Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Guess it Beats Selling Tickets to Eyjafjallajökull

By Mike Dorf

In the wake of the collapse of its economy, Iceland is apparently trying to remake itself as a haven for freedom of speech and the press (as reported, e.g., here and more recently here).  The island nation is in the process of passing laws that would provide the world's strongest reporter-source shield, prevent the execution of defamation judgments from places like the UK, and generally make the country an attractive locale for outfits like Wikileaks to operate.  This is a quixotic enterprise even if a worthy one.

Why quixotic?  Principally because there isn't necessarily a lot of money in being a press haven.  In fact, it would seem quite the opposite.  It's easy to see why the leaders of a country might want to become a tax haven: Attract investment and boost the local economy.  Likewise, a country may seek to become a copying haven through nonenforcement of IP rights.  I think such strategies are probably a bad idea in the long run--as they discourage full engagement with the global economy--but one can see how they might work in the short run and in some instances (e.g., Switzerland until recently) may even be compatible with full participation in the modern economy.  But journalism?  The decreasing revenues of news organizations are an extremely well-known and largely tragic story about the downside of modern communications.  It's hardly clear why Iceland would benefit from inducing major news organizations to relocate to Reykjavik so they can go bankrupt there rather than in their previous homes.

Nor is it at all clear to me that it's even possible for Iceland to become a journalism haven.  Let's say you publish a web-based pull-no-punches news magazine but you're worried about being prosecuted for revealing state secrets or sued for defamation or whatever.  You move your servers and your main offices to Iceland so that they can't be attached to satisfy a judgment in the UK or some other place with less journalism-friendly laws.  So far so good but now what?  You can produce as much commentary as you want but if you want to actually report in the sense of going out and gathering facts, there's only so much you can do from your frozen island perch.  Yes, you can do like Wikileaks by accepting all manner of computer files, emails, etc, and then posting them on your website, but that is hardly all that is needed for a full-service journalism operation.  You also need to send people and equipment out into the field, and when you do, they will be subject to the laws of other sovereigns.

The plan to make Iceland a journalism haven rests on the notion that laws operate in discrete territories whereas ideas know no boundaries.  But that's probably wrong.  The very thing that provides Iceland with the possibility of shielding journalists--its authority over its territory--is what undermines this project: The stories worth gathering exist in other discrete territories with their own laws.  Until we're all brains in vats connected to the Matrix, that fact will make it hard to run a journalism haven.

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