”Pirates in the Arctic!” or ”What is #OpenPolicy ?”

I went to Iceland but couldn’t find any pirates. The rumours of the Pirate Party’s popularity in the polls for the upcoming Althing* election may be exaggerated. But let’s have a look at the pirate politics in Iceland, all the same. Of course, the Icelandic voters care little about the anti-copyright agenda that is the basic ideology the Pirate Party. Rather, it is a frustration with the established political parties. The same exists in many countries, but Iceland has had more than its fair share of headaches. The financial crisis hit the little Arctic country harder than most places, destroying savings and pensions for many and sending the Icelandic Krona into free fall (currency regulations are still in place). Protests caused the right-wing Independence party-led government to fall. Thousands of people gathered outside the Althing in the winter of 2008/09 banging pots and pans. And earlier this year prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned after the Panama Papers showed he had avoided paying taxes. It is easy to sympathise with the Icelanders longing for something new. Enter the pirates.

This is not the only example of recent unorthodoxies in Icelandic politics. In 2010 to 2014, the mayor of Reykjavík was Jón Gnarr: a comedian and self-proclaimed anarchist, regarded by many locals as the best mayor in a long time. I actually met him once, at a reception for the games industry where he gave a speech that was to the point and insightful, but not in the least comic or anarchistic. But NN did use comedy as part of his politics. At the end of his term, there was the question whether he would stand for re-election and the way he announced his decision was unique. Appearing on a radio show, he at the same time dialled in pretending to be an elderly lady and gave a long rant about all Gnarr’s shortcomings as mayor. That’s how Jón Gnarr announced he would not stand for another term.

So if not anti-copyright, what is it that the Pirate Party has to offer? The party leader NN says she wants to reform government along the lines of so-called “open policy”. Supposedly, that means to put all parliament decisions to the vote of the people (through online systems). It’s an innovation of form, not content. The Pirate Party has used this method in its internal processes since inception (as far as I can tell). Anyone can check the Pirate Party forums and follow the debate. It’s an interesting concept, some would say it’s giving power to the people. By “opening up” politics and putting all decision’s in parliament to the party’s voters (Or members? Or how should that pie be sliced?), perhaps better decisions can come. Or perhaps not, because politics is not only about pressing the right button or raising your hand at the right time. Some would say it’s about bold visions, compelling proposals and consistent ideology. Some would say it’s about negotiation and building alliances with other parties to get support for your proposals (or block those of others). And what happens before the vote? Somebody has to take the initiative to make a motion or ask a question to a minister. And what if you win the election? What if you’re supposed to form a government? Will this method work for budget negotiations and diplomatic relations with foreign countries? You can argue that all these questions will be answered and that new methods may change politics for the better. You can say: look at the Swiss cantons, the vote all the time! But the main challenge for this flavour of open policy is that (in most countries) being a member of parliament is a full time job. Why? Because the workload is large, the number of documents overwhelming and the issues complex. That’s why we elect people we trust to look after our interests and ideologies, asking them to state their general direction and make promises that we can hold them to, rather than look over their shoulder and give them specific instructions at every juncture. The problem is not getting access to information – as many internet activists would suggest – but to understand it, digest it, turn it into policy proposals and know what strings to pull to make that happen. That cannot be done in an online forum when you have a minute. It’s a full-time commitment. They may be at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but in a way this is not so different from what the Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump says. His most common answer to policy questions is that he will “hire the best people and work with congress”, rather than articulating a policy suggestion. The content of the policies is a later issue. But how can voters know what they are voting for?

I had this conversation with a former Danish member of parliament. She had a different definition of open policy. She said it was about transparency and accountability. More an attitude of the policy-makers than a method of organising politics. A vision for reforming democratic processes and make them more accessible, perhaps more of an on-going ambition than a quick fix. Making documents available to the public and asking for input. Explaining reasons for voting one way or other, for making this proposal or that. In a way, this is the opposite of the Pirate Party’s definition of open policy. It’s about being more accountable, not less. If a member of parliament merely executes decisions made by online committees, their less accountable not more.

The grassroots are of course the foundation of democracy, but the commitment needs to also to be involved in the long-term work of the political parties and NGOs. It cannot be reduced to the backseat of online clickocracy. If digital engagement can be a way to long-term commitment, great. But don’t tell me democracy can be innovated simply by putting everything online. This is the convenient answer to so many of the digital issues: put everything online. But that’s the easy way out. Not everything can be crowd-sourced. Some things need real work.

The pirates are interesting more for the questions they ask than for the answers they give. If they want to contribute to democracy, they need to come up with a vision of the content of politics, not the form. And that better be something more than copyright reform. Surely, the world has bigger problems than lack of free entertainment.

*) Icelandic Parliament – the oldest in the world, running uninterrupted since 930 AD. Except in those days it was more like the Viking Party.