“Pirates” in Berlin – Some Thoughts on a New Political Phenomenon


“Pirates” in Berlin – Some Thoughts on a New Political Phenomenon

by Michael Liebig


Normally, the results of the election for the city parliament of the German capital Berlin would not be matter of major interest – certainly not outside Germany. But the Sept. 18 elections in Berlin produced something quite unusual which has likely European-wide ramifications: A new party – the “Pirates Party” – gained 8.9% of the vote, while the “established” Liberal party, the coalition partner in Chancellor Merkel’s government, received 1.9%. What is the Pirates party? And why does this new political phenomenon deserve some closer attention?

The Post-1980 Generation

The Pirates party is an association of mostly younger people — born after 1980. That means: Most of the activists and voters of the Pirate party have been socialized in the internet era. They don’t know the “pre-cyber” world. For them, life without laptops and mobile phones is simply unimaginable. This generation knows how to use IT technology, they learned it the “natural” way as they were growing up. For those born before 1980, using IT technology has meant learning a “foreign language” – usually not an easy and smooth affair.

There is a second key feature of the post-1980 generation. They were socialized after the age of political ideologies which ended in 1989. They don’t know the bitterness and rigidity of the ideological struggles of the 20th century. And they have a profound aversion against all variations of political ideology.

A third feature of the post-1980 generation is their high educational level. Never before in European history, have so many young people received a secondary education or studied in universities. Today, even seemingly “manual” jobs, like plumber or car mechanic, require significant theoretical-technical knowledge. Therefore, it is not surprising that the majority of the Pirates party‘ activists and voters have both higher education and highly qualified jobs – mostly in natural science-related and IT sectors.

The predominant internet-based mode of communication within the post-1980 generation has largely “de-localized” the Pirates‘ political activities. Because its internal and external activities occur mostly via the internet, the Pirate party lacks the organizational-bureaucratic structures of traditional political parties. If you communicate mainly online, the attributes of social ranking become less important: Where and how you are living, what clothes you wear or what type of automobile you own (if any). Traditional are only the Pirates‘ election posters which are usually ironical and funny.

Why do these sociological facts generate a new political phenomenon? Why is the post-1980 generation turning away from traditional, established political parties of left-center-right spectrum? Why do they stay away from supposedly “anti-establishment” parties – the Green party on the one side and rightwing-populist, anti-European parties on the other side?

At least three factors seem relevant here. The the post-1980 generation:

  1. has a profound aversion against the “political culture” of all “traditional” parties
  2. has a new, albeit contradictory understanding of “free access to information” in the internet
  3. is strongly rejecting intrusions into informational privacy by state agencies after 9/11

The Pirates‘ Beginnings in Sweden: “The Internet Must be Free”

The first point, I think, is by far the most important. But let’s start here with the second point. The origins of the Pirates “movement” – and its peculiar name – lie in Sweden. Beginning in 2005, the Swedish authorities started criminal procedures against the copying of music, movies or games in the internet. In the late 1990s, “file sharing” in the internet had become possible: In this configuration, individuals could online search, exchange and copy files (of music, films or games) within a network community. File sharing is somewhat reminiscent of the copying of vinyl records on audio tapes in the 1960s and 1970s, when the taped copies used to be exchanged (and copied) among friends (on a non-commercial basis). The entertainment industry has viewed file sharing as a massive violation of their copyrights and taken robust legal actions, which led, for example, to shutdown of the MP3 music exchange “Napster” in the United States in 2001.

At the same time in Sweden, the big, international entertainment firms formed the “Anti-Pirates Bureau” which successfully lobbied the Swedish authorities: Police searches, arrests and court cases against file sharing groups followed. But the reaction in the Swedish online community was equally severe: Almost exclusively via internet communication, a political party was formed which called itself “Pirates Party”, in reference to the entertainment industry’s “Anti-Pirates Bureau”. In the 2009 election for the European Parliament, the Swedish Pirates party received a stunning 7.1% of the vote. Suddenly, the Pirates had become a significant factor in Swedish politics.

Germany: Internet Censorship and Data Retention

The Swedish example inspired others. Today, there exist Pirates parties in 26 countries. Already in 2006, a German Pirates party was formed. But unlike Sweden, the file sharing/copyright issue was not the main catalyst for its rapid growth. Two other issues have been dominant for the German Pirates: internet censorship (Netzsperren) and data rentention (Vorratsdatenspeicherung). And here we come to the third point: informational privacy as a civil right.

In June 2009, the German parliament passed a law on blocking (not deleting) child pornographic websites and recording those visiting them for later criminal prosecution. The opponents of the law, with the Pirates in the forefront, argued that paedophiles could easily circumvent the internet blocks. Instead, they demanded that – by court ruling – criminal child pornographic sites should be deleted. Their overriding concern however was that blocking child pornographic sites would set a precedent for widespread administrative blocking of websites by government agencies – internet censorship. The opposition was successful: In June 2011, the German government initiated the parliamentary process to abolish the law on Netzsperren.

Data retention means the storage of all personal telecommunication/internet data for a certain period of time (usually six months). This data storage is total and does not depend on any suspicious facts concerning specific persons or organizations. The security agencies (and the EU Commission in Brussels) claim that their access to the totality of stored data is necessary for combating terrorism. The opponents view data retention as a massive attack against personal privacy. They argue that data retention is only permissible in specific cases where sufficient suspicious facts on severe, particularly terrorist crimes exist, and a court has made such a finding. 35.000 persons, the largest number of claimants in German history, filed a motion against the law on Vorratsdatenspeicheung at German Constitutional Court. The motion was successful. In 2010, the Constitutional Court ruled that the law on Vorratsdatenspeicheung was unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

Already in 2008, the German Constitutional Court had ruled that a law on online searches by police and intelligence agencies was unconstitutional because it didn’t limit online searches to cases with sufficient suspicious facts. The Pirates party was also active in the – unsuccessful – campaigns against providing the American government with personal data of flight passengers to the USA and with personal bank data (Swift).

However, the issues of “free access to information” – including music, movies and games – in the internet and the opposition to internet censorship do not provide a sufficient explanation for the success of the Pirates party in Germany. Even within the post-1980 generation, these issues do not attract sufficient interest as to generate a significant political mobilization.

And, particularly the copyright question is a very tricky one. The Pirates claim that they don’t want to damage the artists and authors which have generated the art and informational works they want to copy for free – for personal, non-commercial use. They say, their real target are market control and the hefty profits of the international entertainment industry. However they can’t explain how artists and authors should be compensated for their work if they remain outside commercial publishing houses, music or film organizations which market their works. This dilemma is obvious in respect to journalism. Doing quality journalism is costly, but users want quality journalism in the internet for free. That’s not the fault of the internet per se, which has a great potential for quality journalism – provided new organizational structures were created so that journalists get the financial means to do quality journalism. But how should that work? The Pirates often refer to non-commercial “open source” sites like “linux”, “openoffice”, “wikipedia”, “mozilla”/“thunderbird” or “creative commons” as models. Indeed, open source sites are enormously expanding, however their many peer makers (in most cases) don’t earn their living by their contributions – they make them for free and in their free time.

Longing for a New Political Culture

Such are unresolved questions brought up by the IT revolution. That these issues are being debated, and that the Pirates have played an important role in introducing such debate into the political sphere, is surely a welcome and necessary. To characterize ongoing shifts in society as “historical”, is a touchy issue, but there can be little doubt that the IT revolution does mean a societal transformation. Yet society has not yet adequately understood the changes it finds itself immersed in. The IT revolution is comparable to the “Gutenberg revolution” in the 15th century which ended knowledge monopoly of a tiny minority and opened the way for general literacy of people. The Gutenberg revolution laid the ground for a civilizational leap forward – and we must assume the IT revolution will have similar consequences.

Paradoxically, the fact that Pirate party is not capable of providing adequate answers to many of the questions it raises, is not to their detriment. Admitting not to know all the answers makes the Pirates attractive to many – not just in the post-1980 generation. One reason why the credibility of traditional political parties has suffered so severely, is their pretending to know when they don’t.

The post-1980 generation knows almost instinctively that typical, established politicians often lack the competence to adequately assess many complex issues of political life – not just those concerning cyberspace. They know that many political decisions are made without the decision makers themselves really knowing what they are doing. But established politicians tend to pretend otherwise because they think the people – and the media – will punish them (in the polls and at the ballot box) if they admit mistakes and lack of competence on certain issues. As a consequence, a political culture has emerged which fears the open discourse. The political debate appears stale, pre-programed and nontransparent.

Prior to the Berlin elections, Pirate candidates were interviewed on some rather complex issues – often they had to say that they didn’t yet fully understand the problem nor what the solution should be. The media and the traditional political parties were gloating with schadenfreude, but not so many voters.

The voters – not just from the post-1980 generation – do want an honest and open political debate. They don’t like backroom decisions of party and/or political bodies without ever being told what the controversies were and on what grounds the decisions were really made. And here the Pirates are singular among political parties as they commit themselves to “transparency”: inner-party meetings and debates are recorded on video streams which, like fund raising activities and party expenses, can be accessed in the internet.

The public is educated enough to know that a debate on an important, but objectively difficult problem is only worth the name if it’s open-ended and the result has not been fixed in advance. After all, one of the greatest philosophers in European history, Socrates, said: Knowing begins when we realize what we don’t know.

The Pirate party wasn’t invented in Germany, nor was the Green party born there. But the mix of ideas and often just meta-political concepts represented by the Green party gained traction in Germany. And the growth of its political influence was not blocked by obvious and repeated cases of ignorance, misjudgement and leadership chaos. Meanwhile Green parties have become a significant political factor across Europe and beyond. It’s too early to make a prognosis on the political future of the Pirate party. Their programmatic deficits in the foreign, security, social and economic policy areas are vast. Nevertheless, one should not exclude that this new political phenomenon will evolve in a similar fashion as the Green party – and not just in Germany.

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