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The first pirate politician in power

Birgitta Jonsdottir is leader of Iceland’s Pirate Party, which has just been asked to form a government. BBC Future Now met her to see what the activist-turned-politician has planned

In Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World, a dystopian future government metes out special punishment for dissidents: they are banished to Iceland. But as the Resident World Controller of Western Europe notes, the punishment is really a reward. Dissidents are being sent to a place where everyone sick of orthodoxy gets to have independent ideas of their own.

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It’s an attitude that Birgitta Jonsdottir, the leader of Iceland’s Pirate Party, has channelled herself. “Time for a gathering soon in Iceland of all the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community life,” she wrote in a blog post in 2011. The next year Jonsdottir - who has described herself as an anarchist “poetician” - co-founded a political party with a handful of internet activists.

Now those self-conscious individuals have burst into the mainstream. In October, the Pirate Party came third in Iceland’s national election, winning 10 seats out of 63 and more than tripling its number of MPs. Last week Iceland’s president asked Jonsdottir to form a new coalition government. If she can pull it off, the country will be governed by the pirates and four other parties – including one led by a local rock star.  

At a time when millions around the world are looking to populist politicians for solutions to their problems, many Icelandic voters  have rallied around a radical, technology-focused left-wing party that champions political transparency, free health care and new measures to protect digital privacy.

Some question the pirates’ ability to govern, given their lack of political experience and origins in activism. So what exactly is the Pirate Party promising Iceland? And what does the anarchist-turned-politician Jonsdottir believe in?

We meet in Iceland’s modest parliament building, home to the Althing, one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world  - now being shaped by one of the newest. The world’s first Pirate Party was created in Sweden in 2006, largely as a protest against copyright law. But equivalents soon sprang up across Europe, as well as in the US and Australia. Each has its own flavour but all now share commitments to free sharing of information, digital privacy and political reform – including direct democracy, where citizens participate in government.

I always thought this must be some freak accident – Birgitta Jonsdottir

Yet only Iceland’s Pirate Party has won seats in national elections – let alone formed part of a government. “I always thought, ‘Oh, this must be some freak accident’,” says Jonsdottir, recalling polls that put her party way ahead of all the others in the months before the election. Those polls may have exaggerated their popularity, but the final result was still a huge boost.

Jonsdottir believes the party has quickly filled a vacuum, offering disgruntled voters an alternative to established parties. “A lot of marginalised people, people that nobody really cares about, people that feel left behind because the system is not working for them, have actually started to engage and work with us,” she says.

The party has created a mechanism that lets citizens introduce their own policies to be voted on, as long as they arrange at least one meeting to discuss it. It has also produced a new draft constitution for Iceland incorporating ideas crowdsourced from the population. “To be the robin hood of power, we take the power from the powerful and give it to the people,” she says.

But Pirate parties around the world have also caught people’s attention because their policies are often direct responses to technological change, such as mass surveillance and information transparency – issues that many older parties have been slow to address.

To be the robin hood of power, we take the power from the powerful and give it to the people – Birgitta Jonsdottir

Until recently, Jonsdottir was better known for the help she once gave Wikileaks, for example. In 2010, Julian Assange assembled a team in Iceland for several months and Jonsdottir helped to produce the “Collateral Murder” video - leaked footage of a US air strike that resulted in civilian deaths. She says she cut ties with the group shortly after, however. She also recently said it had “gone too far” when asked about allegations that Assange interfered with the US election on Norwegian television.

Wikileaks is not a subject she returns to eagerly. “I don’t really want to get into that,” says Jonsdottir. “If you’re interested in speaking to me about something other than Wikileaks, let’s do that.”

She opens up when asked about the mass surveillance practised by intelligence agencies, however. “It’s stuff that fires me up,” she says.

Jonsdottir has called for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – who is wanted by US authorities and currently in Russia - to be granted Icelandic citizenship. She thinks this is better than offering him asylum. “There are not enough protections in asylum,” she says. Iceland’s previous government blocked the proposal, however.

She is a champion of whistleblowers in general, as well as press freedom. She praises those who worked on the Panama Papers, for example. For one thing, they contained revelations of offshore assets linked to Iceland’s Prime Minister that led to his resignation earlier this year.   

With the growing use of mass surveillance by authorities around the world – such as the UK government’s new Investigatory Powers Act, which allows bulk collection of people’s browsing history - Jonsdottir is concerned that the information collected might later be misused.

Privacy is dead and gone forever and we will never be able to reclaim it – Birgitta Jonsdottir

“I’m sure they don’t read every single email but they know how to extract stuff,” she says. “They have keywords and they have key people they follow and then you may just happen to be collateral in that circle.”

Still, she is fully aware that this technology cannot be rolled back – and that people seem to be very willing to give up their personal data. “I totally declare that privacy is dead and gone forever and we will never be able to reclaim it,” she says. “We have to start to look at our realities from that perspective.”

Such issues are more concrete for Jonsdottir than most. Iceland is becoming home to more and more of the world’s data, as tech firms move their data centres there to take advantage of the country’s cool climate and renewable resources. She welcomes the way some companies are pushing for their users’ right to privacy, such as when Apple refused the FBI’s request to help it break into a suspect’s iPhone earlier this year. But she also criticises the eagerness of others to sell their customers’ data.

She is also concerned about the influence social media companies have on people’s filtered views of the world. “We’re like the chickens in factory farms,” she says. “We’re just constantly clicking and liking and looking and we have no idea how they’re steering us.”

Whether she can do anything about any of this remains to be seen. The Pirate Party’s success in Iceland is part of a surge of support for populist parties in Europe, including Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece.

Yet critics may question whether activists make the best politicians. Jonsdottir’s opponents claim her party are political lightweights, arguing that a party formed from a grab-bag of anarchists chasing ideals are not up to tackling problems like rising house prices, student debt and climate change.

The Pirate Party’s official position is that many big decisions should be made by the people. What others call passing the buck, Jonsdottir sees as the best way to represent a diverse population. “Somebody needs to set new standards,” she says.

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