Iceland and Wikileaks Try to Make the World Safe for Secrets

Updated: Does the world need a refuge for information provided by whistle-blowers and others who leak or publish sensitive and/or secret documents? Iceland’s parliament seems to think so — they have just overwhelmingly approved a bill that would create exactly that kind of refuge, an initiative that started with a proposal from Wikileaks, the secretive organization that has quickly become the leading source of such material. Whether anyone wants to join Iceland and Wikileaks in this crusade remains to be seen, however.

The Icelandic bill is the product of something called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which was apparently jump-started by technology guru John Perry Barlow when he spoke there in 2008, according to The Economist. The project says its goal is to find ways to “strengthen freedoms of expression and information freedom in Iceland, as well as providing strong protections for sources and whistleblowers,” and is based in part on laws in several other countries such as Sweden, which makes it a criminal offense for a journalist to reveal a source. The initiative goes on to say that:

We can create a comprehensive policy and legal framework to protect the free expression needed for investigative journalism and other politically important publishing. While some countries provide basic measures, Iceland now has an oportunity to build an internationally attractive legislative package built from the best laws of other nations.

Wikileaks started talking with Iceland about its role in such a venture last year, and the idea was described by founder Julian Assange at a hacker conference in December (video of which is embedded below). Ironically, the northern nation’s interest in the proposal was sparked in part by that country’s experience with the international banking crisis, in which several of Iceland’s banks lost billions. Critics within Iceland argued that there was not enough public information about the investments, and the country’s public broadcaster was actually prevented from talking about it by one of the major banks.

Wikileaks, meanwhile, had been looking for support for its mission, which is to bring to light information about corporate and governmental malfeasance and corruption by releasing secret and classified documents. The group’s current claim to fame rests on a video that it obtained which showed American troops firing on unarmed civilians in Iraq. The provider of the video has since been identified as U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who has been arrested. Manning also apparently gave the group a number of other classified documents, including videos of a military attack in Afghanistan.

It’s easy to see why Iceland was persuaded by the Wikileaks story, given the country’s experiences during the financial crisis. Whether its attempt to become an oasis for secrets and other confidential data will have any impact outside Iceland is another matter entirely. But given the kinds of corporate and governmental cover-ups that have occurred over the past few decades, starting with Afghanistan and the Enron debacle and going all the way back to the My Lai massacre and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers (to which Wikileaks and the current military video have been compared), it’s encouraging to see that someone is at least trying to create such a thing.

Update: Silicon Valley Watcher notes that Iceland is bandwidth-constrained, which would have an impact on anyone who chose to locate media servers in that country, although Iceland has been laying cables in an attempt to build up its hosting abilities.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Amy