Smári McCarthy: From Panama to Piracy.

“It’s great to be in the Mecca of technology” greeted Smári McCarthy – at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. Silicon Valley has much of what McCarthy is tackling as an information activist – investment inequity, technology and corporate power.  It also has some of the smartest thinking.

Smári helped break the story of the Panama Papers and launched Iceland’s Pirate Party. As Chief technologist at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Smári is fighting to give people access to data–to the critical information that enable enlightened decisions to be made. Without that, “we don’t have a democracy”.  Concerned over the way technology and politics have eroded freedom of information Smári is actively working to bring about more disclosure.  In many nations that champion democracy, internet censorship is widespread. 


 “People don’t usually talk about the UK as having censorship. It is one of the biggest in Europe.”

Smári believes that the Panama Papers will be the biggest leak in history.  A network of over 400 investigative journalists are working together to expose “the criminal economy” – he called the effort “the largest conspiracy, to inform the public”.  

This collaboration has led to the shutting down of over 1300 companies, reclamation of millions of tax dollars, many arrests and imprisonments.  It also led to the resignation of Iceland’s President.  This direct impact makes Smári proud.  Government agencies seeking to fight the criminal economy “haven’t made a public impact–despite being billions funded.”

The team on the Panama Papers are “having a greater society impact per dollar than the NSA.”

Many important ramifications from the Panama Papers are yet to come.  But the task to unpack raw data is an uphill battle.  Despite being able to process 2,000 documents per minute it’s an arduous task.  Dirty and inconsistent data, in multiple languages (many translations are hard to come by) makes it difficult to deal with the complexity.  As a result, backlogs of information-rich databases are laying redundant. More investment is needed, and more human-power.   “We’re trying to find ways to make the painful work easier”. The context of Silicon Valley’s wealth and braintrust was not lost.

32 trillion dollars is held in offshore tax havens.  Smári is frustrated by this inequity, and by how much good the taxable income could have in the world. Given his druthers he’d restructure the economy to “plug the sink and have greater income equality.”

The failure of governments to tackle the criminal economy, especially in his home country of Iceland, has led him directly into the political arena. He founded The Pirate Party as a democratic alternative and will have a strong role in politics to come.  His objective is to have more radical exposure to policy.  He believes that “policy is made up on the spot”, without due diligence and care.  “We need to help smart people to stop being afraid of going into politics.”

 Smári would like to tackle better healthcare for all and reduce the hours people work.  His balance between employment and happiness was evident. 

“I have the best job in the world.  I piss off dictators for a living.”

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