How Germany’s Pirate Party is hacking politics

In the furores over SOPA, CISPA and similar bills, many have suggested that politicians just don’t get technology. That’s not an accusation that can be leveled at the Pirate movement, which is gaining traction in Europe at impressive speed.

The Pirates saw their first major electoral success in the European elections of 2009, when voters in the movement’s birthplace of Sweden returned a Pirate to the European Parliament. The Swedes didn’t vote the Pirates into their own legislature, mind you, but now big wins are coming in Germany, the continent’s largest economy and the ideological home of the hacker movement.

Why Germany? Because that’s what the Pirates are trying to do: hack politics, in the sense of making-and-tweaking-stuff sense, rather than destroying it. The movement may have begun with a narrow focus on intellectual property, but it has developed into an attempt to make the political process transparent — and of course better suited to the digital age.

Piratical beginnings

The first Pirate Party appeared in 2006, when Swede Rick Falkvinge (‘Falconwing’, a name he came up with for himself) decided to rally advocates of copyright reform. His case was strongly aided by legal attacks on The Pirate Bay, the notorious file-sharing site, but the remit grew to take in stances on software patents (bad), DRM (bad) and transparent government (good).

Then came the 2009 European elections, which eventually led to all the Pirates’ digital policies being adopted by an alliance of left-wing parties, including the Greens, and last year, when Pirates grabbed all 15 of the Berlin state parliament seats they stood for.

Then the Pirates moved up another step, winning four state parliament seats in the western Saarland region. They’re likely to repeat the trick again in two more upcoming state elections, and current polling has them on track to come third in the national elections next year.

If the German Pirate Party was a tech startup, now would be the phase where it’s seeing a surprising number of downloads and starting to panic about scalability. Pirate politicians are only now getting their first experience of power and responsibility, and they know it — they’ve ruled out joining any coalition federal government (Germany does coalitions, almost all the time) until the 2017 elections.

Not that anyone would want to form a coalition with them yet. The Pirates have declared that they will only go into partnership with a party that agrees to livestream the coalition negotiations, so everyone can see what deals are being cut. Right now, that’s a no-go for every party bar the Pirates themselves.

Liquid Feedback

One thing that’s important to remember about the Pirate movement is that, like Silicon Valley to some extent, it brings together a spectrum of people ranging from techno-utopian left-wingers to libertarian right-wingers. This creates a broad base — but means that on a lot of essential stuff that doesn’t relate to the common ground of intellectual property reform and transparency, the Pirates actually don’t yet know what they collectively stand for.

For example, how do you get the left and the right to agree on economic policies?

It should come as no surprise that they’re turning to technology to solve this kind of problem.

For the last year and a half, the German Pirate Party has been experimenting with a piece of software called Liquid Feedback, an online system for formulating and voting on policies. Right now those policies then go to a traditional vote at party meetings, but the Pirates are considering using Liquid Feedback to finalize position papers (something that the Italian Pirate Parties are already doing).

Any Pirate Party member can use Liquid Feedback to propose a policy, or to comment on or create alternative versions of other members’ proposals. Proposals get revised and voted up or down. Each member gets one vote — but here’s where the system becomes much more than a simple decision-making forum.

Not everyone wants to sit there marking up every piece of policy. That’s what elected representatives are for. But not everybody likes having elected representatives — some people really do want to treat every minor policy like a referendum.

So Liquid Democracy lets party members delegate their votes to other people for everything, or only for certain policy areas, or not at all. It’s effectively a sliding scale between representative and direct democracy, with each voter choosing what level of responsibility and control they want to have.

If someone has been delegated votes, based on their popularity or expertise, they can then re-delegate their votes to someone else. The system could theoretically allow the creation of a dictator, but because each member can cancel their delegation and reclaim their direct vote at any time, this outcome wouldn’t last for long.

Into the future

It’s hard to say how much of an attraction Liquid Feedback is for the general public. The system itself is as ugly as sin and, while the Pirates recently produced APIs to let people create sexier front-ends for smartphones and the like, it’s almost certainly not a draw in itself.

But the ethos behind it is. Make no mistake, the biggest reason voters are flocking to the Pirates is that they’re disillusioned with the opaque deal-making and elite hierarchies of traditional politics.

The Pirate movement on the other hand is very much born of the internet, with its open nature, ever-shifting meritocracy and low barriers to entry for new ideas. The goofiness of net humour is there in force — Pirates have been known to turn up to Berlin’s parliament in fancy dress — but the message is serious, and it is taken seriously.

And while the focus has shifted somewhat from intellectual property to transparency, the long-running war between tech and copyright also continues to send new converts the Pirates’ way.

The Pirate movement is really still in its infant stages. There are a tremendous number of kinks that need to be worked out in the way the party operates and what it wants, from the mechanisms of Liquid Feedback to much deeper internal ideological clashes. There are also questions to be answered about the alleged extremist past of some high-profile members — something that can carry a lot of weight in Europe.

And if they navigate all this, it will still be a few years yet before Pirates are taking weighty political decisions. But at this rate, they will almost certainly end up in that position. Of course, that depends on the country – Germany’s political system encourages the growth of new parties, whereas the UK’s and the United States, for example, do not.

However, even if the Pirate movement as we know it turns into something else, the foundations have been laid for a long-term phenomenon: politicians who not only get technology, but who enthusiastically use it to engage in a new relationship with voters.