Open Source Politics: The Radical Promise of Germany's Pirate Party

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Inspired by a Swedish file-sharing website, the political insurgents are winning elections on a platform of openness and inclusivity, but can they survive the realities of governing?

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Local Pirate Party leaders hold a press conference in Kiel, Germany. (Reuters)

When people tell the story of the Pirate Party, which in May won 20 seats in a vital state vote in Germany, they often begin with a controversial 2009 proposed law that would have installed an automated web-filtering system into the national telecommunications network. The government said it was stymie child pornography. Critics argued it was out to stymie whoever the state wanted.

But, in fact, the story starts three years earlier, in 2006, when a court in the city of Mannheim argued that German citizens who own wireless internet routers were legally responsible for the traffic passing through the router; in 2010, Germany's Federal Court of Justice ruled Germans could be fined 100 Euros or more for leaving their Wi-Fi networks unlocked. Swarms of litigators buzzed across the country knocking on doors and dragging citizens to court over illegal downloads. The first was a man whose visiting friend had downloaded a copy of the 2006 German hit Summer of Our Lives while on vacation at the man's house.

That September, in 2006, a fervent but tiny group of German web activists called an in-person meeting to discuss what they called government and corporate interference online. The activists had been meeting for months on a German wiki dedicated to re-creating the efforts of like-minded activists in Sweden, who had recently formed a political party known as the Pirate Party. The Germans' physical meeting was an endearing collection; 50 turned up. The wiki administrator, a 31-year-old with a soul patch and a Mohawk, called himself Mor Roquen or "Dark Knight" in a fictitious Elvish language. The group decided to call itself The Pirates, named after the Swedish Pirates and the Swedish file-sharing site ThePirateBay.se, which had long been a prominent target of the same internet regulation forces that this group so opposes.

By the time they won 20 seats in the May election -- bringing their nationwide total to 45 seats in state legislatures -- Germany's Pirate Party claimed more than 30,000 members. Pirate Parties are officially registered in 15 European countries. They hold local government seats in Spain, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. In 2009, Swedish voters elected two Pirate Party members to the European Parliament. A recent German opinion poll showed the Pirate Party tied for fourth nationally, with 7 percent saying they would vote for the party today.

Germany's Pirates have seen their platform open and ranks skyrocket over the last year, absorbing some of Germany's youth and political malcontent to win local elections in Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf and Kiel.

With Germany's 2013 federal elections swift approaching, the Pirates have become the protest party of the moment. The Party is not limited to Germany. It didn't even begin there. Sister Pirate Parties have won elected seats in Austria, Czech Republic, Spain, and Switzerland. Chapters have opened in, among others, Estonia, Taiwan, Bosnia, Nepal, New Zealand, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Of course, not all are officially registered as political parties, much less winning elections, but their appeal clearly crosses borders.

The Pirates' success has been a surprise to many, including the Pirates themselves. The party drew ire in April when one of its leaders -- Martin Delius, 28, who wears a pony-tail -- compared the party's velocity to that of the Nazi party.

The rise of the Pirate Party is as fast as that of the NSDAP between 1928 and 1933," Mr. Delius said to Spiegel magazine, referring the Nazis by their more formal National Socialist German Worker's Party.

If anything, the Pirate Party is more akin to the Communist Party, in that it was born out of an emerging economic and social era driven by a new technology, and that it advocates for people's rights in, and postulates new rules of engagement for, how to live in this new era of new advances. If the communists were beholden to industrialization, then the Pirates are beholden to the Internet.

"The ancient dream of compiling all human knowledge and culture and to store it for the present and future is within close grasp," the Pirate manifesto posits. "The digital revolution brings humanity the opportunity of advancing democracy" and "enables completely new and previously unthinkable solutions for the distribution of power within a state."

"The aim," it calls, "is to distribute power as broadly as possible over all citizens and thus secure their freedom and their privacy."

The Internet has radically transformed human society by democratizing access to information, as well as the aspiration to shape knowledge.

"Architecture is politics," Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and of The Electronic Frontier Foundation, has said. "The structure of a network itself, more than the regulations which govern its use, significantly determines what people can and cannot do."

The Pirate Party envisages itself a vanguard of this new world, protecting the Internet through advocacy on digital-specs and copyright-reform while maximizing the Internet's derivative impact, such as advocacy for more frequent and direct voting and for government transparency.

"Informational self-determination, free access to knowledge and culture, and privacy protection are the pillars of the information society of the future," the Pirate manifesto reads. "Only on this basis can a democratic global order emerge."

On the other side of the Pirate Party and the broader movement for populist web freedom are often, naturally, the governments that have increasingly sought to regulate this new speech tool. Or they have sought to use it as a means to monitor its users. Last year, U.S. federal agencies lodged at least 1.3 million requests to cell-phone carriers for subscribers' personal information, including for text messages, and caller locations.

Also in the U.S., the 2011 Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act aims to enhance data-exchange of user information between intelligence agencies and private online companies and to systemize web monitoring with the ability to shut-down websites that publish classified information.

In a bid to protect Hollywood, the 2011 Stop Online Piracy Act would have reinvigorated copyright law by allowing injunctions against any website, including advertising networks and online payment systems, that "enables, or facilitates" copyright infringement. It could also land a person who streams unauthorized video five years in prison.

The 2011 PROTECT Intellectual Property Act similarly aimed to strike at "rogue" websites whose activity "harms" U.S. copyright holders.

PIPA and SOPA both returned to the drafting board this year after widespread protests, but the Mothership the 2011 Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, signed by the United States, Canada, Mexico, the entirety of the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Morocco, South Korea, and Singapore -- remains.

Private media companies too have sought to regulate cyberspace in protection of their commercial interests, at times through IP blocking and tiered-pricing systems.

It's a bold new world for the activists as well. For years, Internet dissent was held largely to web forums and mirror sites.

A 1990 online campaign targeting controversial software from Lotus struck early. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, still a leading voice in championing public interest in digital-rights battles, was founded that same year.

In 1999, a collection of independent media organizations founded Indymedia.org to cover the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. In later years, Facebook groups emerged. Twitter became a GPS for street demonstrations. Then came WikiLeaks.

Earlier this year, online protest reached a zenith with the January 18 web protests against PIPA and SOPA, in which leading websites, including Wikipedia, Craigslist, Reddit, and Mozilla, participated in a web 'blackout.' The Web's weight was felt; the bills were shelved days later.

European Parliament voted down ACTA. "European activists who participated in American Internet protests last month," The New York Times wrote in February, "learned that there was political power to be harnessed on the Web."But the European activists already knew that. In Europe, years of resistance to Internet regulation had frothed a residual, political voice.

The rise of the Pirate Party -- the spillover of online dissent into a political party -- was perhaps inevitable. "Cyberspace is not so much a distinct realm as it is the very environment we inhabit," write the authors of Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace. Private and public attempts to manipulate cyberspace leave what they call "a chilling effect" with "profound consequences on freedom of speech," raising "important and sometimes troubling public policy issues -- particularly for the relationship between citizens and states."

The Pirates embody the challenge to these issues, combining the unabashed can-do positivity of where cyberspace promises to take us with the patriotic knee-jerk protectionism of a Second Amendment-defender spooked the government is coming to take freedom away.

"The state must not be allowed to require operators of Internet subnetworks to analyze transmitted data via deep packet inspection (DPI)," article 6.2 in the German Pirate Party's manifesto reads. "When reserving and assigning frequency ranges, the social benefit from free use and access to all stakeholders must have precedence."

"Adequate quality and speeds for data transmission must be ensured, even in rural areas," it says. "The social safety nets must enable those who lack the financial means to create the required technical environment to purchase and operate the necessary technology."

If the hippies had their moment in the political limelight, the hackers are having theirs.

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Josh Kron is a writer based in Kampala, Uganda. He covers east Africa and Africa's Great Lakes Region for The New York Times and has written for Foreign Policy, The Guardian, CNN, and Ha'aretz.

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