Iceland, a tiny island nation in the North Atlantic, provides perhaps the best prism through which to understand the rise of the Pirates. The country is perhaps best known as the picturesque backdrop to the colder bits on Game of Thrones, the home of unpronounceable volcanoes that periodically threaten to ground the entire European air fleet, and the birthplace of singer Björk. But despite these natural and cultural claims to fame, politics on the island are not so rosy. The Icelandic political and financial establishment has become synonymous with cronyism and shady dealing, a sentiment incited by two recent revelations: a 2009 Wikileaks document that exposed the Icelandic bank Kaupthing’s lending practices, and the Panama Papers leak of 2016 that revealed the off-shore banking activities of several high-profile individuals, not least Iceland’s then–Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson.
Gunnlaugsson quickly resigned, but in the October 2016 elections that followed his departure it became clear that Iceland’s increasingly internationalized and tech-savvy population would not be content to simply vote in a new face on old politics. Instead, it seemed that the population was increasingly open to seeking political alternatives in previously uncharted territory.
Iceland, of course, is in no way alone in this tendency, as dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo of the last 40 years has been in steady decline in the Western world for some time. In Europe, where forms of proportional voting are common, this had led to increasing success for both new parties, like Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy, and slightly older ones that previously occupied niche territory, such as Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece, the National Front in France, Sinn Féin in Ireland, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. In the United States and the United Kingdom, where the first-past-the-post system makes it difficult for small parties to gain proportionate representation in parliament, the desire for change has been funneled through the main establishment parties, most notably on the “right” by Donald Trump’s takeover of the 2016 Republican Party presidential campaign, and on the “left” by Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation of the British Labour party, despite unprecedented pushback from the party’s own top brass.
But while the left-leaning like Corbyn and Podemos could be described as progressive (certainly more so, than say, Golden Dawn, whose flag is, shall we say, hard to get past), when it comes to globalization and technological development, no one seems to have taken the bull by the horns to quite the same degree as the Pirate Party.
Perhaps this willingness to rock the boat partly explains some of the hostile coverage the Pirates received from American media in the run up to the 2016 Icelandic election. “Iceland’s Pirate Party Loves Hackers, Drugs & Revolution” The Daily Beast proclaimed with the subtitle “Iceland’s anti-establishment Pirate Party — led by a ‘poetician’ who worships Julian Assange — looks ready to win the country’s national election”. The Washington Post described the party as “a renegade movement” and “a radical movement of anarchists and hackers.”
This made it all sound pretty wild, but a year after the election, in which the Pirates emerged as one of the most successful parties with nearly 15 percent of the popular vote, Iceland didn’t seem to have been plunged into chaos. A brief perusal of the news site Iceland Monitor revealed that at a recent protest over immigration a sign was broken and one protestor pinched another.
With their fingers.
Americans, no doubt, will be appalled.
In other highlights, the police have had to interfere twice with tourists who persist in watching the Northern Lights instead of the road while driving, and someone went skinny-dipping.
In short, the months of prolonged coalition talks that followed the 2016 election, parts of which were conducted by these very “anarchist hackers” don’t seem to have rocked Iceland half so much as, say, the Panama Papers did. And while the Pirates ultimately went into opposition, they are now firmly on the map as political players — tied for second place with the Left-Green Party in terms of number of parliamentary seats in 2016 and remaining firmly on the dash with over nine percent of the vote share in Iceland’s 2017 snap election. Moreover, the Icelandic Pirates’ success is only part of a quiet global trend that has seen the Pirate movement slowly catching on the world over, and often proving popular among younger voters when it fields election candidates.
So what does the Pirate Party really stand for and could American democracy learn anything from it?
Embracing the Digital World
One of the things that has made the Pirate Party (and similar organizations like the Five Star Movement) so perplexing to many analysts is that it does not adhere to the centuries-old conservative-liberal split, instead embracing policy that cuts across the traditional left-right divide. The most defining characteristic of the movement, and the point of contention that gave the Pirates their name, is the fight against what its members view as restrictive intellectual property laws unsuitable to the digital age.
For those too young to remember, “intellectual property” was once, for most people, a far more esoteric term than it is now. Back in the 1990s (shortly before Björk achieved global fame, in fact), the ill-financed (teenagers and college kids) often copied their favorite songs onto cassette tapes, either directly from the radio or from their friends’ tapes. This was done partly to get all the best songs on one tape and partly to avoid entering the hard cash economy of an actual music store. Then, when CDs and the internet came along two of the prime inhibitors of copying — the poor sound quality and tediousness of the job — fell away, making copying attractive to those who had previously been willing to pay for the convenience and quality of store-bought music (everyone else). In this new atmosphere, a conscientious teen would not just selfishly spend all afternoon listening to Green Day or watching hamsters dance on the magic Pentium machine their parents had paid a fortune for — they’d remember to burn some Kenny Rogers for grandma, too. Unsurprisingly, internet sites facilitating copying, such as Napster and Pirate Bay, boomed while the entertainment industry frantically tried to instill the population with a sudden conviction that what had hitherto seemed an innocuous practice in fact constituted criminal activity.
“You wouldn’t steal a car! You wouldn’t steal a handbag!” industry ads would blare at teenage audiences before every film, “Stealing is against the law!”
It was, shall we say, an ill-considered appeal to kids looking forward to a solid 90 minutes of Hollywood’s leading actors doing all kinds of illegal things, including stealing, driving recklessly, and then totaling all kinds of very cool cars (often to fireball level) in defiance of the nebulous authoritarian forces that opposed freedom. The entertainment industry achieved very little beyond successfully casting itself as the villain in its own favorite narrative.
It was out of this general milieu — a time of quite serious, genuine confusion over just what constituted private property and the legal protection thereof — that the Pirate movement was born. In contrast to the music industry, the Pirates took the tack of sanguinely acknowledging that the train had left the station. People would copy because it was possible to copy. And that, according to the Pirates, was not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of seeking to contain these changes, society and the legal system should embrace them. Eventually this movement coalesced into formal political parties, most notably in Sweden, where Pirates sent their first representative to the European Parliament in 2009.
When I asked Swedish Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge for his views on intellectual property, he described copyright and patent-dependent industries as “old” and “obsolete” and said that efforts to keep them alive are “standing in the way of progress.” According to Falkvinge, this is particularly problematic when those efforts focus on tracking user behavior in order to, for example, prevent or punish copyright infringement. “Paradoxically,” he told me,
in one way of seeing it, Pirates are very conservative. One of our key points is that the same rights and laws that we have offline should also apply online. When you ponder that, you realize that the privacy of correspondence, the right to not be tracked in your everyday life, et cetera — rights that we take for granted offline — have been completely eradicated in the shift to digital.
This touches on another key point of Pirate Party policy: privacy. The movement’s adherents are some of the strongest opponents of online surveillance and the strongest supporters of whistleblowers like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, one of the earliest and most prominent Icelandic Pirates, has repeatedly pushed for Snowden — currently in Russia — to be granted Icelandic citizenship.
Critics have often apparently understood these two planks of Pirate policy as something of a contradiction, finding it difficult to reconcile the ideas of open data and file-sharing with personal privacy. The idea would seem to be that since Pirates are unsympathetic to other people’s intellectual property claims, they should not be so squeamish about being spied on themselves. Out in the open is out in the open.
This, however, misses the Pirates’ main point: that advances in technology make conventional understandings of property rights and distribution methods nigh on impossible to enforce anyway. In a previous recorded talk at Black Hat Europe, an information security conference, Falkvinge at one point compared the digital revolution to the invention of the printing press. Just as the printing press destroyed the Catholic Church’s monopoly on reproducing, and thus distributing, religious texts, so too would the internet destroy corporate, indeed perhaps any private, control over publishing and distribution of knowledge and entertainment, ushering in an era of intense social and economic change. The digital revolution, in other words, would be broader and deeper than most people seemed to realize, and much more, in fact, like an actual revolution. This is the era the Pirates are preparing for, and to some extent, already living, an era that, in their view, will not so much require as cause changes not just to information management, but also to the very fabric of our political structure.
Participation in the Digital World
Few would dispute that in the past 15 years technology has made it possible to disseminate details of international treaty negotiations, like TTIP and TTP, that were once self-understood secrets, or that globalization has put the sovereign nation-state form of political organization — a model grounded in the 17th-century Peace of Westphalia — under some stress, with dual nationalities and migration becoming more and more common. But, perhaps most significantly of all, the idea of representative politics within those nation-states is looking a bit dated in the digital era. With news sites running daily polls on everything from the public’s favorite fruit to nuclear proliferation, it is not a leap to wonder why politicians aren’t consulting the people they allegedly represent a little more often.
The tech-savvy Pirates have picked up on this point, too, often advocating for direct democracy and collaborative intra-party policy-making. In Germany this was facilitated by developing a software known as LiquidFeedback, which allows party members to have a running input on policy. Similar applications have been used by Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy, as well as by the Icelandic Pirate Party, which states on its website that a policy “must also receive sufficient support in the Pirate Party’s online voting system. The online voting system is the primary method through which Pirates settle disputes and reach consensus on policies.”
A trip to the website shows the Icelandic Pirates deciding such bread-and-butter matters as dental care, capital gains tax, and immigration. Despite the contentions of some newspapers that the Icelandic Pirates have few specific policies, thanks to Google Translate I was easily able to access a flood of detailed policy on what seems to be a fully functional site.
In a similar vein, the newly successful Czech Pirates have devoted a segment of their policy document to “direct democracy,” where they advocate utilizing IT to incorporate elements such as binding referenda, recalls, and citizens’ initiatives into the state apparatus.
As these variations indicate, while decentralizing political power through collaborative decision-making is a popular Pirate theme, the exact modality that increased participation should take is debated within the movement. Falkvinge told me that “direct democracy, as such, was never part of the original platform.” Instead the Pirate Party of Sweden sought to work through a different method known as “swarm leadership,” in which people were free to take action furthering the Pirate cause without seeking permission from a higher authority. That some form of increased, non-hierarchical participation is desirable, however, seems to be a firm Pirate Party tenet, and stands in sharp contrast to conventional party politics, which are frequently characterized by firm, even hereditary, hierarchies and long-serving officers. The ramifications of such a change, combined with radically increased transparency and systemic changes in work and education are, indeed, potentially enormous.
Services like Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube have contributed to something of a new equilibrium when it comes to entertainment IP, offering services at a price low enough that many people are, once again, willing to pay for the convenience and quality of a subscription. This has robbed the issue of intellectual property — the original Pirate mainstay — of some of its urgency — at least for now. But the changes the internet has brought to political participation and access have barely been acknowledged, much less addressed, by more established political parties. It is their willingness to step into this lacuna and do the dirty work of experimenting with new ideas under new conditions that is such a key component of the Pirate appeal.
Pirates — Potential Forerunners of a New Politics
Whatever else one may say about the Pirates, they seek to work across the left-right divide on proposals that attempt to deal with the pressing issues of the digital age. As such they represent a constructive approach that confronts issues head-on instead of denying that any problems exist or trying to put the genie back in the bottle and return to the past. The inability of conventional parties to come to terms with the present and to lay the groundwork for the future was all too apparent in the last American presidential election, in which Republicans and Democrats tussled over whether America should be made great again (past), or if it was already great (present) without providing a vision suitable for coping with the dynamic and rapidly evolving world around them into the future. Economic distribution, political participation, and national organization are all due a serious overhaul, as traditional work and social structures fail to deliver. Prudent politics is about preparing for future challenges and risks — trying to solve tomorrow’s problems today, rather than fighting a war of attrition over yesterday’s issues. It is possible that traditional parties, like the Democrats and Republicans, simply have too much baggage to let go of the past and start working with the present-day reality quickly enough to be effective — and it is this lack of timely change that is producing instability.
Far from representing an anarchic menace to society, Pirates are searching for the way forward in an exciting, perhaps even revolutionary time. Their solutions may not always prove durable or palatable to everyone, but progress depends on people’s willingness to think outside the box and take a chance on new ideas. In fact, perhaps American democracy could do with a few more Pirates.
Roslyn Fuller is the author, most recently, of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose.