Monday, May 27, 2013

The Politics of Piracy: the origin of the Pirate Party Movement

This article originally ran in a June 8, 2006 article in Times Online, back when I was a columnist there. Now that it's lost behind a firewall I've resurrected the original, unedited version here.

By Bernhard Warner

If file-sharing BitTorrent fanatics were to form a political party what would it stand for? Would it adhere to a left-leaning platform, prioritising social services? After all, “free” is their mantra. Or, would it take a page from the political right, arguing for smaller government and free market ideals? To be sure, your typical downloader’s biggest enemy is government intervention.

Vast in numbers, highly educated, well connected, downloaders are a political force. And yet it’s highly unlikely any of the major political parties in the West would consider taking them under their wing any time soon. For that reason, some 6,000 Swedes (and counting) have formed their own political party: The Pirate Party.

To be clear, the Pirate Party doesn’t just represent all-you-can-eat downloaders, but downloading is the principal activity this group -- ranging from their teens to late 50s -- seems to have in common. “For a lot of members this is the first political party they’ve ever joined,” says 21-year-old Balder Lingegard, an engineering student from Gothenburg who serves as the Pirate Party secretary and is a Parliamentary candidate in this September’s national election. “For some, they have felt betrayed by the political system for a long time, feeling it did not represent their interests. Others felt as if there was never an important enough issue for them to take a political stand.”
That “important issue” occurred last week in the form of a raid by Swedish police on The PirateBay, a community of over 1 million BitTorrent users who use the popular technology to exchange all manner of files from copyrighted movies, video games and music to open source software. Not surprisingly, Hollywood executives and record labels have been trying to shut down the Pirate Bay for over a year. On May 31, they succeeded – if only briefly.
The uproar from the take-down triggered something of a rarity in the West: political activism among the Xbox Generation. An estimated 1,000 youths took to the streets of Stockholm and Gothenburg on 3 June to protest the raid in rallies hastily organised by The Pirate Party. While the Pirate Party is not affiliated with the Pirate Bay, the party has used the controversy to pick up much-needed support before the national elections three months away. The party tripled membership in under week, putting it at over 6,000, and the publicity from the raid is giving the party, formed in January, much needed exposure.
Now, the party is thinking big. Its goal is nothing short of representation in Parliament, meaning it will have to capture at least four percent of the popular vote in September. It intends to put 140 candidates on the ballot vying for the 349 seats in Parliament. To appeal to the estimated 1.5 million active downloaders in Sweden (a figure, it must be noted, supplied by the Party), the Pirate Party has been fine-tuning its message to the masses.

“We have three basic pillars to our political platform: shared culture, free knowledge and a protected private life,” says Lingegard. That means: 1) suspending copyright protections five years after the creation of a particular work (shared culture), 2) the abolition of patents (free knowledge) and 3) enhanced individual privacy that would seek to eradicate pesky surveillance cameras (protected private life).

The fact that Sweden, a member of the EU and WTO, is governed by international agreements that would make points 1 and 2 nearly impossible promises to fulfil is of little concern to Lingegard. “Sweden is regulated by national treaties, we are aware of that. But still, this is a good place to start,” he says confidently.

But what about foreign policy, for example? Where does the Pirate Party stand on the war in Iraq or the adoption of the euro? “Our standpoint is simple: We take no standpoint on those issues,” he says. Instead, the Pirate Party, if elected, plans to throw all its support behind the top party as long as they, in turn, support the “shared culture, free knowledge and a protected private life” platform of the Pirate Party. In that way, says Lingegard, the Pirate Party will forever escape the convenient labels of left, right or centrist.

But to regard the Pirate Party members, and downloaders in general, as opportunists would perhaps be selling short the movement. Lingegard describes the core Party member as culturally aware, concerned for the future and technologically sophisticated. They bank online, shop online and, of course, share online, which would make them, to use traditional political labels, consumerist and communist chic.

Perhaps this is what Lingegard means when he says the political establishment in Sweden just doesn’t understand this constituency. But name for me an elected official anywhere who understands a voting bloc that, as Lingegard says, is neither “left, nor centre nor right”. (We can certainly disqualify any head of state who thinks it’s called “The Internets”).

We may be searching for years for a familiar –ist that could help define their politics. But, thanks to Pirate Bay, we can rule out one. They are no longer isolationists.

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