On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Q&A re “pirate politics”

In politics, post-piratical, Sweden on October 13, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Goldsmiths MA student and “occasional journalist” Justin Pickard recently contacted me to debrief me regarding some background material for a forthcoming Wired article on “pirate politics”. Here’s an edit of our email exchange, for the record:

I guess, when being asked about “pirate politics,” that the Pirate Bay court case and the subsequent popularity of The Pirate Party (in the European Parliament elections) here in Sweden has showed that there is a huge civic, national interest in questions regarding digitization, changing conditions for copyright, and issues of privacy, surveillance, data retention etc. The problem is that the mainstream parties have failed to properly debate these things, to bring them up onto the agenda.

Many people – especially those working in IT, using computers and having wide insight into tech – worry that the mainstream parties, both left and right, instead actually have embraced and welcomed harsher legal measures like IPRED, the Data Retention Directive, and the upcoming ACTA impositions. The big centre-left and centre-right parties in Sweden thus appear to be in “authoritarian” mode while only the Green party and the sprouting Pirate Party have managed to seize upon civic worries regarding exactly these issues, and express a more “lenient” standpoint. There is a widespread feeling of generational clash, that the more established politicians are wilfully ignoring issues of digital culture, polity and law – they actually lack solid policies in this area. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt promised, around the time of the last election, that his party “would not criminalise an entire generation”. The passing of new laws in the IT field, together with the handling of the Pirate Bay case, has led many commentators to doubt this promise. This might well come to show in the next election, in exactly one years’ time. We will see whether the success of the Pirate Party was a one-off, a fad, or if they will actually carry some clout in our upcoming national election in 2010.

Note, as well, that Sweden has seen relatively few court cases against file-sharers in the past; the new policy of going after the hubs and service providers has however brought about some change, and several ISPs as well as file-sharing sites such as TPB have recently been prosecuted or threatened with legal action.

Whether the activists in the “pirate” field would be taking a less radical/contrarian stance now, I might not be the right person to ask. But I very much doubt that their idealism would be in any way weaker. I know that the guys behind TPB – despite the process of potentially selling the site – are sketching on several alternative, newer ventures. We might possibly see new protocols and solutions for more fragmented, more dispersed sharing crop up in the coming decade. The problem for sites like TPB, as well as Napster back in the day, was that their central index became an easy target, and that their enormous visibility in practice functions as a trademark, with all the responsibilities, vulnerability and weaknesses that come with that. Brokerage, like indexes and moderated forums, comprise a return to a centre-periphery diagram in the otherwise granular, globally rather nebulous peer-to-peer architecture. It is hard to conduct politics without a visible, accountable political object!

Therefore we might see how Net activism congeals into more traditionally recognisable fractions in the future, like traditional parties.

With the emergence of the pirate agenda, It seems Sweden is ahead of the curve. Why Sweden? Why was The Pirate Bay a Swedish invention? Is there something peculiar to Swedish culture or history that has made its population particularly receptive to the ideas of this kind of politics?

Yes, in my research I have noticed several important reasons: The early establishment of cable broadband with high up-speed as well as down-speed, together with high levels of literacy and computer access, as well as an extremely secular society with a rather entrepreneurial, engineer-driven devotion to social and technical progress. Historically, however, Sweden has favoured relatively weak civil societies and local communities, in favour of a philosophy that puts the individual as a direct recipient of collective benefits and obligations, granted by the state. Here, The Pirate Bay is rather surprising, if we see it as a civic bulwark against industry and establishment, but not surprising as an institution that grants individual freedom by harnessing the overall, global p2p collective.

How do the Pirate Parties differ from pressure groups like the Open Rights Group, Electronic Frontier Foundation, or Sweden’s Piratbyrån? Is the political party a more effective vehicle for these kind of issues?

The Swedish political landscape is dominated by parties and unions, so in our context a conventional party will have more to say in the public debate than an NGO or lobby group. This might be different in other countries. Note, however, that Piratbyrån is entirely separate from The Pirate Party; it is more of a loosely organised think-tank, a website, a philosophical greenhouse or FAQ guide to digitization.

In the German federal election, the German Pirate Party got a noteworthy 2.0% of the votes. In Sweden, the party’s youth wing is the country’s largest political youth organization by membership count. There’s clearly a generation gap here – but to what extent is piracy a generational issue? Is Rick Falkvinge right in claiming that heavy-handed internet regulation is equivalent to declaring war, or somehow criminalising, an entire generation?

Yes and no. It is important not to assume these issues (not only copyright & patents reform but especially privacy, surveillance and infrastructure) as a priori youth-driven issues. However, as the youth tends to be the more computer- and Internet-literate demographic, it is clear that the movement has a rather young bias. Here, there is a huge pedagogic task for parties and organisations pushing these issues; we need to help the traditional political establishment see the real problems at hand, so that they do not simply dismiss these issues as a fad, or simply as an egoistic, pubescent urge to “getting stuff for free”.

For me, it’s quite interesting to see a political party pursuing a limited/focused set of policy goals, rather than having a “full” manifesto. This is an approach with both strengths and weaknesses, but how does it fit with the peculiarities and, for want of a better word, the newness of pirate politics?

The Swedish Pirate Party has been criticised for this, and some claim that it would f.ex. be better to vote for Liberal Green parties, who share much of the same emancipatory agenda regarding digitisation, but supplement this with a more rounded, “full” set of policies regarding environmental and economic issues. Inevitably, though, these questions would never have been as hotly debated as they are now if it wasn’t for the relative “narrowness” of Pirate Parties, NGOs and other activists.

The emergence of “pirate politics” can in fact be compared to the emergence of dedicated Green parties 20 years ago. Back then, those parties were also criticised for having too narrow a focus. Historically, parties tend to formulate “fuller” manifestos as they gain more popularity. I wouldn’t say this is an inevitable development, but…


UPDATE, October 31st 2009: Piratbyrån’s Magnus Eriksson presents some notes from his recent presentation at transitio_mx 09, held in Mexico City earlier this month. He relates to Swedish pirate politics in interesting and insightful ways here and here.

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