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

I met the Pirate Party candidate running to unseat the mayor of Halle, Germany at a café along a moon-washed street in this formerly East German town. Tina Otten, a 20-year-old literature and political science double major at Ruhr-University Bochum, was drinking beers and debating politics with fellow party members. It looked more like a book club than a political convention. Christian Kunze, 28, the Pirates' choice for mayor of Halle, snug in his beanie, was leaning against the wall.

The Halle Pirates' weekly stammtisch or general meeting at this bar is much like the party itself, and its Internet ethos -- open to all.

Pirates come from around the surrounding area each Wednesday, from work, school, or home. There is Tina, the literature and political science double major, rolling cigarettes with her boyfriend while she takes notes. There is Rodney Thomas, a retired American ex-pat from California who for years dreamt of settling in Halle -- it is an unremarkable town -- and finally did so this year. He's an activist, and conspiracist; an itinerant, elemental fray, attracted to the Pirates.

When Pirates are not meeting physically, they use software called Liquid Feedback to virtually debate, amend, and vote on policy proposals in real-time. Each Pirate carries one vote and the software invigorates a spirit and dynamic of citizenry within party ranks. The Pirates hope to replicate this approach on the national stage into a sort of open-source politics.

"Representative democracy is an 18th century institution designed to kind of temporarily assign power to a representative who is supposed to somehow glean what they want to know and check for an update every two or four years," says Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, a media organization dedicated to the interplay between technology and political action. "The Pirate Party is the first example of a political organization that demonstratively is rethinking the relationship between members and leaders."

For now, they're just hoping for 8 to 13 percent in Halle's mayoral election.

"We're not trying to win," explains chemist Roman Landig, a local Pirate spokesperson. They're just trying to make an imprint.

Germany's Pirate Party has its roots in a six-year-old web discussion forum for those concerned with the developing lattice of Internet regulations, which has been an increasingly tense political issue in some European countries.

France has clashed with Google over tax evasion and privacy policy. In Germany, Facebook pages and 'like' buttons have been banned from one state's government organizations due to privacy concerns.

The European Commission itself has posted a YouTube video warning citizens of risks surfing the web. But the law is coming down hard on Internet piracy.

For years, Germany has mandated that personal WiFi networks be password-protected, so that third parties cannot use the network to download copyrighted data. If a WiFi signal is found unprotected, the owner faces a fine of up to 100 Euros. In 2009, the government tried to enact a law creating a web filter to fight child-pornography. It later reneged.

In Sweden, arguably the most wired-up nation in the world, over 50 police agents stormed The Pirate Bay torrent site compound, confiscating web servers and forcing the site offline in an iconic strike.

The Pirate Party pledges to "acknowledge originators' personal rights to their products to the fullest extent," but argues "creation of artificial scarcity purely for economic purposes" -- read: iTunes -- is "immoral."

The raid on The Pirate Bay became highly symbolic, a physical ground-assault on the Internet by government forces,spilling the fight over the Internet out from the confines of the digital realm.

The site re-opened days later, traffic more than doubling. The Pirate Party in Sweden saw its membership triple in a week.

Across the Baltic, the German geeks were watching. Christof Leng clicked away from news about the raid and the Swedish Pirates and typed a URL: http://www.piratenpartei.de, using the German top-level domain.

A blank page with 21 words blinked back. "This domain will be given to the pirate party once it has been founded," an English translation reads. "In the meantime the wiki may be used for discussion."

The wiki was largely empty. He asked the hosts for administrator privileges and registered himself as "Moroquen," opening several forums, including, "Policy objectives" and "Establishment of a party, huh?" Curious web users trickled in.

"Sweden definitely was a thing for us," Leng, now 36, told me in a Google talk chat, of the German Pirates' founding. "We didn't know where our little project would end up. Nobody really planned to become a part-time or even full-time politician back then. It was meant to be a (time-intensive) hobby."

It took a few years for Germany's Pirates to attract their first 1,000 members, who were mostly hackers and programmers by trade. Then, in 2009, the government passed the controversial Internet child-pornography law. Instead of simply deleting sites, the bill called for a filter, which some feared might be used against other types of sites and could represent a new assertiveness in government regulation of the web.

There was massive uproar. The Pirates' publicity rose, and their numbers swelled to over 10,000 by the end of 2009. That year, the Pirates notched 2 percent in federal elections, statistically significant signs for an emerging party, attracting 13 percent support from first-time male voters.

In Sweden, the Pirates were growing too, boosted by the trial of the founders of The Pirate Bay. The Pirates won a seat in the European Parliament, and became Sweden's third-largest party.

But Pirate purists locked the party into an Internet-specific platform. The party operated as pseudo-insurgents, helping host web servers for The Pirate Bay and Wikileaks, and continues to do so today.

Germany's party went in the other direction, extrapolating the philosophies behind their web freedom ides to champion government transparency and drug reform, among other issues. It wasn't just meant to be a political party for the Internet, it was the party for life in the Internet Age.

But, as its popularity has risen, so have the party's problems. "No plan, no chance, too chaotic," jokes-but-doesn't Landig, Halle's Pirate spokesman, of the criticisms that the party has received. There has been infighting and egos. When a former press secretary -- the only paid position in the party -- was dismissed amid a PR revamp following the Pirates' early-year successes, he and others brought allegations of mismanagement and, arguably worse for the Pirates' image, undue secrecy.

"Decisions were not based on professional experience, but were instead based on political and personal preferences," a former board member, Gefion Thurmer, told Spiegel . That might not sound so different from any other political party, but when your entire party is premised on being different, that's a problem.

In parliament's halls, the Pirates' candor and informal dress bristle colleagues. Some of Germany's artists and musicians -- vital constituents as well as frequent proponents of web freedom -- have met the Pirates with skepticism and, at times, outright protest. Roughly 100 notable German artists signed an open letter in May condemning the Pirates' aggressive copyright-reform platform, according to a local news site.

Indeed, the right to download free music, to in effect steal from artists, is the Pirate plank you don't hear discussed in quite as sweepingly historic terms.

More broadly, as the Pirate Party grows and seeks more offices, it is struggling to maintain a consistent identity and a direction that satisfies its many members. Already the Pirates are showing signs of waning -- a new survey by Spiegel from August shows support tapering from seven to six percent.

One policy has been particularly problematic for the party: universal basic income grants. In pursuit of "maximum democratic equality," article 11 of the Pirate manifesto argues for an unconditional, state-funded income "guaranteed directly to each individual." The money, under their plan, is to be distributed monthly to each German citizen. The goal, as according to the manifesto, is to free each and every German citizen to "develop their full economic and social potential."

But, both in terms of political theory and political tactic, not all Pirates feel so generous. Party member Torsten Tominski fears such a socialist income policy would attract vagrants, dilution, and ambiguity -- Occupy Wall Street-ifying a party he and others see as more libertarian.

But in Halle, that is very much how the Pirates live -- an inclusive, open family of sorts. They keep a flat where Pirates can always crash. The doormat outside the apartment, says "there's no place like 127.0.0.1" -- the default IP address for one's own computer, or "home."

"I am a Pirate because I don't accept the system," says Roman Landig, the Halle Pirate spokesman who does the job for free while working toward his PhD in protein-biochemistry. "The system doesn't fit to me, so I want to change the system to fit better to me."

"But if you generate victims by revolution or system-change, you always have, I don't know, a bad heritage that influences the next system; develops into the minority against the majority. "This is not a good starting point for a system," he says. "The approach is to 'understand the system,' which comes from the morals of the hackers."

"They started to hack things because they wanted to know how they work," he explains of his party's origins. "The Pirates transported that method to politics. And you can spread that on anything." It's a somewhat rose-tinged view for a political party partially rooted in backlash against Sweden's effort to close a music and movie piracy website. And the fact that the Pirates still advocate for legalizing file-sharing, which would seem to risk harming everyone from artists to software developers, doesn't often get mentioned.

"The first thing," Landig says seriously, "is not produce victims. Make it peaceful."

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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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