Interview with Pirate Party Leader: "These are Crucial Freedoms"

A political party that advocates for the free and open source software community has become the third largest Swedish party.
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On June 7, 2009, Swedish voters elected a member of the PiratPartiet (Pirate Party) to the European Parliament. A second parliamentary seat will go to the Pirate Party this fall if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified and Sweden gains an additional two seats.

These are small but solid results for a party founded three years ago that runs grass root campaigns. So what happened and why does it matter outside Sweden?

For Rickard Falkvinge, founder and leader of the Pirate Party, the explanation is simple: The Pirates made the copyright and patent concerns of the free software community part of public discourse for the first time anywhere, and did so using social media techniques that caught their opponents completely unaware.

Falkvinge expanded on this bit of history in a keynote address at the recent Open Web Vancouver, and in a brief interview with me the next day.

Falkvinge, an entrepreneur from his teens, has been following IT all his adult life, including free software.

"I've been involved with various types of open source," he says, but quickly adds, "I haven't worked on a specific project that you would have heard of. I'm one of those folks that somehow managed to get into projects that never go anywhere -- except this one, of course."

As with many, the turning point for Falkvinge was the struggle against efforts to impose more restrictive copyrights throughout the European Union in 2005. According to Falkvinge, the issues were widely covered and discussed in Sweden by everyone -- except the politicians.

"So I sat down and asked myself, 'What does it take to get the politicians' attention?' I realized that you probably couldn't get their attention without making it personal. So the only recourse basically was to bypass the politicians entirely, and head straight for the voting citizens at the polls -- essentially make it so personal that they can't ignore it any more."

While to North Americans, the party's name may seem deliberately provocative, Falkvinge explains that it was an inevitable one given the political background. In 2001, a copyright lobbying group called the Anti-Pirate Bureau was founded, so when a counter think-tank was established in 2003, it naturally called itself the Pirate Bureau.

According to Falkvinge, the result was that "pirate politics became very well-known and established. Everyone knew what pirate politics were, so it wasn't a matter of founding a party and thinking about the name. It was a matter of founding the Pirate Party" -- which he did on January 1, 2006.

From the start, Falkvinge rejected the idea of relying on old media -- TV, radio, print.

"They wouldn't pick up on what they considered a fringe movement. They wouldn't write about us enough to spread the ideas -- partly because our ideas don't fit into their frame of reference, so how do they explain something that they can't really grasp?

“We knew we had to build an activist network. We knew we had to do politics in a way that people hadn't seen before, but was perfectly consistent with open source. So we essentially by-passed all of old media. We didn't wait for old media to pick up something; we just published everywhere we could."

The result was a success that blind-sided other political parties. Within a few days of posting the party's first website on January 1, 2006, Falkvinge learned that it had received several million hits. Although the Pirate Bay raid and the Swedish national election later that year helped promote the party, most of its growth occurred online in blogs and other forms of social media.

Today it is the third largest Swedish party, and boasts by far the largest youth group of any Swedish political party.

"It's not just the largest party online," Falkvinge says. "It's the only party being discussed online."

Meanwhile, traditional analysts could not believe that the Pirate Party was consistently receiving 7-9% support in polls.

"I read a political analyst who was entirely surprised," Falkvinge says. "She said, 'How could they possibly poll that much? They're entirely invisible.' She was, of course, referring to her own frame of reference. Whereas most blog comments were saying, 'Has this woman been living under a rock?'"

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Tags: open source, software, free software, Copyright

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