few years.

The bad bankers said we could be the financial leaders of the world. Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and many others told people this, in Iceland and in other countries.. I did not believe this the fairytale, but most of the country did. Many people got good bank loans and the value of property rose.

There were many temptations. The bank owners put gold dust on their food and had private planes. Everyone loved them – and the bank owners also owned the media.


Many people protesting in Budapest in late 2014 because of new laws to restrict internet freedom through taxation. Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

After the financial collapse in 2008, people had to see that everything they trusted had failed. There were many new thinktanks and grassroots groups. People discussed the future they wanted to develop together. They wanted to create Iceland 2.0 – a New Iceland - free from what brought them the world’s fourth largest financial collapse.

People had to think like when they have a personal crisis. When you have a death in the family or a serious illness – you are more about to change. This is the same for societies.

In a deep crisis, you can make real changes. A good way to discover the true nature of a society is to start a discussion on what the society would like in its constitution or ‘social agreement’.

After the crisis, between 2009 and 2013, the people of Iceland tried to do something parliament had never been able to do in the 70 years since independence. By ‘crowdsourcing’, they wrote a new constitution by and for the people of Iceland, based on our values today. In a referendum, 67% of the people voted for the new constitution.

People began to trust the parliament. But parliament did not do what the people wanted. They did not bring in the new constitution, and, in April 2013, a new Centre-Right coalition that came to power. So now it will probably not happen. We had more success in other areas. Eva Joly (lawyer and whistleblower) gave advice on how to bring to justice the people responsible for the crisis. In 2012, at the Landsdomur (a special court started in 1905 to make parliamentarians responsible), former Prime Minister Geir Haarde was found guilty of not calling emergency cabinet meetings before the financial crisis.

Also, there were very big changes in the local elections. In 2010, a very popular comedian Jón Gnarr (of the new Best Party) became mayor of Reykjavik. The party promised to use a direct democracy platform called Better Reykjavik. People suggest ideas here and the city council discusses the most popular suggestions every month.

In the April 2013 general election, two new parties entered the parliament: Bright Future and The Pirate Party. I helped co-create the Pirate Party and I became a Pirate Party MP.

But we now have the worst government for as long as I can remember. The people from the Octopus – the corrupt old Iceland – can now do whatever they feel is good for the 1%. They won the election because they played with people’s fears and selfishness. These leaders are quickly undoing all the good that Icelanders did after the crisis.

But now there are more protests again. This time, maybe, we will get a real (r)evolution.


Many of the thinktanks are starting again and the new methods are being used to involve people in the protests. The most important thing is for people to understand that if they want to live in a real democracy, they need to be part of it and work with it. It is not easy to live in a democracy.

It is very important for people to talk to their friends and families about what sort of future they want. If we – Icelanders or any citizens of the Earth – do not have a clear vision of where we are going, we will get nowhere. The élite who control us have a clear vision, so they can stay several steps ahead of the 99%. I think the words of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon are a good vision for us.

Safe place

I helped to start the Iceland Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) in 2010. One of the main reasons was to build a new legal standard for the 21st century, not just for Iceland but for any nation or non-governmental organization that wanted to reuse it. Some of the best thinkers in the world created IMMI: people who have created transformative 21st-century alternatives to the current systems eg. the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow (the godfather of IMMI), WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Daniel Domsheit-Berg, Liquid Feedback, Smári McCarthy, Cryptophone, Chaos Computer Club and Rop Gonggrep.

Naomi Klein, in her book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how people can (and often do) use a crisis in society to change laws to restrict civil liberties and get more centralized state power. This protects self-interest but is bad for public-interest. Our IMMI will go against this tradition. It will use crisis to bring about real changes which are good for the public in the long term.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative went through parliament in June 2010. It made the government create a progressive environment for international media and publishing companies, start-up companies, human rights organizations and data centres.

These changes could make democratic stronger, help change and reduce secrecy. This new policy has improved the reputation of Iceland and created many economic and employment opportunities. But the ministries work slowly, so they still need to make changes in law.

To make our aims global, IMMI became the ‘International Modern Media Institute’ in 2011. We have the ideal conditions for creating a holistic media policy, in a legal environment that protects freedom of expression, the work of investigative journalists and of people like whistleblowers, who publish important political materials; and to make people understand how important it is to protect digital privacy.

The information society cannot help much if the ways of communicating information are always under attack. Some countries have passed progressive laws about this, but no one country has brought them all together to create a safe haven. Iceland has a unique opportunity to lead and put together a solid legal framework. We have chosen the best laws from around the world to create a Safe Haven for Bits in Iceland. And everyone can use them.

All laws about data protection and access are global laws. They need to protect human rights in the digital era, locally and globally.

The ‘Five Eyes’ – intelligence operations from Australia, Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Britain and the US – are watching our data. There is nothing strong enough to protect our digital persona from this mass surveillance.

Legal hacking

Before I started working in parliament, I wanted to do two important things:

One: to involve the public in making a new legal framework for Iceland’s legal, through national referendums; through creating a new constitution together; and through making a strong legal base for a new system.

Two: to change Iceland into a safe place for freedom of information and expression with no secrecy and good privacy to support democracy.

When I was elected, I went inside the system and analysed its strengths and weaknesses, like a legal hacker.

My conclusion is that the rule of law is an illusion: the rules we vote on do not apply to all people, so there is no rule of law. The same laws should apply to all people, not only the 99%.

I now see most of our democracies as one dictatorship with 100 heads on the neck of a corporate monster.

I have looked at different models for how to make our societies more human and more modern. And now I understand that there is not one model that is best for all societies.

We need to experiment and study what is good for each type of society, depending on the cultures.

People are doing some amazing experiments now – not many people know about their success.

Buckminster Fuller wrote his book No More Secondhand God in 1940. He talked about direct democracy and telephone voting. Now we are at a stage where the technology for direct access to power is simple. So citizens can start using it to form opinions and make sure we have political change in a real way.

People are creating new types of platforms to make people an active part of direct democracy, such as the Pirate Party Liquid Feedback, Your Priorities, DemocracyOS and WeGov. People who control the system we have now do not like them. But they will not be able to stop them because people are creating another form of government, people are governing themselves. This is happening only in a few small places now, but it is moving to the centre.

We need more studies to see the good and bad points of active voting systems and liquid democracy models.

We need to do the opposite of what Russell Brand is saying we should do, we need to use our votes. Even if we don’t want to play a part in the broken system we have now, we should not use that as an excuse for doing nothing. We should see it as a reason to create our own new systems and to work together. Connecting to everyone is very important for quick change; but information itself has no meaning if we don’t know how to understand and use it well.


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