Swashbuckling, Tweeting Crusaders

by Sally Helm:

In Sweden, they stand on street corners handing out free books stamped with their logo and call it “culture bombing.” In the Netherlands, they have protested the use of textbooks and favor moving to a wikibased learning system. Most recently, in Tunisia, their work to topple government censors landed some of them in prison.

They call themselves the Pirate Party, and their influence is growing. Proclaiming that ideas should be available to whoever wants them and that the Internet can democratize information flow, their platform aligns with recent events like the free-speech driven revolution in Tunisia and the WikiLeaks break. “The entire focus is on intellectual politics,” said recently elected party co-chairman Samir Allioui. “We’re living in an ever more information-focused society, and the laws need to be adapted to that.”

Allioui chairs Pirate Parties International (PPI), the umbrella organization that serves to facilitate communication among the various in-country branches of  the party. Swedish businessman Rickard Falkvinge founded the first Pirate Party in his home country in 2006 to support activists interested in copyright reform, and the international arm of the party was  officially founded at a 2010 conference in  Brussels. By that time, Pirates were already active in dozens of countries Australia to Croatia. Tech-savvy members take advantage of a broad range of Internet collaboration tools to stay in touch, including a program called “Pirate Pads,” which allows many people to edit the same document, much like Google Docs, as well as Skype accounts and mumble servers, another voice chatting application. “Our office is the Internet,” Allioui said.

Though somewhat informal and decentralized, the party has serious aspirations, and they have already reached many of their goals. Two Pirates, Amelia Andersdotter and Christian Engstroem, both of Sweden, are members of the European Parliament. Pirates hold city council seats in the German cities of Münster and Aachen, and the party won numerous seats in other local elections in late March. Most significantly, January saw Slim Amamou, a member of the Tunisian pirate party, become Tunisia’s Minister of Youth and Sport.

Amamou’s rise is emblematic of the Pirates’ fight to overcome censorship. In the weeks and months leading up to the Tunisian revolution, the 33-year-old had been actively resisting the oppressive government regime, disseminating information on how to access blocked sites, and updating his Twitter account to keep young  revolutionaries in touch with the news. When he and fellow Tunisian Pirate Azyz Ammami both disappeared from their homes on January 6—kidnapped for government questioning—the Pirate Party of Tunisia issued an appeal for action on its Facebook account and through other media channels. After enduring psychological and physical torture, both men were released on January 13, just before President Ben Ali fled the country.

The hastily constituted interim government offered Amamou a ministerial position because of his prominent role in the revolution and his popular appeal.  His appointment to the cabinet signaled a radical shift in Tunisia’s approach to censorship and free speech. Once governed by one of the most restrictive regimes in the world, the country is moving towards a more open position, spurred in part by the work of the Pirate Party.

Though such resistance is one arm of the Pirate platform, many of the party’s actions focus more specifically on the reform of copyright and patent laws. Its basic argument is that “intellectual property” is an inherently flawed concept. Many members join the political movement because of their belief in net neutrality. Josef Collentine, a university-aged member of the Swedish party currently studying public relations and marketing at Högskolan i Jönköping University in Sweden, said that it was the Pirates’ stance on copyright reform that first drew him into the movement two years ago. “In my opinion, information should be as free as possible. Right now, the middleman is still holding on to that information,” he said.

The party supports an end to noncommercial copyright protections and a scaling back of commercial ones. Though former co-chair Gregory Engels noted in a January 2011 interview with Vibe magazine that the party does not officially support illegal downloading of music, he believes the laws themselves are flawed and should be changed to make music downloads legal. Allioui echoed that view: “The problem is that there is no difference between downloading a piece of journalism and downloading an MP3. If you can eliminate the option for people to download an MP3, you can also eliminate the option for them to download a piece of journalism.”

PI discussed ways to reform such laws at their most recent gathering in Friedrichshafen, Germany on changing facts. Titled  “Sailing youth contributes to its status as in the Open Sea—Pirate Design a fringe movement. “All parties for Tomorrow,” the confer-are radical at the beginning, ence allowed pirate supporters from around the world to gather, share ideas, and make connections. The meeting inspired Collentine to start an international newsletter to keep the domestic and local wings better informed about what their counterparts are doing in other parts of the world.

Specific agenda items discussed at the March gathering included issuing a statement of support for WikiLeaks contributor Bradley Manning and determining how best to combat the regulations of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which recently approved the “.xxx” domain name. Pirates object to the title because it is the first domain name that judges the content it describes, Allioui explained.

They also discussed extending their reach into education initiatives, an area in which the party has been active in the past. Allioui, who served as the head of the Dutch PirateParty before being elected an international co-chair in Friedrichshafen, supported a project in the Netherlands to eliminate textbooks and move to a wiki-based learning system. Instead of learning from static sources, he said, children would move their education to the Internet, learning from what are essentially higher quality Wikipedia pages. Anyone, including students, could add to and update the Wikis, though the teachers or curriculum coordinators would have ultimate control. The resources would be free to taxpayers and schools would be able to stay constantly up-to-date with changing facts. Allioui said that he hopes the move might actually improve quality control by keeping information fresh.

Naturally, publishing companies oppose such a change. Allioui said their role would, and should, shrink under such a plan. “It’s competition. Times change. When we got the Euro in Europe, all the currency exchange officers started to complain as well. So did the train conductors when we first expanded transportation over water,” Allioui argued. “When times change, you adapt your business or die.”

The plan is a radical one, as many Pirate projects are, and creates practical and logistical concerns. Teachers used to a textbook system might object to abandoning traditional methods, and though Allioui contends that the Wikis would remain high-quality, such a new system would be less vetted and likely more prone to mistakes, at least in its early stages. Pirates respond to such critiques with the contention that there are always hurdles when a new ideology takes root; we would do best, they argue, to look beyond initial objections and strive to adapt to changing times. Yet to be truly effective, radical ideas must eventually be combined with practical implementation.

That is easier said than done. The pirate agenda has repeatedly been stymied by corrupt and tradition-bound political systems, Allioui said; yet the party’s ultimate goal is to change the system from within. The party sees  transparency and accountability as core political values and seeks to extend government representation to further their agenda. Their adoption of the name “Pirate Party,” which was originally applied as a slur in Sweden, reflects their drive to turn an outsider group into one that operates within the system.

That will not happen overnight. Collentine said that he believes the party’s youth contributes to its status as a fringe movement. “All parties are radical at the beginning, because they have a view that is very different from what is established,” he said. “In a few years, our ideas will be more mainstream.”

Allioui agreed: “We’re the domestic and local a young organization, wings better informed and most of the organiaboutwhat their counzation is still under construction.” But being informal doesn’t mean you’re not serious.”

The party’s day-to-day operations reflect that casual outlook; for example, former co-chair Gregory Engels used a Facebook status update beginning “Ahoy pirates” to call his far-flung followers to Friedrich- shafen. Yet Allioui stressed that although their methods may be untraditional, their message is substantial. “We’re politicians and activists at the same time,” he said.

In expressing this sentiment, Allioui highlighted a tension that Amamou en- countered when he announced that he had accepted a position in the Tunisian government. Many of his online followers expressed fear that he might abandon his revolutionary views and become a sell- out. As more and more Pirates attempt to gain national office, they will have to rec- oncile their party’s ideals with the limita- tions of the system, as all politicians must. But Collentine and Allioui both asserted that politics and “piraticism” don’t have to be at odds. Mainstream political scenes around the world might even benefit from a bit of their radical flavor.

Sally Helm ’14 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at sarah.helm@yale.edu.