Why It's Time to Party Like It's 2011

The Pirate Party has hovered on the edge of politics for a while now, acting as a kind of gadfly to traditional parties - annoying but not able to inflict much damage. Its seats in the European Parliament have proved important in terms of...


The Pirate Party has hovered on the edge of politics for a while now, acting as a kind of gadfly to traditional parties – annoying but not able to inflict much damage. Its seats in the European Parliament have proved important in terms of raising issues and obtaining access to hitherto restricted information. But last week's events in Germany are perhaps even more significant:

The German Pirate Party has scored a massive win in the elections for the Berlin state parliament today. Two hours after the voting booths closed the first results show the Pirates achieving 9 percent of the counted votes. This translates into 15 parliament seats.

Founded in September 2006, the German Pirate Party has already booked several successes in its relatively short existence. Before today, the party had over 50 members in elected offices across Germany, which is more than in all other countries combined. However, today's election win trumps all previous ones.

Never before has a Pirate Party been elected into a state or federal parliament. And with the 5 percent floor that was required to enter, the achievement at the Berlin elections is all the more impressive.

As Sebastian Nerz, Chairman of the German Pirate Party, told TorrentFreak in the same article:

"Members of Parliament are paid for their work. In addition they receive state money to pay for assistents and co-workers. This will enable those Pirates to work full-time for the party, thus giving us much more work force."

"Another very important benefit is, that citizens and media are taking parties with access to the parliament much more seriously. A number of times i've heard, "Your party is not relevant because it does not have members of parliament." Following this weekend's successes, in this respect the party's position will be greatly improved."

Why does that matter to the outside world – or to readers of this blog? Because the programme of the Pirate Party touches on many key topics regularly discussed in these pages. As well as copyright reform that would allow private digital copies to be made, patents would be scaled-back too, avoiding "absurd patents" in the fields of software, genes and business processes. The party supports open access to knowledge – one of its slogans is "free access to knowledge for all" - and is against Web censorship and state surveillance of the Internet.

Obviously, even with their 15 seats, the German Pirate Party stands little hope of bringing these ideas to fruition. But it can still achieve a great deal, as Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the first Pirate Party, points out:

When Green Parties entered parliaments, the oil industry lobby became ineffective overnight.
It was frankly no longer possible to bullshit politicians with oil fairy dust, as there were people in Parliament who could tell the public interest from special interests of the oil lobby. And this immunization spreads — the other parties knew that the Greens knew this topic inside out, and they would not risk being caught with their pants down to the oil industry lobby in front of the voters. So, the immunization against the oil industry lobby not only entered parliament, but it spread to the other politicians there, very efficiently.

Pirates will immunize parliaments against the security theater lobby and the culture-knowledge monopolization lobby. Patent monopoly lobbyists will be unable to get away with trying to claim they represent the public interest, as pirates know that they're a huge drain on innovation resources (500 billion USD at last count) just to line their own pockets. Copyright monopoly lobbyists won't be able to claim that it is in the public interest to line the pockets of the obsolete middlemen. Monopoly beneficiaries don't get to introduce censorship to keep their monopoly benefits.

So while pirates won't have domain knowledge everywhere, and therefore will be susceptible to lobbying in some fields, pirates will inoculate the entire parliament against corporate bullshit in this particular domain, which is the most direly needed right now — just like inoculation against oil industry fairy dust was the most direly needed in the 1970s.

What's interesting about this analysis is that it ties in with Larry Lessig's decision to step down from leading the Creative Commons movement to focus on fighting just this kind of lobbying in the US (or "corruption" as he calls it). He, too, recognised that the reason we have so many bad copyright and patents laws being passed in the face of the clear economic, social and technical evidence is because politicians don't understand these areas well, and are highly susceptible to well-oiled lobby machines.

This is why the German victory is so important: it will offer an alternative view on intellectual monopolies. What makes that simple fact so shameful is that the German Pirate Party's positions are really just about defending the public interest – something that has been absent for the last few decades of rampant intellectual monopoly maximalism.

As such, they represent a welcome and long-overdue pushback against the accepted orthodoxy that the more intellectual monopolies we have, the better. That may be true for the companies that benefit from them, but inevitably means that everyone else loses through the enclosure of the public domain.

That major shift in German local politicis is the good news. Here's the bad news:

The big questions are: is the Pirates' electoral success a culturally specific blip, or a pointer to longer-term political change? Have we reached the point where the internet is having a measurable effect not just on political discourse, but also on what happens in polling booths? And could it happen here [in the UK]?

The answer partly depends on which electoral system we're talking about. Germany has a strictly proportional system: once a party receives more than 5% of the vote it becomes eligible not just to hold parliamentary seats, but also to receive state financial support. So vocal minority parties that can persuade more than 5% of the electorate to turn out can expect to have a political impact. That's why green parties have done relatively better in Germany and Ireland than they have in other jurisdictions. (The last – discredited – Irish government, for example, was sustained in power by an alliance between Fianna Fáil and the tiny Green party.)

So what happened in Berlin definitely couldn't happen here. If you doubt that, just ask the Lib Dems, whose share of the popular vote never translates into an equivalent number of parliamentary seats.

That's doubly regrettable. It means that here in the UK we are unlikely to see large numbers of Pirate Party politicians who might "immunise" Parliament against the kind of blatant lobbying that helped push through the inequitable and unworkable Digital Economy Act. It also means that the significant numbers of UK voters who support the key ideas of Pirate Party will remain unrepresented, unlike in Berlin, where they now have a voice.

The German Pirate Party's victory should be a wake-up call to politicians across the whole of Europe – not just the UK – that there is growing mismatch between their traditional, lobbyist-directed programmes and the beliefs and expectations of an important slice of the electorate, notably the younger part. Unless that is fixed soon, that dissonance will lead to yet more disenchantment with the political system that is already not exactly highly regarded.

In order to avoid that, it's time the other political parties learned from the Pirates and came up with 21st-century policies that embrace digital abundance, rather than those that entrench superseded business models based on analogue scarcity.

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