Iceland as a Privacy Haven?

Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant, Iceland. Image from wikipedia

A former NATO airbase in Iceland  looks  like nothing more than a huge warehouse from the outside.  But the barbed-wire fence surrounding it and surveillance cameras atop its gates betray  its importance.  This facility, which began operating in February 2012, is one of several data centres in Iceland. It’s run by Verne Global, a company that allows its customers to store data on servers here.

Tate Cantrell, the company’s chief technical officer, explained why Verne Global favoured this tiny Nordic nation of all places. “In Iceland, you’ve got this ideal situation: energy, excellent connectivity for data, and a constant cool climate. So Iceland was an obvious choice.”  Iceland’s abundant renewable energy from geothermal and hydroelectric plants means the costs of running these data centres are low. And the Gulf Stream current keeps the temperature in Iceland more or less stable throughout the year, avoiding the need to provide cooling for the servers and computers.

Data centres based here have another advantage, too: Iceland is in the initial stage of implementing the most progressive data-privacy laws in the world, a major selling point especially after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding widespread surveillance by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA).  A recent paper published by Verne Global stated that Iceland was “uniquely positioned as a data privacy haven” because of the new regulations.

The International Modern Media Institute (IMMI), a non-profit organisation, has played an instrumental role in designing and promoting the legal framework for Iceland’s new data privacy laws….Birgitta Jónsdóttir is IMMI’s spokeswoman and now represents the Pirate Party in the Icelandic parliament.  In 2010, the IMMI, then known as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, proposed a resolution to change Icelandic law to ensure data privacy and freedom of speech. The proposal includes protection for whistleblowers and journalists’ sources, as well as an “ultra-modern Freedom of Information Act” based on elements from existing laws in Estonia, the United Kingdom, and Norway.  The data centres would benefit from a clause in the law that ensures the protection of intermediaries such as internet service providers and telecommunications carriers.The resolution was passed by the Icelandic parliament that same year, and is now being implemented into law, piece by piece.  “A bit more than half of what IMMI proposed has been made into law – somewhere between 50 and 70 percent,” Jonsdottir said…

Despite the new measures, Icelandic journalist Jón Bjarki Magnusson said he thinks his country still has a long way to go when it comes to media freedom.  “IMMI for me is a bit like a fairy tale, reality on the ground is different from the idea,” he told Al Jazeera at a café in downtown Reykjavik. “I like the idea but Iceland is far from being a haven for free journalism.”Earlier this year, Magnusson worked on an investigative story for DV newspaper, in which he wrongly identified an assistant to Iceland’s interior minister as being under police investigation.  Magnusson and his colleagues quickly realised their mistake and issued an apology within a few hours of publishing. But that didn’t stop the official from pressing criminal libel charges against Magnusson and a colleague of his, Johann Pall Johannsson, demanding a sentence of up to two years in prison.

Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has issued a statement condemning the steps against the reporters as disproportionate. The group said that freedom of information in Iceland has declined over the past two years, citing the libel case and budget cuts for public broadcasters.

Excerpt from Felix Gaedtke, Can Iceland become the ‘Switzerland of data’?, Al Jazeera, Dec. 28, 2014

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