Ásta Guðrún Helgadóttir is a former Pirate Party member of the Icelandic parliament who currently serves as a digital policy advisor to a member of the European parliament. She’s known online for her passion for the Internet and digital policy, as well as her love of golden retrievers.
I first met Ásta at conference in Croatia in 2013, where we bonded over our shared interests in dogs, and in the censorship of sexual content on the Internet. In a recent video chat (with a dog in the background, naturally), we discussed a topic near and dear to my—and Asta's—heart: The hypocrisy that progressive governments display when they proclaim a belief in free expression while simultaneously enacting regulations that have undermined the expression of their citizens.
This is a phenomenon with which EFF is all too familiar. Whether it's the United States supporting free expression initiatives globally while enacting harmful censorship at home, or governments, like that of Asta's native Iceland, condemning authoritarian censorship regimes while seeking to restrict access to pornography, policymakers all too often fall prey to the urge to restrict expression. In our interview, Asta tells me how an early experience with censorship while visiting Iran shaped her views, and how fighting Iceland's attempts to censor pornography ended up shaping her political career.
Jillian C. York: So tell me: What does free expression mean to you?
Free expression is to be able to express yourself freely without unnecessary governmental intervention. For me, that means the right to be able to criticize, to be able to actually hold opinions about mundane things such as roads and how they’re supposed to be, or serious things like whether or not the government is horrible. It’s a fundamental aspect of a functioning democracy, because if you don’t have free speech, you don’t really have a democracy.
...It’s a safeguard for human rights, a safeguard for democracy. It’s a key function of a liberal democratic society.
York: Is it just about government intervention? Do you feel that there are other bodies that can restrict our free expression?
The one who has the lesser power is the one who needs the ability and the right to criticize the one who has more power. What we’re experiencing here is that there are actually massive platforms online that have massive power. That’s been formalizing over the last decade or two, but at the same time, it’s really informal from a regulatory perspective. It’s not clear what responsibilities they actually have when it comes to safeguarding people’s human rights. That’s highly problematic in my opinion. How much responsibility does a private company have in order to safeguard human rights? And especially when you basically have monopolies of information societies like Facebook or YouTube...what are their responsibilities? I think that’s one of the bigger questions we’re going to be facing in the next decade or so.
York: In your specific capacity—as a politician—what do you feel passionate about in this regard?
The reason why I became political is freedom of expression. It basically started with me traveling in Iran and experiencing what [overt] censorship is. And then in 2012-2013, the Icelandic ministry of interior was thinking about censoring porn on the Internet. I’d just arrived back from Iran, where they most definitely censor porn on the Internet, among other things like news, and opposition. I thought ‘this is wrong’ because the technological measures are actually the same as those they use in Iran. Why are we actually having a double standard where we say that censoring in Iran is horrible but censoring in Iceland is somehow justifiable?
So it’s a key issue that we have the right to express ourselves, and that includes things that people disagree with, within certain sensible limits. This translates into so many things: Copyright, intermediary liability, whether police have the right to eavesdrop on you for things like pornography, or drugs, or hate speech...where are the limits?
...It all has to do with freedom of expression to some extent. It may not be obvious at first, but to me it’s interesting how much ties into that and how much the government—formally and informally—is trying to control speech.
York: Do you have any specific thoughts, from an Icelandic perspective, of what those limits should look like?
Iceland is not the one that’ll actually set the laws about the Internet or freedom of expression. I think the European parliament and European Union is a more interesting space for that.
But what we’re actually seeing is universal takedown of content online. If one country demands that something should be taken down by their national laws, they think it should be taken down everywhere on the Internet. These kinds of decisions that are originally [made in the] EU have actually now transitioned to places like India. It just creates a dilemma about how we’re going to run this, or what the Internet is for freedom of expression in this world. And I don’t think that people or governments actually agree on that...the purpose of the Internet to protect human rights.
York: How do you feel the Internet is unique in this regard?
It is constructed in a way that is very open, loving...In a way, it’s accidental. That is the Internet that is basically fading away, this ability to create your own webpage, your own original social media platform. This openness of the Internet and the ability to interconnect...this is something that was very fundamental about the Internet’s architecture to begin with. But right now what we’re going toward is more of this sort of platformization.
...This is something that hasn’t been globally addressed but rather addressed on a regional level. The majority of Internet platforms are a very American invention, and their [view of] freedom of expression and liability is very American, and that’s not necessarily compatible with how the EU or France or Germany regard [those things]. It’s a philosophical clash between cultures. The Internet is designed in a way that the EU largely disagrees with.
York: We’ve talked about it before, but can you tell me more about how your experience in Iran shaped your experience?
Going into Iran, I was like 20, 21 the first time around. I did not bring a computer, or a phone. I had a pen and paper and my travel partner brought a Nokia dumb phone. That was the only means of communication we had to the outside world. It was a culture shock to actually be there. In order to access Facebook...I was in this desert city, in this shopping mall that felt very 1980s American in a way, but also very Iranian with fried chicken and those stalls with cheap clothes and watches from China. There was this Internet café and we asked if we could use it for an hour...but you could not really do anything, because the Internet was censored. But it hadn’t really registered, because I hadn’t had been in any communication with the outside world. But I saw that everyone there was on Facebook, so I asked the lady in charge how I could get on Facebook, and she connected me with a VPN in just five seconds and off I was, on Facebook. It was this wonderful display of how the Internet circumvents censorship like water finds a new way through a blockage. It was quite easy, you just had to ask around.
But it was this other censorship that was more daunting—on the street if we were talking to someone and things got too political, they would just shut up. Or the fact that I had to wear a hijab [ed. note: although in many countries and communities, the practice of wearing hijab is a choice, in Iran it is enforced on all women, including visitors, by law] and a dress and trousers and cover up even though it was 45 degrees...and everyone kept making sure that I was dressed according to the standards. And that in a way, is censorship of the body that I thought was very peculiar...but I was also surprised at how easily you adapt to it. It was like this theatre—you had the outside world where you had to look and behave in a certain way but then [indoors] you had this backstage where you could just relax and be yourself.
The societal censorship that is happening Iran is that you can’t really be yourself outside. And that is, I think, the most important thing about freedom of expression: That the person you are at home, you can also be outside on the street, without being in danger of voicing your opinion or dressing a certain way. That distinction was very fundamental and very strange for me somehow … Being able to be yourself, wherever you are, is the true essence of freedom of expression.
York: Wow, I really like that.
Actually, coming home was quite a culture shock as well. The ease with which people talked about censoring the Internet because of pornography. Pornography in Iceland is technically illegal due to a 19th century law passed by the clergy and conservative men. The law has been used a handful of times in the past century and a half, but they wanted to reuse this law to establish censorship of pornography [online]. To me, this was ridiculous on so many levels. On a technical perspective, censoring pornography is no different from censoring furniture or car advertisements. Censorship is censorship. What I found interesting was this difference between how people were very value-driven, like ‘because it’s pornography it’s alright.’ And yes, a lot of pornography can be degrading to women. But do we deal with that through censorship? Is censorship going to fix those problems?
I was basically slut-shamed for saying that I might not agree with the pornography that someone watches, but I think that freedom of expression also has to do with freedom of sexual expression. That means that if you are a sexual being and want to perform in or watch pornography, you should be able to do so within healthy limits. I thought that was a very straightforward thing to believe in, but instead I was shamed for standing up against censorship of pornography.
York: When it comes to this topic, it’s so easy to get frustrated with the limits that people place on free expression, or the ways that people make it about things it’s not about.
Yeah, freedom of expression is such a difficult question because people don’t agree. And often there are legitimate reasons why people think something shouldn’t be said or done. I mean, to some degree I think some porn is terrible and disgusting, but I don’t think it should be censored by the centralized Icelandic government. I’d rather see holistic solutions.
The same goes with copyright, which is also an expression-based field. If you say that maybe we shouldn’t have a centralized thing that detects copyright, then suddenly you’re against artists. It just becomes so polarized.
York: Tell me more about the copyright debate in Europe.
We need to be asking things like: Should we be using the same technological intervention for detecting or battling child sexual abuse material as you would with copyright infringement? Does copyright have the same harm to society as child sexual abuse material? When you’re creating laws you say, ‘ok, if you kill someone, you get maybe 12-24 years [in Iceland]. This sentencing explains to police how far they can go to investigate it. But with copyright infringement, [you get fined].
Does this justify how much effort we go to to find copyright infringement? Is anyone dying? Are lives being destroyed? The technical interventions that are being mandated or required by authorities to protect copyright holders are increasingly more invasive than the technologies required to battle sexual abuse material.
We do not put a person in jail for as long as they do copyright infringement as we do for someone who creates child sexual abuse material. We have to keep things in perspective, and the technical mandates need to take these differences into account. We have to make the decision about whether or not it is just and fair in the context of the severity of a crime. This is something we’re not doing.
York: Thank you so much. It’s been great talking with you, Ásta, I hope we get to see each other again soon.