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Pirate Party Docks at Berlin’s Parliament

Tired of the same old political cronies, Berliners have voted in the Pirate Party — Internet open-source activists who hope to use online systems to improve democracy.

The recent U.S. shutdown of the Hong Kong-based file-hosting service Megaupload has led other file sharing sites to tighten their content sharing practices, for fear of facing criminal charges. Seven of Megaupload’s executives were charged with copyright violations, racketeering, and money laundering, while CEO Kim Dotcom, a German-Finnish citizen, was arrested along with four others and could face up to 55 years in prison.

Hackers have retaliated, leading some, like the ubiquitous “Anonymous,” to claim credit for attacking the Justice Department's website. But while pirating copyrighted material for free entertainment continues to raise global hackles, a party that borrows from such open-source practices to create a more transparent government has fired up politics in Europe.

As Internet activists who stand against censorship and data retention, Germany’s Pirate Party won an impressive 9 percent of the vote last September in the Berlin elections. Since then, 15 very unconventional “Pirate” politicians have taken seats in the regional parliament, donning hoodies, sneakers, and even a few ponytails on the men.

“All the other parties were pretty decent — they didn’t want to offend anyone, they just wanted to integrate,” said Fred Bordfeld, a Pirate representative for Berlin’s Pankow district. “We were the only party with a massive turn out at the beginning that put topics on the streets.”

“Other parties don’t think of the Pirates as competitors,” said Gero Neugebauer, a professor at the Otto-Suhr Institute of Political Science at Berlin’s Free University. “They think the Pirates could have been lucky because they themselves made mistakes due to their own habits.”

Ask the Pirates themselves, and they’ll argue their success is due to their subversive campaign posters; the medium, indeed, was the message.

From the very start of their campaign last summer, the Pirates traded the high gloss PR of opposing parties such as the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union with messages that clearly connected to some disillusioned citizens: “Why am I hanging here? You probably aren't going to vote anyway! and Addiction policy not drug war.

As Pirate Party board member — and now member of Berlin parliament — Pavel Mayer sees it, the last election offered no alternative for the voter. Normally, the Greens would have mustered it up, but as Mayer said, “The Green party screwed up. They presented themselves to be just as boring as the other parties.”

As Mayer sees it, theirs is the classic tale of a “nobody” who rises to the top, a story the German media ate up. It wasn’t just the media — the Pirates motivated 30,000 traditional nonvoters to cast ballots for them. “For the first time in many years of elections, the percentage of voters increased,” Mayer explained over dinner at Walden, a quaint restaurant in the Prenzlauer Berg district, where the Berlin Pirates meet every Monday to hash out issues.

They also won the “protest votes,” those citizens who vote for the party most hated by the establishment.

“In Germany, it’s normally the right wing extremist parties that the establishment hates because when they get votes, it’s a bad sign for democracy,” said Mayer. “We actually harvested the protest votes, so the right wing parties ended up with a really bad result and they blamed the Pirate Party for it.”

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Formed in 2009 in Berlin, the Pirate Party in the city-state (Berlin is both a city and state of Germany) is an offshoot of the Pirates in Sweden, a group born after owners of the Pirate Bay file sharing company were jailed in a sort of 2006 foreshadowing of the Megaupload case. In this case, the Internet activists grew tired of being criminalized as “pirates” by those who lobbied against free online content; they went on to win two seats in the European Parliament in 2009.

With greater public participation and increased transparency as their central political agenda, the Pirate Party aims for “open source” government, where all bureaucratic paperwork and publicly financed initiatives are freely accessible online. In a Pirate paradise, citizens should be able to directly influence politics using the Internet.

Now that the Pirate platform is being tested in parliament, the Pirates face internal conflict as they try to function as politicians instead of hackers or IT nerds.

“So far they had no problems showing that they don’t want to play the role of an anti-party,” Neugebauer notes from their limited time in Berlin’s parliament. “They are a party among the others and they are interested in cooperating. On one side they claim to have more democracy, transparency and participation on their platform; on the other they have some real aims that could make them interesting to voters who have hesitated in the last elections.”

Apart from the Internet topics, such aims include improving Berlin’s education system, offering free public transportation and implementing Grundeinkommen, a basic income guarantee for all citizens.

The various Occupy movements around the globe late last year suggest that voters under the age of 40 are looking for a fresh approach that involves direct participation in their government and responsibility on part of their politicians.

Neugebauer sees the inexperience of the Pirates as politicians — and their reputation as unprofessional and poorly organized — as a form of access to the voters. By being the average citizen who is looking for answers as to why their country is still in Afghanistan, “they develop a kind of direct democracy and direct communication that you may find among the ‘Occupy Now’ movement,” said Neugebauer.

But as Bordfeld admits, he’s not exactly sure what the Occupy movement sought, which in turn makes it hard to be sure the Pirates reflect that voice.

“I don’t know if the Pirates as a party can really say, ‘We are your voice [in] the Parliament,’ because actually we are a part of the parliamentary process,” he said. “On the other hand, we are the only party that really offers a low-level participation.”

He was referring to a system called Liquid Democracy (which has a more practical application as online software called Liquid Feedback). It works like this: anyone (Pirate or not) can approach the Pirate Party board with a proposal concerning the city-state of Berlin. The proposal is then entered into the Liquid Feedback software and voted directly upon by the members of the party. The board is less a decision-making entity and more an administrative arm of the party.

Through Liquid Feedback, each Pirate can decide yes or no. If the Pirate is not interested or unfamiliar with the topic, he can delegate his vote to another Pirate, whose vote on the matter then counts as two, and so on.

Developed by members of the Pirate Party, Liquid Feedback presents an alternative to standard voting machines as a completely transparent system, with every move accounted for, showing who votes and how.

At the moment, a system of direct voter representation such as Liquid Feedback is only accessible to party members, open to 20,000 Pirates and 5,000 already using Liquid Feedback. The public therefore can follow a vote but can’t vote on it themselves.

To scale it up, says Mayer, would mean several trial runs, and no one is sure how successful it might prove to be within the public sphere. Neugebauer argues that opening Liquid Feedback to the public will not protect against people who abuse political platforms as a vehicle for their own motives.

Then there is the issue of privacy, which Germans are notorious for protecting vigilantly. Naturally, data transparency is a frightening concept in a country where even the census is contentious.

“The old paradigm was that private data needs to be protected and public data needs to be transparent and accessible,” said Bordfeld. “This is still a big discussion within the Pirates: should every move I make as a low-level party member be public?”

On Germany’s federal level, the Pirate platform of participation and transparency could unsettle both the public and politicians. “Open source on a federal level is not achievable,” said Neugebauer. “Most politicians in the other parties are more or less skeptical about the use of the Internet. Some of the conservatives among the Bavarians still believe that the Internet is a platform for pedophiles or for checking their email once a week.”

But Pirate politics continue to spread to other regions, with officially registered parties across Europe and Canada, and even in Massachusetts and Florida.

“It could be useful for them to not assume the role of the ‘peculiar party’ but rather as those who know nothing about politics, but who are interested in learning about it,” said Neugebauer.

It looks like Mayer shares a similar sentiment when it comes to finding a balance. He admits that he’s likely to forfeit his full-time position as a board member in time for the next election. As the managing director of his own software company, Mayer is feeling the mounting weight of responsibility. It looks like the notion of a “people’s party” comes with its own reality. “Where does being a party member end and being a politician start?” he asked.

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