My 6/27/10 Missoulian column
What does Iceland have to do with freedom of speech on the Internet and the protection of whistleblowers?
The island country in the north Atlantic wants to become a safe haven for leaked and confidential information, investigative reporters and news and other organizations unable to find a safe home elsewhere.
The Icelandic Parliament voted a few weeks ago to designate Iceland a “New Media Haven.” The new laws – when enacted – would provide a home for computer servers beyond the laws of other countries.
What this means is Iceland would serve as a base for servers and Internet infrastructure that hold news and information that others don’t want available in their own country and the rest of the world.
Wikileaks.org is an example of an organization Iceland would shelter and is one of the motivations behind the Icelandic government’s proposals. Wikileak’s site (currently existing on servers scattered around the world) is a repository for leaked documents and in particular, a video recently that was recently in the news that shows classified footage from a helicopter gunship in Iraq firing on misidentified and unidentified individuals.
Iceland’s move is an interesting idea that leverages the connectivity of the Internet to provide a freer exchange of information. But there are political and technological problems looming.
One political problem is that even though the Internet typically knows no international boundaries, governments could still simply block the servers in Iceland with firewalls.
But the biggest problem may be technological, and it’s a bottleneck that will not be easy to fix.
Bandwidth is the data carrying capacity of a network, and any busy server needs lots of bandwidth to provide data without delay or interruption. Iceland’s bottleneck is the lack of bandwidth to the island.
Iceland is geographically situated between Europe and the U.S., but the undersea cables between the two continents that form the backbone of the Internet simply pass the by country. Those fiber-optic cables carry the data equivalent of millions of simultaneous phone calls, but they don’t do Iceland any good.
In other words, Iceland just doesn’t have the data capacity to be a new media center and handle the projected data demands of millions of people. Iceland will have to find hundreds of millions in funding to lay new undersea fiber-optic cable.
For now, whistleblower organizations such as Wikileaks and others may have to remain secretive and use servers scattered around the world rather than depend on a safe media haven that may not come to pass very soon.