Monday, May 27, 2013

Pirates run aground at the polls: The early days of the Pirate Party

This article originally ran in a September, 20, 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
Was it naïve to think a populist movement galvanised by a call of downloads for all! could sweep into political power? This rueful question is on the minds of many young Swedes this week after national elections.

The youth-dominated Piracy Party, founded earlier this year in Sweden before spreading to 16 other countries including Britain, failed in its first trip to the polls on Sunday. A party founded on three basic principles – to reform commercial copyright, eradicate meddlesome patent laws and stop the surveillance of file-sharers – proved to be less popular with the voters than tax cuts and job growth, as promised by the victorious right-leaning Moderate Party.

While the official tally was still unavailable as of press time, the Piracy Party was expected to amass in the area of one percent of the popular vote. They had been hoping for four percent (or roughly 300,000 votes), a tally required to earn seats in Parliament and begin the arduous task of convincing lawmakers of the need to rewrite legislation governing copyright and patents and to strengthen privacy protections for all netizens.

The BitTorrent generation’s most organised push yet for copyright reform, certainly the net’s most popular rallying cry, will now be stalled for at least two more years – until after the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, an election the Piracy Party has in its sights.

“Obviously, we’re not happy we didn’t get more of the vote,” Balder Lingegard, a university student from Gothenburg who serves as the Pirate Party secretary and ran for an MP seat, told me this week after a full day of classes. “But if you think what we’ve accomplished for an organisation with such financial limitations, the mood is still high.”

When we spoke last week, on the eve of the elections, he was upbeat and a bit anxious. The early poll results showed promise, and it dawned on him that if successful, the 22-year-old would have to figure out a way to juggle his quantum physics classes with his Parliamentary obligations. Kids these days!

But instead, as Mr. Lingegard dolefully noted this week, it’s back to the books. He says the party’s primary focus now is to get its 9,500 registered members more involved by organising into regional groups to keep the message alive and tap into the next generation of would-be voters, the 14- to 19-year-olds. Above all, he says, the party needs to clarify its position: that it’s not a bunch of freeloaders, an image that dogged the party throughout the campaign.

“The largest problem we had was the party was not considered a serious party. Most of the people we met considered us to be some kind of joke. Some thought we had no serious platform, that we just wanted stuff for free. We believe that this image is beginning to change,” he says.

The issue winning over the sceptical ones is the spectre of increased surveillance. “No one wants a surveillance nation like you have in Britain” he says.

Alluding to the movement’s appeal overseas, Mr. Lingegard vowed the Piracy Party will remain an active voice in the digital copyright debate. Perhaps the party’s rhetoric is already sinking in. Starting with the campaign, some of the more prominent Swedish political candidates have began to question for the first time publicly whether the criminalisation of file-sharing ought to be addressed. Whether it’s a political stunt on their parts to appeal to young voters remains to be seen.

To be sure, whether the Piracy Party will last to the 2009 European elections is, historically speaking, a long shot. Political parties formed on a narrow set of issues – lest you forget, the Piracy Party proudly takes no stance on such hotly debated issues as foreign policy, the euro, taxation or the environment – often quickly fall out of favour with the populace.

Even in the aftermath of defeat, the party is not calling for any radical changes; crucially, it sees no need in adding to its platform the concerns of let’s call it the analogue world: namely, clean air, job security and the euro. The Party, says Mr. Lingegard, has attracted members who were former anarchists, nationalists and communists. “If we were to appeal more to the general public with these issues, the 9,500 members we have today would leave.”

In my first conversation with Mr. Lingegard in June, I asked him how he would define the party using conventional political labels. Is the Piracy Party centrist, I asked? Right or left? Could it be libertarian or even communist? Certainly, elements of each would appeal to a sharing-is-good, keep-government-out platform. Mr. Lingegard responded there is no –ist that applies to the Piracy Party.

Perhaps that clinched the party’s downfall. To quote one famous –ist, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions. That is where serious politics begin.”

It’s a bitter lesson learned for this young movement. Filesharers of the world, you are still not united.

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.