Pirates in Parliament! A new party is boarding Europe
A SPECTER IS HAUNTING Europe – the specter of pirates. First they raided the Spanish Main, then they boarded Hollywood. From there they have moved on to terrorize shipping along the Somali coast, and now they’re staking a claim on European politics. So break out the rum, raise the Jolly Roger, and enjoy the swordplay!The Pirate Party phenomenon began in Sweden on January 1, 2006, when computer systems designer Rickard Falkvinge launched a website called www.piratpartiet.se. Within six hours, 75,000 people had joined his new movement, which calls for personal freedom, complete freedom of expression, sweeping privacy rights, increased democracy, and a loosening of copyright laws. Falkvinge traced his new party’s name to The Pirate Bay, a Swedish BitTorrent tracker company founded in 2003 that soon crossed sabres with the Swedish authorities, who accused it of facilitating illegal downloads of music, videos, and other copyrighted material. As the year progressed, EU authorities tightened copyright and intellectual property rules even further. On May 31, 2006 Swedish police raided and briefly shut down The Pirate Bay, provoking a massive public protest in Stockholm on June 3. (Thanks to this publicity, The Pirate Bay today boasts some 25 million users.)
Pirate Party founder Rickard Falkvinge
The Pirates collected signatures over the summer and qualified themselves for the upcoming Riksdag election. In September their candidates received 34,918 votes. While this represented only 0.63% of votes cast, it nonetheless established them as Sweden’s largest non-parliamentary party. At the June elections for the European Parliament, the Pirates polled 7.1 % of the vote and sent their first deputy to Brussels. They likely would have received an even larger share if the other parties had not hastily altered their own positions on Internet copyright regulations in order to drive these pesky freebooters off the high seas.
"The [Swedish] Pirate Party is running in the 2009 EU election"
Sweden’s Pirates are directing their appeal to the so-called “digital natives,” by which they mean the generation of under-thirty-fives who have absorbed the computer and the Internet along with their mother’s milk. This is an age group for which unrestricted online access is not just a basic human right but is as vital as oxygen. Its members have largely bypassed the corporate world for online freelance work at home or at their local Starbucks. These self-proclaimed nerds not only use the Internet for all their daily work and communication needs, they also developed most of the programs that power it for everyone else.
What Falkvinge and his disciples are calling for in their struggle against Europe’s “anti-piracy” laws is a digital-social revolution that will essentially mark the end of the data and publishing industries as we know them. The Pirates believe that the digital reproducibility of modern media and computer programs means that digital products and intellectual property should be free for all to use. Who owns the Internet anyway, they ask: its corporate creators or its actual users? Are the millions of so-called Internet pirates who regularly share copyrighted files all common criminals who belong in jail? They argue that “there is no such thing as intellectual property.” The party also seeks a ban on all online surveillance and the storage of Internet user data, pointing out that in the USA there are now elaborate programs ostensibly designed to track terrorists that can instantly prepare detailed profiles of ordinary citizens merely on the basis of their Internet use. They do not want this sort of surveillance to spread to Europe.
"Think you're being watched? Join us and stop Big Brother"
The Pirates are not only concerned about computer use. Their struggle against restrictive copyright laws also extends to agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry, which they believe place unfair and potentially deadly restrictions on global food production and medical care. Their utopia is a world without monopolies, patents, multinational corporations, and data control.
Prospective voters will naturally want to know whether the new party is “left” or “right.” But as children of the post-Cold War era, these digital privateers know that such labels no longer mean very much in today’s global society. They are certainly “left-wing” when they attack the property rights of large corporations, and their call for what amounts to the public ownership of data has a clearly Marxist ring to it. At the same time, their entrepreneurial instinct is clearly capitalistic, while their extreme individualism represents the essence of both anarchism and libertarianism.
"Internet filtering, repression, sanctions. No! Let's mobilise!"
From the French Pirate Party
Today, Pirate Parties have either been established or are in the planning stages throughout most of Europe as well as in Australia, Brazil, and Argentina. Germany’s Pirate Party formally registered in September 2006. It garnered one half a percentage point in the Hessen state election in 2009 and around 0.9% in the June EU Parliament election. It won 1.5% of the votes in the August 30 state election in Saxony. At local elections earlier this year it gained one seat each in the city councils of Aachen and Münster. The party’s membership has increased eightfold since April and the party is now hoping to send at least one representative directly into the Bundestag in the September 27 national election.
The junior swashbucklers (sometimes in costume) seen handing out Pirate pamphlets on college campuses and outside Internet cafés are young and fresh, their message down-to-earth and exciting. But the Party also includes a mischievously clever slogan among its assets: “Prepare to change!”, whereby the German word for change (ändern) sounds almost identical to the word for “board” (entern). You can almost hear the tapping of Long John Silver's wooden leg just around the corner...
"Prepare to change [board]! Think for yourself!"
In fact, the Pirates already have a deputy in the Bundestag – Jörg Tauss, a former Social Democrat from Stuttgart who left his party in June and joined the Pirates after being accused of sharing online child pornography (Tauss claims he was merely “conducting research”). The scandal surrounding Tauss highlights a sensitive aspect of the Pirate movement – the very real abuse of the Internet for criminal purposes. The Pirates make it clear that they utterly reject child pornography and other clear criminal offenses of this kind. However, they argue that current attempts to ban websites and spy on users – as currently demanded by Germany’s conservative family minister, Ursula van der Leyen – actually represent a government attempt to seize control of the Internet as a whole and restrict the freedom it embodies – in other words, censorship. They point out that such attempts in other countries have mainly banned websites that had nothing to do with child pornography. According to the party’s founder and chairman, physicist Jens Seipenbusch, politicians are trying to stake a claim on a territory that does not belong to them and which they do not even understand. “Our actions are purely defensive,” he recently told the weekly magazine Die Zeit.
"Glass people? How about a transparent state?
We are fighting to defend your private sphere"
The German Pirates are not likely to make it into the Bundestag this time around. Under German law, a party needs at least 5% of the vote to be entitled to a seat, and despite polls showing that up to 6% of Germans can imagine voting for the Pirates, they are unlikely to win more than half that figure. So why have they attracted such extraordinary media attention? Simple: In this close election year, every vote for the Pirates means a vote shaved off the other parties, which are all scrambling either to condemn the Pirates or to adopt some of their positions – usually both at once! This year, none of the larger parties has any intention of walking the plank.
Whether they can establish themselves as a viable party still remains to be seen. In any case, on “StudiVZ,” Germany’s most popular social networking sites for high school and college students, they are more popular than the Social Democrats and the Greens combined. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung recently called these young buccaneers “the children of the digital revolution.” The Pirates’ appearance on the ballot represents the political coming of age of a new online generation that is here to stay.
At the moment a new Pirate Party is forming in the United States as well. So keep your eyes trained on the horizon – otherwise you may wake up to discover a Jolly Roger flying from your own city hall some morning soon.
Clear the deck! Europe's Pirates are taking their
message to the open sea