Exactly ten years ago, on January 1 2006 at 20:30 CET, the Swedish and first Pirate Party was launched by me setting up an ugly website. Since then, we delivered on the proof of concept on June 7, 2009, and the movement grew from there. We weren’t always successful, though, and it’s important to be humble and do a little retrospection.
The choice of January 1 wasn’t so much chosen as a symbolic date as it was done then out of necessity. I had worked on the ugly site over the Yule holidays, and had an ordinary day of work the next day, so I simply had to take online whatever was ready at the time. But once the word was out, it just snowballed. No, scratch that. Avalanched.
From there, I led the Swedish Pirate Party for its first five years, delivering on the primary mission of showing that activists can run for office and succeed when the party got elected to the European Parliament on June 7, 2009 under my leadership. It was a huge victory showing that the net generation didn’t have to take policymaking bullshit sitting down, but that we could run for office and kick offline-borns out of their nonperforming jobs. Many other successes from other Pirate Parties followed. I stepped down from the position of party leader exactly five years ago, five years after founding the party, choosing to go full-time international liberty evangelist, something I still enjoy doing. At the time, I also revamped this blog completely (and will revamp it yet again in the coming days to a new format again).
We’re at a crossroads with regard to information technology: who controls it? If the answer is “the government”, we’re in for a Big Brother society so horrible that books trying to describe it in the 1950s would have been discarded as too unrealistically dark. On the other hand, if the answer is “the citizens”, we’re in for a more innovative, creative, and transparent society than has ever existed. There’s enormous values at stake here.
Pretty much all of the incumbent powers are fighting to take control of the Net. While this is a problem that may solve itself once the net generation gets into power on a large scale, we risk having a Big Brother society by then that runs unquestioned by such future powerholders. Our mission was – and is – therefore to build a bridge of liberty between today and the time when the net generation gets into power on a large scale. It’s going to be some 30-40 years. Basically, the mission is and was to prevent a dystopia that would take centuries to undo.
What We Have Learned
We’ve grown and gotten elected in Sweden and Germany, and also became victims of our own success there (more on that later). We almost made it to the European Parliament from the Czech Republic in 2014. We’re currently polling at thirty-plus percent in Iceland, making it possible to hold the prime ministry there after the spring 2017 elections (though that’s pure speculation on my part; I don’t know the tactical game the Icelandic team has in mind and I only talk about the prime ministry based on the raw numbers – the PPIS is the largest party by far). We can observe that teams in different countries have consistently taken turns to pull the movement as a whole forward, making it overall viable.
We’ve learned how to get elected. Actually, scratch that. We’ve learned how to deserve getting elected. There’s a strong difference. But we haven’t learned deserving a re-election yet. We need to be humble on this point.
But the most important thing we’ve learned is that you don’t have to take repressive laws sitting down, but that it’s completely possible to run for office and kick digital illiterates out.
What We Have Accomplished
There’s a lot to say about what we have accomplished in this decade. For starters, the party is ten years old today, and we’re on our second term in the European Parliament. That kind of success borders on ridiculously impossible.
We brought a radical copyright monopoly reform proposal into the mainstream – the Pirate Party platform is now an integral part of the platform of the Green party group in the European Parliament.
We stopped Three Strikes and made it illegal across Europe, thwarting the copyright industry’s plans of shutting people off the net in the hundreds of thousands.
We were instrumental in stopping ACTA, working from inside Parliament while Anonymous and others were staging rallies across European cities.
Finally, there’s the Reda report, where Julia Reda – Pirate Member of the European Parliament, elected from Germany – was tasked with formally evaluating what works and what doesn’t work in the European Union copyright monopoly legislation, and who wrote a report on the matter and managed to get the Parliament as a whole to approve it. If somebody had told me a Pirate would be formally in charge of evaluating the copyright monopoly at the European level less than a decade after the Pirate Party’s founding, I’m not sure I would have believed them. But that’s what we’ve done.
What Has Changed in Ten Years
Depressingly little has changed in these ten years, actually.
Smartphones have arrived, so the tools have moved from desk to palm. Streaming has arrived (Pandora, Spotify, Netflix) and somewhat displaced torrenting as the media delivery mechanism of choice. People don’t torrent music any longer, but certainly torrent movies and TV shows.
Otherwise, the arguments from the copyright industry remain the same dumb arguments heard in 2003. What we’ve managed to do in that time is stave of the worst stupidities (notably ACTA and Three Strikes). It’s still illegal to use your own property, it’s still illegal to share interesting stuff with friends, it’s still illegal to do the most obvious good things just because old obsolete industries don’t like it. That’s Dumb.
I was joking the other day that I could probably re-run 90% of the articles on this blog, and they would still be as applicable as they were the day I wrote them.
This doesn’t mean we failed. It means that the power struggle is at least at a standstill, whereas before we came on stage, things were going the wrong way quickly.
Hard Lessons: Overapplying Democracy
One of the most expensive lessons has been in understanding democracy, what it’s good for, and when not to overdo it. The Swedish and German parties both fell on this point. I describe what happened in the Swedish party in detail in chapter seven in Swarmwise, but long story short, we created a youth section to get governmental grants, and had to structure it completely counter to net thinking. That was the death knell, right then and there. Once it was there, the values of the counter-net-thinking gradually took over the decentralized swarmthink of the main party, and the organization gradually bureaucratized, drove off activists and people who lead tech-style by building, making, and leading by example, and lost its delivery capacity. It went from being an organization that rewarded the best activism, to being an organization that rewarded the best procedural trickery. Hard to recover from that point.
Germany had a similar story. It had to organize in a certain (old-fashioned) way in order to be eligible for grants. Growing at a record pace, it was impossible to keep the original values when the member vote tenfolded and everybody got their pet projects into the party line. Simply put, it was not possible to keep a guiding star of a true free-information liberty ideology. Two factions – a liberal and a left-wing – crystallized, and the German party fell from there, having enjoyed as much as 13% in national polls (which is no small feat in a large country like Germany).
The lesson here is that democracy isn’t a solution that fits everywhere and on all levels. It’s constructed as a safety valve at the nation-state level and its primary benefit is that it replaces a regime before a violent revolution breaks out. But at the organization level, you have much easier means to escape the rules of a leader you don’t agree with – you just walk somewhere else. Taking this reasoning to its extreme, democracy is not how you run an organization where participation is voluntary in the first place, for it creates losers by definition of its very process, and losers are unhappy people who disengage. There are much better ways to run such organizations.
It’s hard to not look at the two most successful open projects here: Linux (the kernel) and Wikipedia. Neither of them vote, ever. Linux discusses until a technical advantage is evident for either option, and if agreement cannot be reached, Torvalds decides. Wikipedia discusses until it is determined what makes the better encyclopedia. There’s something very important to learn here, mixed in with our own experience: while democracy is preferable at the nation-state level, where the Law of Two Feet cannot be applied, it was grossly overapplied in the early Pirate Parties in a way that disengaged people at a huge cost.
So why did we overapply democracy in this way in the early Pirate Parties? Because we knew of no other way to organize, basically. “All the others did it like this.” It was a very expensive lesson, but we gradually learned to apply net organization to new political organizations. I wrote a book on that later.
Staying True to the Ideology, Even When Inconvenient
We’re champions of free speech. This means allowing nudity in the United States and hate speech in Germany, for example, despite being politically inconvenient and almost taboo. Actually, it goes beyond just “allowing” such expressions, but ferociously defending them, calling out people who want to restrict free speech as not having a single moral leg to stand on. Tearing such warriors of morality down from the high horses they pretend to be riding on, and doing so in full view of the public. We’ve failed to do this in some fear of public disapproval, and it’s come back to bite us pretty much every time. There are many other examples. If you don’t have free speech, you have none of the other liberties, either. It’s just because the thought is taboo that it must be challenged.
We’ve only just started. The average time for a new party to get one person elected is on the order of 25 years. We’ve got a lot ahead of us. But damn, what a ride it’s been these first ten years.