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Meet the world's most successful geek-turned-politician

In Iceland recently, CNET's Eric Mack tracked down one of the world's most impressive geek politicians, Pirate Party leader Birgitta Jonsdottir.

Birgitta Jonsdottir in Iceland's parliament building. Eric Mack/CNET

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- With one election down in the UK and another just revving up here in the US, I'm still asking the same question I was posing last year: Is there such thing as a political party for geeks and nerds? Shortly after discussing the question with my colleagues on the monthly CraveCast, I came across the answer...in Iceland.

According to the most recent opinion survey of potential voters, Iceland's Pirate Party is the most popular in the small island nation, despite the fact that it only holds three seats (or about 5 percent) of the 63 seats in Iceland's parliament, the Althingi, which is believed to be the oldest on Earth, dating back to the Viking era.

And if there was ever a party of geeks and nerds, at least one with actual political clout in the real world, Iceland's Pirates are it. College students, programmers and poets populate the ranks of this party that believes in direct democracy, human rights, privacy rights and transparency and embraces technology as a means to those ends.

I made a pilgrimage to the small Pirate Party office in the Icelandic Parliament last month to meet with Pirate Party leader Birgitta Jonsdottir, a 48-year-old poet turned politician (she prefers the term "poetician") and former Wikileaks spokesperson who waxes nostalgic about the early days of the Web, when she worked as a Web designer and was active in early netzines circa 1995. Those publications include one she calls "Creative Thinking in Technology" that has since disappeared from the Web (but some of the works from the physical press she started around the same time, Beyond Borders, are still available).

Inside the Iceland Pirate Party office in parliament. Eric Mack/CNET

"It was just an incredible time when you could see how you could improve the offline [world] with what was happening online," she tells me while seated on a couch, wearing bright Lycra tights and flanked by a pirate flag hanging in the window to her right and a poster of controversial American whistle-blower Chelsea Manning to her left.

It's hard to imagine this scene in any office inside the US Capitol building.

Jonsdottir has sought to bring that same early Internet ethos into Icelandic politics. One of her most significant political accomplishments to date is the creation of the International Modern Media Institute with the backing of the Icelandic parliament. IMMI is a kind of repository for the best laws and practices around the world relating to freedom of information, expression and speech. It also seeks to make Iceland a "journalistic safe haven" -- a state-sanctioned Wikileaks of sorts. Jonsdottir shepherded the legislation that led to IMMI's founding through parliament and now does double duty as the official spokesperson for the institute.

"We are trying to bring democracy up to date," Jonsdottir explains.

It's a message that seems to resonate with Icelanders, possibly buoyed by frustration over the perceived lack of political change since the country became the hardest hit by the global economic collapse of 2008. A survey in March found that the Pirates were the most popular party for the first time, and the latest survey this month shows that number has grown to the point that the Pirate Party is more favorably viewed than the two current ruling parties -- the Independents and the Progressives -- combined.

Before heading to my interview with Jonsdottir, I asked the owners of the guest house where I was staying near Reykjavik what the politics in Iceland were like these days. I received a polite but cynical tirade equivalent to "they're all crooks."

When I asked about Jonsdottir and the Pirates, my host's tone suddenly changed.

"You mean Birgitta? Oh yes, she seems different. I think the Pirate Party is different."

Jonsdottir thinks her background as both a poet and a geek is part of what makes her and her fellow pirates different. She says that both artists and IT people look at systems, whether it's a network or a government bureaucracy, "from a different angle... they look at how they can improve that system."

For now, Iceland's Pirates remain a small majority in a very small country with a total population that could fit into just one square mile of Hong Kong's busiest neighborhood. But the Pirates' level of official influence could change during the next parliamentary election in 2017, if the current survey results are any indication.

I ask if Jonsdottir has any advice for politically inclined geeks frustrated with the status quo in their own countries, especially large democracies like the US where elections are a billion dollar affair dominated by just two major parties.

"Prior to the (economic) collapse, nobody ever believed that we could break through the pillars that owned Iceland," she tells me. "It is a bit of an illusion that it's too big -- just like the banks were supposed to be too big to fail."

Jonsdottir, who has spent many years traveling and living in different regions of the US, suggests using the power of the individual states to affect change.

"States are quite powerful," she says. "Some states have really done some amazing stuff, like in public banking. It's like you have very many different countries within the United States, the states are very independent and very different."

There is a Pirate Party in the United States, but it has minimal support and recognition. It may soon get a boost though. As I leave the parliament, Jonsdottir tells me she doesn't plan to run for reelection. Instead, she hopes to return to San Francisco to get in touch with her geek roots.

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