Interview with Pirate Party Leader: "These are Crucial Freedoms"

Tuesday Jun 16th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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A political party that advocates for the free and open source software community has become the third largest Swedish party.

On June 7, 2009, Swedish voters elected a member of the PiratPartiet (Pirate Party) to the European Parliament. A second parliamentary seat will go to the Pirate Party this fall if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified and Sweden gains an additional two seats.

These are small but solid results for a party founded three years ago that runs grass root campaigns. So what happened and why does it matter outside Sweden?

For Rickard Falkvinge, founder and leader of the Pirate Party, the explanation is simple: The Pirates made the copyright and patent concerns of the free software community part of public discourse for the first time anywhere, and did so using social media techniques that caught their opponents completely unaware.

Falkvinge expanded on this bit of history in a keynote address at the recent Open Web Vancouver, and in a brief interview with me the next day.

Falkvinge, an entrepreneur from his teens, has been following IT all his adult life, including free software.

"I've been involved with various types of open source," he says, but quickly adds, "I haven't worked on a specific project that you would have heard of. I'm one of those folks that somehow managed to get into projects that never go anywhere -- except this one, of course."

As with many, the turning point for Falkvinge was the struggle against efforts to impose more restrictive copyrights throughout the European Union in 2005. According to Falkvinge, the issues were widely covered and discussed in Sweden by everyone -- except the politicians.

"So I sat down and asked myself, 'What does it take to get the politicians' attention?' I realized that you probably couldn't get their attention without making it personal. So the only recourse basically was to bypass the politicians entirely, and head straight for the voting citizens at the polls -- essentially make it so personal that they can't ignore it any more."

While to North Americans, the party's name may seem deliberately provocative, Falkvinge explains that it was an inevitable one given the political background. In 2001, a copyright lobbying group called the Anti-Pirate Bureau was founded, so when a counter think-tank was established in 2003, it naturally called itself the Pirate Bureau.

According to Falkvinge, the result was that "pirate politics became very well-known and established. Everyone knew what pirate politics were, so it wasn't a matter of founding a party and thinking about the name. It was a matter of founding the Pirate Party" -- which he did on January 1, 2006.

From the start, Falkvinge rejected the idea of relying on old media -- TV, radio, print.

"They wouldn't pick up on what they considered a fringe movement. They wouldn't write about us enough to spread the ideas -- partly because our ideas don't fit into their frame of reference, so how do they explain something that they can't really grasp?

“We knew we had to build an activist network. We knew we had to do politics in a way that people hadn't seen before, but was perfectly consistent with open source. So we essentially by-passed all of old media. We didn't wait for old media to pick up something; we just published everywhere we could."

The result was a success that blind-sided other political parties. Within a few days of posting the party's first website on January 1, 2006, Falkvinge learned that it had received several million hits. Although the Pirate Bay raid and the Swedish national election later that year helped promote the party, most of its growth occurred online in blogs and other forms of social media.

Today it is the third largest Swedish party, and boasts by far the largest youth group of any Swedish political party.

"It's not just the largest party online," Falkvinge says. "It's the only party being discussed online."

Meanwhile, traditional analysts could not believe that the Pirate Party was consistently receiving 7-9% support in polls.

"I read a political analyst who was entirely surprised," Falkvinge says. "She said, 'How could they possibly poll that much? They're entirely invisible.' She was, of course, referring to her own frame of reference. Whereas most blog comments were saying, 'Has this woman been living under a rock?'"

The Pirate Party Platform

For Falkvinge, the current efforts to protect and expand copyright and patents are a repeat of history. He begins his discussion of copyright by noting that the Catholic Church's response to the printing press and its ability to spread alternative viewpoints was to have the technology banned in France in 1535.

Even more significantly, in England, the response was a commercial monopoly on printing. Although England did enjoy a copyright-free period following the deposition of James II in 1688, it was restored in 1709 by the Statute of Anne. A major influence on the restoration of copyright were arguments by the monopolists that copyright would benefit writers.

In fact, Falkvinge says, "Copyright has always been for the benefit of publishers. Never, ever, for creators. Creators have been used as an excuse for copyright laws -- and it's still like that, 300 years later. Politicians still buy the rhetoric that was used in 1709 -- that's three hundred bloody years ago."

Today, Falkvinge describes copyright as "a limitation of property rights" that has serious consequences for civil liberties. For Falkvinge, the efforts by groups such as movie and music distributors to enforce and expand copyright threatens what he calls "the postal secret" -- the ability to have private communications via public or commercial services.

Furthermore, the worldwide efforts to make Internet service providers responsible for the contents they carry undermines "messenger immunity." "That's like prosecuting the postal services because we know they happen to be the nation's largest distributors of narcotics," Falkvinge explains by way of analogy.

Still another issue is freedom of the press, both for journalists and whistle blowers. "If you can't tell a scandal to the press without knowing that private interest groups and law enforcement are going to read it on the way to the press, then what are you going to write about? Well, nothing will be able to be uncovered, because no one will come forward. Then what are you going to use freedom of the press for? Writing press releases?"

In Falkvinge's view, copyright should be reserved for commercial distribution only, and severely restricted; five years would be a reasonable amount of time, he suggests. "Copyright needs to get out of honest people's bedrooms. Copyright is actually clad in police uniforms and making dog raids on honest people. That's unacceptable."

He also believes that private copying is a social benefit, arguing that "We know that society advances when culture and knowledge spread among citizens. So we want to encourage all non-commercial copying."

In the same way, the Pirate Party opposes patents -- especially in software, but also in other areas.

"All patents, at their base, are innovation inhibitors," he maintains. "Patents delayed the industrial revolution by thirty years. They delayed the advent of the North American avionics industry by another thirty years, until the first world war broke out, and the US government confiscated the patents. It delayed radio for five years." Today, he suggests, advances in electric cars and eco-friendly infrastructure are similarly blocked by patents.

"We're seeing the Catholic Church reaction all over again," Falkvinge says. "When there's a disruptive and equalizing technology, the establishment doesn't attack the people who are trying to become equal. They attack the technology that enables that. This happens all over the world. The establishment is attacking the Internet.

“The excuses vary. In China, it's control. In Southeast Asia, it's public morals. In other places, it's law and order. In Egypt, I believe, the reason is keeping true to the faith -- Islam, in their case. In the US, there are three major excuses: copyright, terrorism, and pedophiles. These excuses are being used to crack down on the greatest equalizer of people ever invented.

"This is what is at stake in the debate. It's vital civil liberties that need to be eroded or abolished in order to maintain a crumbling monopoly for obsolete industries. It's understandable that an obsolescent industry is fighting for its life, but it's up to the politicians to say that, no, we're not going to dismantle civil liberties, just so you don't have to change. Get out, and adopt or die."

It’s in this situation, Falkvinge argues, that the Pirate Party's perspective becomes so important.

The Pirate Party is "taking a stance on civil liberties that politicians don't understand. They're listening to lobbies and attacking civil rights at an alarming rate."

The pro-copyright lobby's efforts may be ultimately futile -- Falkvinge likens their position to taking a stance against organic carbon compounds, for all the good they will do -- but he also warns that the lobby could do considerable damage before they are overtaken by inevitability.

Courting the Pirates

The next time that the European Parliament sits, its members will include Christian Engstrom, an entrepreneur turned activist who has been an anti-patent lobbyist for the past five years. If the Pirates receive a second seat, Engstrom will be joined by Amelia Andersdotter, whom Falkvinge describes as "one of the brightest minds we have in the Pirate Party." She will also be the youngest member ever elected to the European Parliament if she sits.

Meanwhile, after being frequently criticized as "having a too narrow platform" -- much like the Labour and Green parties when they first appeared -- the Pirate Party finds itself newly sought after. Since the results of the European election were announced, all seven of the party groups or coalitions in the parliament have extended invitations to the Pirate Party to join them.

What makes an alliance with the Pirate Party suddenly desirable may be partly an awareness that its members are discussing issues that everyone else is hardly aware of. However, the party's desirability may be due just as much to the fact that it was the most popular party among voters under thirty -- a group that other parties have long had difficulties attracting.

Moreover, with multiple parties, the Pirate Party's seven percent of the vote is a significant bloc of votes under any circumstances.

"These seven [party groups] are basically bending over backwards to get our credibility into their own group,” Falkvinge says. “We've got such enormous street credibility that these parties are fighting over us."

Speaking a few days after the election results, Falkvinge was visibly triumphant. However, he is already looking forward to the next Swedish national elections, where he hopes that the Pirate Party will hold the balance of power in a minority government. The price of an alliance with the Pirates, of course, will be the adoption of their policies.

"The European election gave us legitimacy," Falkvinge says. "The next national election will let us rewrite the laws."

If that happens, then the European Union and the rest of the world might feel the effect. Already, Pirate Parties are springing up in imitation of the Swedish one, and, as its ability to attract the youth vote demonstrates, there are thousands for whom the Pirates are the only political group speaking about issues they care about.

"There are two important things to remember," Falkvinge says. "First of all, we're part of the next generation civil liberties movement. This is a civil liberties movement. These are crucial freedoms and crucial rights that are being jeopardized by people wanting to close down the Net, and we want to safeguard those rights. We basically want the fundamental rights and freedoms to apply online as well as off-line.

"The second thing I want to emphasize is that we've grown only by people talking to one another. We've grown almost a quarter million votes, 50,000 members, 17,000 activists, by one person talking to another, one conversation at a time, one colleague, kin or class mate at a time over a three year period.

“This, if nothing else, shows that you can do that. You are not dependent on old media any more. If you have a strong message and it concerns people, then you can drive that yourself."

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