More Pirates than Ever – But that’s Not the Real Problem

Hats off to the Pirate Party, from one seat in European Parliament to five (one German, four Czech) in these elections. That’s a 400% increase, folks.

Not that the Pirate ideology will help much with the challenges we face around the internet. There are basically two ways to think about the internet: a) it’s new and nothing we know is relevant anymore OR b) it’s an extension of our society. If you agree with A, you may agree with phrases such as “you can’t stop new technology” (if that is the case, then why the need for a political party?, one might ask). If you agree with B, you might think that normal rules should apply and that “innovation” and “freedom online” ought to be balanced against other priorities.
It would be tempting to think that B is picking up, considering the accumulation of topics such as terrorist propaganda, sexism, hate speech, Rohingya genocide, cybercrime, abuse of dominant position, manipulated search results… I could go on all day. However, those who argue that the “internet must be kept open and free” (whatever that means) seem to also have wind in their sails.

The Pirate party started in Sweden in 2006 as a reaction to legal action against file-sharing hub The Pirate Bay.
The Pirate Bay was born as an experiment from the think-tank The Pirate Bureau (named in jest of copyright enforcement organization The Anti-Pirate Bureau), hence a product of ideology rather than technology. The original impetus was to protect access to free entertainment – the founder Richard Falkvinge has told in interviews how he was inspired by a cartoon describing public outrage against file-sharing restrictions as the only issue people would really care about. But the stroke of genius was to combine this populist agenda with a more elitist message about pushing back the surveillance state. Some would object that the surveillance comes more from internet companies and governments than copyright, but that has never stopped the pirates from using it as a case against copyright. The Pirate Party won 7,13% of the Swedish votes in the 2009 elections (and 0,63% this time around).

It is fair to say that my own frustration with the Pirate ideology and the lack of criticism thereof was one of the main reasons I started Netopia in Sweden 2010 (it moved to Europe and switched to English in 2013). Since then the digital issues have grown on the policy agenda in many ways.

But how much can five Pirate MEP:s accomplish? Quite a lot, if they are as skilled as outgoing MEP Julia Reda, who traded her votes on other issues for influence on copyright and became the shadow rapporteur on the copyright reform. But that’s not the real problem. That does not lie with the Pirates, but with other policy-makers who fail to develop proper ideology around digital issues. Who refuse to make their minds up around the type A and B digital ideologies.

Next time a policy-maker says “but it is also important to keep the internet open and free”, why don’t we ask them what they mean by “open” and “free”.

Is the best internet one without democracy? Or could it be that openness and freedom needs rules and institutions to protect them? Perhaps the answer will come in the next five years.

This is Netopia’s newsletter May 27