Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Icelandic parliament backs 'free speech haven' plan

Out-Law News | 21 Jun 2010 | 2:51 pm | 2 min. read

Iceland's parliament has accepted a proposal which could see the country pass the world's strongest freedom of expression and whistleblower protection laws. The proposal was created in conjunction with controversial leak site Wikileaks.

Wikileaks makes secretly-submitted documents and materials public and earlier this year published a video showing a US air strike in Baghdad in which two Reuters employees and a number of other people were killed.

The Icelandic parliament voted late last week to demand that the Icelandic Government "[find] ways to strengthen freedoms of expression and information freedom in Iceland, [and provide] strong protections for sources and whistleblowers," said the resolution. No member of the parliament opposed the resolution.

The resolution is the work of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), which has been advised by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who said that the proposal would create a "new media haven" in Iceland.

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

"Examples of successful laws include the following: recent legislation from the state of New York to block the enforcement of UK judgments constricting freedom of the press, a 2005 Belgian law to provide strong protection for the communications of journalists with their sources; and the Swedish constitution's Press Freedom Act," the IMMI said.

The group said that Iceland was well placed to meet the physical as well as the legislative demands of hosts of controversial material. It said that Iceland had good telecoms connectivity with the rest of the world and that "Iceland has … fast undersea cables to some of the world's largest consumers of information, and its clean green power and cool temperatures are attractive to those running internet services," said the IMMI.

Wikileaks hosts its main web servers in Sweden, which has strong free speech protection laws, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Wikileaks' involvement in the proposal to reform Icelandic law began last December when Assange and a colleague talked at the annual meeting of the Icelandic Digital Freedoms Society, according to the New York Times. The paper said that Assange and his colleague relocated to Iceland in January to help develop the plan.

The IMMI has proposed several specific legal reforms. These include reducing the scope of an exception to existing source protection laws; increasing protections for whistleblowers employed by the state; and the creation of a law similar to California's free speech-protecting anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation against Public Participation) law.

The plan seeks to take advantage of protections in Iceland for material published from web servers based there.

Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that while Iceland's plan will create problems for those who suffer breaches of confidence, there may be some safeguards.

"If Iceland is granting immunity to websites that host leaked documents, and if it's prepared to reject take-down orders from foreign courts, that gives the overseas content owner a real problem when the threat of domestic sanctions fails to deter a leak," said Robertson. "The proposal does not affect copyright law, though. So it may be that take-down demands based on copyright infringement will be more effective than those based on breach of confidence."