Yesterday was election day. Like many Icelanders me and the Missus treated it as an occasion. We wore presentable clothes, we baked a cake (not the one shown above) and we went out to vote. Iceland traditionally has a high participation rate in its elections with yesterday’s 81.4% showing being considered a poor turnout.
Most people are talking about the ruling social democrats losing half their votes with the pre-crash ruling parties being returned to power. But one of yesterday’s most interesting developments was the fact that the Pirate Party won 3 seats (out of 63) in the parliament. It’s the first time a Pirate party wins seats in a national parliament.
The Pirate Party’s campaign practically wrote a new textbook on grassroots campaigning on the Internet. Their campaign budget was miniscule compared to their competitors, the campaign HQ was a market stall (as opposed to many of the others’ swanky locations) and days before the election they launched a website that analyzed publicly available data about MPs voting records that produced headline catching information about how often our democratic representatives were showing up for work.
Having your election cake and eating it too
Two of the main goals of the international Pirate movement are 1) to increase transparency in public life and 2) to protect the individual’s right to privacy, especially online. The Icelandic Pirate party is no exception, as they showed in practice with their voting record website mentioned above.
But transparency is a double-edged sword. The MIT Technology review published an article recently on how our love affair with data can undermine the individual’s right to privacy. Their example was the publication of data about campaign donations to the anti-gay Proposition 8:
Under California’s campaign finance laws, all donations greater than $100 to groups advocating for or against Proposition 8 were recorded in a publicly accessible database. Someone (it’s still not clear who) took all the data about the proposition’s supporters—their names and zip codes, and their employers in some cases—and plotted it on a Google map.
After finding themselves on the map, some supporters of Proposition 8 said they had been harassed or found their businesses being boycotted.
Lawrence Lessig, one of the most influential thought-leaders on another issue the Pirates care deeply about, copyright, wrote an essay titled Against Transparency. He argues that having more data about politicians is more likely to mislead people into cynicism than to make politics better.
Some contend that the Icelandic Pirate website on MPs voting records was an example of precisely this. MPs in opposition often find themselves being unable to show up to vote because of how the majority schedules voting sessions. In this case more data didn’t necessarily mean better information.
A force for good
Although one of the Icelandic Pirate MPs is a global warming sceptic (suggesting that he’s better at gathering data than interpreting it) and supports publicly publishing the names and addresses of convicted paedophiles (suggesting that in his case transparency trumps – erm – lynch mob wariness) the party itself is comprised of honest, intelligent individuals who are spin-free and work hard. It will be interesting to see what they come up with now that they have direct access to the country’s most powerful institutions and whether they can indeed have their cake and eat it when it comes to transparency and privacy.