Will the Pirates stir up the debate on freedom?

The support for Sweden’s Pirate Party was partly a protest vote against the mainstream, and partly a cry for liberty.

Nathalie Rothschild

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While voter turnout in the EU elections hit a record low last week – only 43 per cent of 375million eligible voters cast ballots – Scandinavians appear to have gone slightly against the tide of disgruntlement. Sixty per cent of Danes voted (up from 48 per cent in the last EU elections), and in Sweden, voter turnout increased from 38 per cent to 44 per cent (1). There, it was a group of pirates who seized the moment and took home an impressive political bounty.

No, Somali pirates have not crossed continents to roam the Baltic Sea; rather it was the fringe Pirate Party, which ‘wants to fundamentally reform copyright law, get rid of the patent system, and ensure that citizens’ rights to privacy are respected’, which won many Swedish votes (2). The party emerged from political backwaters and dominated the public debate in Sweden in the run-up to the EU elections.

The Pirate Party was formed in 2006, and that year gained only 0.63 per cent of the votes in Swedish parliamentary elections. In last week’s EU elections, however, it gained seven per cent of the Swedish vote and secured at least one of Sweden’s 18 seats in the EU parliament. It is now Sweden’s third biggest party by membership (3).

The Pirate Party has gained support over the past year after the introduction of a string of controversial surveillance laws. The highly unpopular ‘FRA law’, nicknamed Lex Orwell, was introduced last summer. It gives the Swedish intelligence bureau, Försvarets Radioanstalt (FRA), the right to intercept all cable communication crossing Sweden’s borders.

Then, in April this year, the Swedish government introduced the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive law (IPRED). Based on an EU directive, through IPRED internet service providers can be forced to hand out the personal details of suspected copyright infringers. Hence, the film and record industry can now get hold of the names of individuals suspected of online file-sharing and aim compensation claims against them.

Around the same time as the introduction of IPRED, there was also a high-profile trial of the Pirate Bay file-sharing website – the bane of the entertainment industries. Though it is not formally connected to Pirate Bay, the Pirate Party openly expressed support for the website and its four co-founders, who were found guilty of assisting the distribution of illegal content online and sentenced to a year in prison and a £2.4million fine. Their case struck a chord with the public and it led to a surge in support for the Pirate Party.

The success of the Pirate Party has been described in the Swedish media and blogosphere as a grassroots movement against the surveillance society and Big Business and for the right to privacy, free speech and the open exchange of ideas. It is most popular among 18- to 30-year-olds and defies political pigeonholing. According to its website, the Pirate Party aims to enter the government and to take on the role of ‘holding the balance of power’. It declares: ‘The Pirate Party does not take a stance on right/left issues, or other issues outside our programme of principles. We are prepared to support a social democrat as well as conservative government. The only thing we are interested in is the march towards an end to the control society, and that culture and knowledge are let free in society.’ (4)

Yet despite its focus on a narrow set of issues, one of the Pirate Party’s EU parliament candidates, Amelia Andersdotter, claims it is not a single-issue party, but represents an ideology and a worldview. ‘The Pirate Party’s politics affect every sphere of society’, she wrote on the Swedish Newsmill website. ‘From our possibilities to invest in green infrastructure to business opportunities for small and mid-sized companies in the IT sector to how we can share experiences with others. These are questions that the EU deals with and therefore the European parliament is the right platform to fight within.’ (5)

Sympathetic commentators have claimed that a vote for the Pirate Party represents a vote for liberty, political vision, personal integrity and technological progress. The mainstream parties are seen as having given up on these things. Others claim that a vote for the Pirate Party has, for many people, been an act of protest rather than a wholehearted endorsement of the Pirates’ policies.

But at the same time the Pirate Party is putting forward a positive vision of change. It warns that the state is going after a whole generation of young people who expect information to be free and who want to exploit the full potential of the internet – ‘the best thing that has happened for democracy, communication and culture since the printing press’ (6). And so the Pirate Party pits itself – rather childishly at times – against Old Media and Big Business.

Understandably, both the film and music industry and individual artists and writers have criticised the Pirate Party’s support for ending regulation of the non-commercial use and sharing of cultural works, to decriminalise file sharing and p2p networking, and to limit the monopoly for copyright holders to exploit an aesthetic work commercially to five years.

One of Pirate Bay’s and the Pirate Party’s staunchest critics is the well-known writer Jan Guillou. He has likened those from within the cultural sector who vote for the party to sheep voting for wolves. In his column in the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, Guillou decried the ’embarrassing’ fact that Sweden is ‘number one in the world when it comes to stealing music, film, literature and games on the internet’ and says it is peculiar that there actually is a raging debate for and against this occurrence – ‘that is unusual within debates around crime’, he says (7).

Pirate Bay and Pirate Party supporters have retorted that old business models have to be rethought and that ageing men like Guillou need to adapt to the times rather than resist change. The idea that artists should be paid and recognised for their work, and that the integrity of aesthetic works should be protected, is pitted against the laissez faire attitude to copyright that the Pirates are promoting. But these dilemmas can be resolved, as Swedes themselves have shown. Sweden may be the home of the Pirate Bay, but it is also the base of Spotify, the free, legal music streaming service which some see as the best response yet to file-sharing (8).

Guillou’s outrage is aimed at the Pirate Party’s stance on copyright, but he does not mention its views on patents, which the Pirates see as stifling innovation and, when it comes to pharmaceuticals, making lifesaving medicines unaffordable and inaccessible to large swathes of people around the world. Neither does Guillou, who is as well known for his bestselling novels as he is for his involvement in the so-called IB-affair, suggest how clampdowns on the sharing of information and cultural works online can coexist with privacy protection. Guillou himself was sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage in the 1970s after he and a colleague wrote an expose of the Swedish intelligence agency Informationsbyrån (the Information Bureau, or IB), revealing that it had gathered information on Swedish communists and others deemed to be a ‘security risk’, placed spies abroad and broken into foreign embassies in Sweden.

Despite this embarrassing episode in Sweden’s history, the country has also been a frontrunner both in the context of political transparency and the extension of technology access. The Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 granted public access to government documents through offentlighetsprincipen (the principle of public access). It became an integral part of the Swedish constitution and was the first-ever modern piece of freedom of information legislation. By contrast, the UK Freedom of Information Act was only introduced in 2000 (9).

The previous Swedish government invested heavily in rolling out broadband provision across the country and a recent World Internet Institute study estimated that, on average, Swedish households have two computers, nearly 80 per cent of Swedes have internet access at home, and 70 per cent have broadband access (10).

Access to technology is seen as a democratic issue – but in Sweden and elsewhere modern technologies have of late become vehicles for imposing draconian surveillance laws. Swedes often show an unhealthy willingness to be nannied by the welfare state, yet as the widespread revolt against the FRA law showed, they also value privacy and freedom from intrusion through the extension of the government’s surveillance powers. The fact that just 143 politicians voted in favour of the FRA law in the face of mass public protest graphically illustrates the gap that exists today between a fearful and illiberal political elite and the general public who want to protect their own and other people’s privacy (11).

The Pirate Party has been able to give voice to the public’s dissatisfaction and loss of faith in mainstream political parties, in Sweden and elsewhere (it has sister parties around the world and claims there is ‘an international pirate movement’). Despite their narrow political programme, when the Pirates now take up their positions in the EU parliament – the high seat of elite aloofness – they will at least pose a challenge to some of the illiberal forces sweeping Europe.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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