In 2006, when the Swedish Piratpartiet was founded, a dismissive reaction would have been only natural. The Pirate Party was setting off for uncharted waters, proposing an approach to national and international politics that was unique and unusual. But how well do the most basic criticisms hold up today?
I could not have written this article in 2006. True, the flaws of our copyright regime had been exposed by that time, but they had not yet raised any practical issues about how government should work in my mind, other than determining basic rules like “if you bother the industry, the authorities will mess with you.” Governments had other things to deal with, like health care and education; piracy was not going to feed the poor. Focusing our energy on copyright alone seemed, in other words, like an expression of selfish, bourgeois luxury.
This is the first article from Avery Morrow. Avery is a freelance writer specializing in history and Internet-related topics. He has worked as an intern in the U.S. Congress and with various political groups.
But Piratpartiet’s approach has turned out to be much more relevant than any critic of 2006 could have foreseen. Today, it stands for not only a history of successes but also opportunities for even greater gains. I now believe that simply by understanding how the world is changing and where it’s heading, the importance of supporting the Pirate mission will be evident. Here’s why:
In 2011, unimpeded access to information is not only a theoretical threat to tyranny, but has been directly responsible for toppling governments.
A close study of the Arab Spring is enlightening here. The motive for changing regimes was economic: people were barely scraping by, and the government was making their lives worse. But how does a destitute population know what sort of change will be good for them, and when it will be safe to demand it? This is where the universality of the Internet and cell phones changed the situation on the ground. People could anonymously read all kinds of political stories online and discuss what needed to be changed. Without the danger of an in-person meeting, individuals could learn that hundreds, even thousands, of their friends would be on the street the next day. The people had become dangerously well-educated about themselves and their government.
The tyrants got clued into this fast. Egypt shut down the Internet and cell phone networks entirely, as did Syria and Libya. The United States government is clued in as well, and has publicly championed freedom of information around the world, but their own track record leaves much to be desired. The only role left to be played is by you, the voter: do you understand the power of uncensored information, the strategies regimes use to control it, and the steps you need to take to ensure that information can be distributed freely around the world?
In 2011, the copyright industry is on the defensive and making up shocking new strategies to keep laws secret and avoid public scrutiny.
How times have changed. When the World Intellectual Property Organization wanted to write a binding treaty in the 1990s, their main concern was resolving the differences of opinion between invited delegates. Now they’ve discovered that there’s a mob pounding at the door: the people who have been left out of the treaty-writing process and want copyright law to reflect a different set of values. Thus, the saga of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), written in complete secrecy and made known to the world only through documents sent to Wikileaks and other whistleblowing organizations. A Canadian citizen who filed a request for information with his government received a document with only the name of the agreement and the rest of the page blacked out.
Hot on the heels of ACTA is the IP chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which enables copyright holders to ban people from importing books and newspapers from other countries. Freedom to read material that you have legally purchased and own is actively under attack. Additionally, the patent process would be “streamlined”– meaningless modifications to existing patents (e.g. the same drug with different inactive ingredients) would be automatically approved, to basically extend patent lengths indefinitely, and outsiders would no longer be able to oppose any new patents! These details were meant to be classified until four years after the agreement passed. If it weren’t for a whistleblower’s leak of the document, this agreement could have been passed completely in secret without any Congressional or public knowledge of its contents.
This is another situation where, all other methods having failed, a regime is trying to prevent the spread of information about itself and its abuses. This is what industries relying on IP have been reduced to in the face of efforts from Pirate Party leaders and others who put the spotlight on them. Again, the decision now lies with you: do you believe, as most ruling political parties do, it’s fair for these agreements to be kept secret?
In 2011, piracy probably is feeding the poor.
No, I don’t actually have statistics to prove this. (What industry would pay for such an analysis?) But consider some well-known facts. More CDs, DVDs, software, and books are being printed without permission today than 20 years ago. Developing nations are flooded with this stuff. Cheap goods are providing profitable jobs for people who didn’t have them before. It’s piracy, so none of the money is being siphoned off to faraway wealthy countries. In short, piracy is democratizing the market for entertainment and information technology. Copyright industry, why do you hate third world entrepreneurs?
In 2011, the Pirate Parties International have attained unprecedented strength.
Last week, the Pirate Parties of Catalonia and Germany picked up municipal seats, adding another trophy to the international movement’s cabinet. Pirates have held office in Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and now Spain. In the European Parliament, two Pirates have taken considerable effort to sway opinions on ACTA, winning a vote to demand transparency and an exception for Braille translations. In the American state of Massachusetts, it is now possible to register as a Pirate.
Simply by organizing itself, the Party alerts other political forces to the importance of information policy. A few kids protesting on the street is not a serious opposition to an Internet blacklist. A unified political group, gaining long-term media coverage, raising funds to buy publicity, and telling the public about the effects of the blacklist, is indeed a serious opposition. You can ignore such a group at your own peril, or agree to work with them. Either way, an issue that no longer required public input before is now being shaped by the concerns of the public.
Infopolicy is a serious political issue
It makes sense to vote for a major political party that reflects your opinions. But if you’re like most people, you didn’t come to those opinions based just on a hunch about what sounds nice; you considered a wealth of information–things you read, saw, heard, or experienced yourself. It’s hard to have an opinion about health care without information about what models of health care are successful. In a practical sense, making sure that a majority of voters have the ability to get that information is more important than voting by yourself for a party that will force your country’s decision one way or the other. Access to information can make or break a political argument, and it is effectively the difference between good and bad legislation.
Who will decide whether the world is allowed to read Wikileaks? There are countless people who wish it could disappear from the Internet forever, and take all its secrets with it. In the end, only good government, informed by loud and articulate public opinion, can ensure that people are not denied access to that information.
The Pirate Party is founded on a concept that many Internet-savvy people have come to realize for themselves: access to information, that is, freedom to read and write, will change the world for the better. Rather than relegating itself to fringe group status, it has taken center stage in the infopolicy wars. What it needs now is the critical mass that will determine its future.