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

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, 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 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.

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:, 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" -- 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."