As an IT lawyer, Martin Grønbæk has spent his entire career in the IT industry. Not only as a lawyer, but also as the founder of an IT company. Now he’s working on a new project to hold those in power to account.
Excerpts and quotes from an article written by Tine Brødegaard Hansen, published 25 August 2022 in the Danish online media ITwatch on the occasion of my 60th birthday in spring 2022. The full article in Danish can be read here, but is unfortunately behind a paywall.
Here are some excerpts and quotes that I am allowed to publish here, as I am the holder of copyright to my own words:
“Many of the causes I’ve fought for have to do with open source and sharing data and
information. Although at the time it was heretical to talk about sharing software and content,
you didn’t have to be very bright to see that this was the future,” says Martin von Haller
Grønbæk as he enjoys a croissant in Klub‘s café in Nørrebro.
The battle with PBS, the Danish de facto monopoly over electronic payments, was “a funny business”, he recalls. “E-commerce was the first commercial opportunity to be seen as the internet took off. But you couldn’t have an e-commerce business if nobody could pay, so the credit card had to go on the Internet,” he says, continuing, “PBS was against that because it would open up the possibility of paying with international credit cards. It became a very heated discussion that could move billions of dollars for Danish business and their payment providers.”
“They were hoping they could hug us to death. But it was great, because everyone wanted to hear what we were saying, and everyone was afraid of our association. At the time, everything was about the fee size on Dankort transactions, and we were the unpredictable heavyweight at the weight school,” says Martin von Haller Grønbæk.
Martin von Haller Grønbæk also became an unpopular figure in Klareboderne, where Gyldendal, the largest Danish publishing house, is based. One day, as he was entering the publishing house for a meeting, Stig Andersen, the managing director at the time, opened a window and shouted “don’t let that man in, he’s dangerous”. The reason was that Martin was a co-founder of Creative Commons, an international organisation that fought for authors and their publishers to share books, music and other content on open source terms. It would “destroy their existing business models,” Martin von Haller Grønbæk explains.
Not everyone would think it was so cool to take on powerful forces and have many enemies, where did the belligerence come from? “No, of course not. If you’re a young person working in a big law firm and you’re on a partner track, you think about not taking on the establishment,” he says, adding, “But I basically didn’t have that problem because I had just started our own little law firm with a few others. The fights brought attention in the tech industry and the press, and it brought new clients.”
For although he had “seen the light” in the US during his studies in the early 90s and knew that the internet would be big in Denmark and that it would provide plenty of legal work, that was not the conventional wisdom yet. “When I came home, I was kind of alone in that belief.”
While setting up the law firm’s website, Martin von Haller Grønbæk met a DTU student named Alexander Aghassipour. Together they founded one of Denmark’s first internet companies, Araneum. At first the aim was to help companies create websites, but later it grew into a large consultancy with designers, developers and strategic consultants.
“Araneum had become quite big by the end of the 90s and, when dotcom prices were at their peak, was valued at a billion kroner. I owned 15 per cent, but we made an exit on the wrong side of the dotcom bubble, so we didn’t get anything out of it,” says Martin von Haller Grønbæk, adding, “I could then go back and be a lawyer. Alexander was more on the ball, but a few years later he helped start Zendesk, one of the first Danish unicorns (which has just been sold for about DKK 73 billion, ed.).”
After the crash, there was a collective sigh of relief from the established industries, including the legal profession, according to Martin von Haller Grønbæk. “It was a bit like everyone was saying, ‘phew, it didn’t work out with The internet companies didn’t come to anything anyway. Now it’s going to be like the good old days’.” While the big law firms lost focus on startups, Martin von Haller Grønbæk held on, he says. “It’s certainly not because I’m a particularly good person, but I had no other specialties.”
“When I was 10-15 years older than most of them, I was called the Godfather. It should probably be more have been Il Consiglieri,” says Martin von Haller Grønbæk.
There are few similarities between the early years of the internet and what it has since evolved into into. Still, Martin Grønbæk sees a clear common thread. “Technological solutions are constantly dancing between centralisation and decentralisation, control and non-control, monopoly and competition,” he says, pointing out that companies like Google are trying to monopolise the data generated by internet use.
“Now we see blockchain technology as an attempt to decentralise data. So when someone has figured out how to create a monopoly on top of or next to a blockchain, then a new technology will emerge with the ability to disrupt.”
“It’s controversial to have that position when you sit on the Data Council, but it’s related because, obviously, I’m in favour of the rules that we democratically adopted also being respected. Because you want to live in a society based on the rule of law, you can also think that some of the rules are completely wrong,” says Martin von Haller Grønbæk and adds: “Therefore, I can easily think that the GDPR is basically a big mistake that does not safeguard the personal data of ordinary people to a degree that in any way justifies the huge social costs of thus imposing a ‘Lawyers tax’ on information, on innovation and on small businesses.”
Matriarchal society. State interference in the protection of our data is an expression of the fact that we live in what is today a matriarchal society, says Martin von Haller Grønbæk. At the moment it is embodied by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, but it might as well be some of the male and bourgeois politicians: “Mom or dad will decide what you can be exposed to on the internet. You’re not big to find out for yourself,” he says.
“When you restrict freedom of communication with rules about what you can say on Facebook, for example, and require platforms to filter content and ban anonymity, then I think you’re going over the line,” says Martin von Haller Grønbæk. “But where do we draw the line on what we can model? The debate on algorithms and digital protection is always about doing it for the sake of others. In reality very little research, if any, to suggest that these algorithms are manipulating people.” says Martin von Haller Grønbæk.
The tech giants and social media companies are not someone we should be afraid of, says Martin von Haller Grønbæk, who adds that they need to be regulated very strictly through rules on transparency, competition and tax. “In the old days, people thought Microsoft and Windows had won, but then came Google, open source and Linux. Now you think nothing ever wins over big tech and Amazon. But the venture capitalists who invested in Amazon and the others becoming big want to invest in something new that will break the monopoly. That’s how capitalism works, if there is competition,” he says.
“Our contention is that the judiciary in Denmark is not playing its role sufficiently in the tripartite division of power. There is a need for the three bodies and the press to check each other. And here we believe that the courts are not fully on board.” According to Martin von Haller Grønbæk, this is because it is almost impossible for private individuals to bring cases against legislators or the government.
“The attorneys general (who are lawyers for the state, ed.) are allocated endless resources.”