Pirate Parties: From digital rights to political power

Supporters of the Pirate Party celebrate the Berlin regional election results at an election party in Berlin
Image caption The Pirate Party won 15 seats in the Berlin state elections

The German Pirate Party saw a surge in support in Berlin's recent state elections, with all 15 of its candidates winning seats in the state parliament.

The party's success comes amid growing support for the movement in other countries, including Australia, Russia, Tunisia and Mexico.

Initially pirate parties made the news by bringing the subject of digital file-sharing to public attention, but more recently they have scored notable election successes.

This has been achieved in part through their exceptional internet and social media skills, and clever branding; one party has even set up its own Wikileaks-like whistleblowing site.

Since the first pirate party was founded in Sweden in January 2006, the number worldwide has increased to more than 60.

BBC Monitoring charts the progress of the movement through public pronouncements and media commentary:

The birth of pirate parties

The Swedish Pirate Party was formed as an offshoot of the hugely popular electronic file-sharing Swedish Pirate Bay website, which the Los Angeles Times has described as "the most visible member of a burgeoning international anti-copyright or pro-piracy movement".

The party was formed to fight for "digital rights" including freedom of information, the abolition of patents, copyright reform and privacy protection.

In 2009 four Pirate Bay defendants received prison sentences and heavy fines for damages relating to copyright violations.

The resultant publicity led to a huge growth in party membership, which quickly rose to around 18,000, and the party won two seats in the June 2009 European Parliament elections.

"We gained political credibility," said Ric Falkvinge, the Swedish party's founder and leader.

Global co-ordination

Following the Swedish Pirate Party's surge in membership, Pirate Parties International (PPI) was formally established in Belgium in April 2010, aiming to facilitate co-operation between pirate parties worldwide.

Currently the PPI has 26 party members and five observer members across four continents.

Youthful, 'tech-savvy' membership

Pirate party members are overwhelmingly young and IT literate; in the UK three out of eight Pirate Party candidates in the 2010 general election were aged just 19 years old - the oldest was 41.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently described typical members as "tech-savvy youngsters who wear hooded sweatshirts, throw cool parties and play up their group's name with pirate boats".

They are also skilled internet users and adept at utilising social media.

The Czech Pirate Party is active on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, where the party's page has over 23,000 'likes'.

The Washington Post's Dominic Basulto has said that "a single tweet from a [pirate] party leader has the ability to activate youthful voters."

European politics blog Charlemagne's notebook, published in The Economist, suggests that the German Pirate Party's success and popularity may be down to its "inspired" name and image, a "brilliant piece of political branding," which often involves supporters dressing up in traditional pirate garb, attracting much media attention.

Varied political roots

Members' political backgrounds, if any, can be difficult to assess.

Germany's Pirate Party leader Sebastian Nerz told a Berlin press conference this month: "We are not a party that promotes free copying of information above all else. We are a socio-liberal party for basic rights.

"We want to fundamentally change the style of politics".

Stefan Bornost, editor of the far-left German magazine Marx21 describes members of the German party as coming from "all sorts of political backgrounds, including the youth organizations of centre-right parties".

Support for whistleblowing websites

In December 2010 the PPI responded to international calls to close down the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks by publishing a joint resolution on its website, which reaffirmed its member parties' commitment to WikiLeaks and similar sites.

The PPI also arranged to host WikiLeaks on a resilient web-mirror created by the pirate parties themselves.

Former PPI co-chairman Gregory Engels described the situation as "a fight for fundamental freedoms on the internet. Pirates will not accept governmental attempts to restrict access to free press and constrain freedom of speech".

Image caption The Pirate Party has overtaken more established parties in recent German polls

Later the same month the Czech Pirate Party launched its own Czech-focused whistleblowing website, PirateLeaks, which aims to "do away with excess secrecy in the administration and to open up its workings - including their financing - to public scrutiny."

Earlier this month Serbia's Pirate Party ran a training workshop for users of BalkanLeaks, as part of an agenda of educating people on the effective and anonymous use of whistleblowing sites.

The party later tweeted from its Twitter account that the workshop was "a smash".

German poll success

US Public Radio International has described Germany's Pirate Party as a "political force of 20-somethings" whose membership base consists of "male software engineers", but that "the Pirates have more than geek appeal".

This became clear in the party's spectacular poll success in the September 2011 Berlin state parliament elections.

Not only were all 15 of its candidates - the youngest aged 19 years old - elected, but with almost nine-per-cent of the votes the party easily outstripped the long-established Free Democratic Party, a member of Angela Merkel's government coalition, which gained only 1.8 per cent.

According to Stefan Bornost several factors contributed to the party's success in Berlin.

Their campaign "of greater transparency and democracy" and with "a strong anti-privatisation stance and radical demands on social questions" matched the "anti-system mood" prevailing in the "very poor city" with its well-known "alternative" culture base.

The future of pirate politics

The PPI website lists 61 existing pirate parties, and further expansion seems assured based on past performances.

Whether the parties can move easily into mainstream politics is less clear.

Fareed Zakaria has noted that pirate parties are "one more manifestation of the despair of the average citizen with government and large institutions more generally", a theme which could be exploited to create further political growth.

Stefan Bornost believes that the German Pirate Party "must work out their contradictions," before it can move forward. "Concern about web freedom and copyright issues was the political glue that has held the group together," Bornost said, with the implication that something more may be required in future.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

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