Saturday, 23 May 2015

Pirate Party : Hoisting the Jolly Roger above Wales

Bridgend's voters were faced with a unique choice on May 7th.
Maybe, in future, other Welsh voters will have the option too.
(Pic : via Facebook)

I doubt many people reading this will have heard of The Pirate Party.

"Pirate politics" – the umbrella term used for such parties – is often hard to place on the traditional political spectrum.
While the left-wing is mainly focused on inequalities and the right-wing on tradition, pirate politics is based around information : how freely you can access it, who it belongs to and how and why it should be used.

It could be considered a form of techno-anarchism or simply a political child of the internet age - in the same way the 1960s counter-culture led to massive social reforms.

Pirate politics, as a concept, was born as a result of organised opposition to intellectual property laws  in Sweden. This stemmed from clampdowns on file-sharing websites like The Pirate Bay and – if you want to go further back - exemplified by the row between Napster and Metallica or, if you want to go even further back, creating and sharing home-made mix-tapes ("Home Taping Is Killing Music").

Far from being the hobby horse of serial copyright infringers (aka. "pirates") - and while these still remain relatively fringe issues - more people are waking up to how the internet impacts their lives : privacy, government openness, "hactivism", direct democracy, cybercrime, net neutrality (Independence Minutiae : Wales & Net Neutrality), open data.

Established in 2009, the Pirate Party UK put up six candidates at the 2015 election and received, between them, 1,103 votes. You might scoff at that, but the Pirates have edged stronger in each election they fight.

Their 2015 manifesto (pdf) included policies such as : ending unpaid internships, ending discrimination against young people in the welfare system, the introduction of a land value tax, labelling electronic goods with the average time it take for them to break, legalising euthanasia (Life, Ethics & Independence II : Euthanasia) and free public Wi-Fi.

In Wales, Pirates support devolution of the criminal justice system, energy and welfare, as well as widening access to Welsh language lessons and Welsh-medium education.

As you would expect, not everyone is happy with goals such as complete freedom of speech or free sharing of information. This includes governments, especially when you consider how embarrassing the revelations from Wikileaks and NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, have been for the United States. Meanwhile, the founder of the original Swedish Pirate Party, Rick Falkvinge, once advocated that freedom of speech should take a higher priority over a crackdown on online child pornography – a stance backed by the Swedish equivalent of the National Union of Journalists.

Iceland already has 3 Pirate MPs, but could Iceland be a
few years away from having a Pirate Party-led government?
(Pic :
Although it'll be some time until Pirates are an established minority party like the Greens, in other countries Pirates have enjoyed marked success :
  • Germany currently has 43 Pirate members of federal state parliaments (Landtag), consistently winning 7-8% of the vote in some Landtag elections.
  • Germany elected a Pirate MEP in 2014; Sweden elected 2 Pirate MEPs in 2009.
  • The Czech Republic has a Pirate member of the Senate/upper chamber, economist Libor Michálek (joint nomination with other parties).
  • Elected local councillors in Austria, Catalonia, Croatia, France, The Netherlands and Switzerland.
The most exciting recent development in the Pirate Party's history are in Iceland. In 2013, Iceland elected 3 Pirate MPs and secured 5% of the national vote (Icelandic MPs are elected by proportional representation).

With Iceland having undergone a period of economic and political upheaval since the Great Recession, and while the population have clamoured for reforms to Icelandic democracy - including a new constitution - the Pirates have found a niche focusing on privacy, civil rights and government transparency. This culminated in a failed move to grant Edward Snowden Icelandic citizenship.

Recent polling has suggested support for the Pirates in Iceland is now at 24% - the highest polling figures for any Pirate Party anywhere in the world. If these figures remain at the same level into the next Icelandic general election, due in 2017, the Pirates would be the single largest party in the Althing, with around 24 of the legislature's 63 seats. It begs the question whether Iceland could have the first Pirate-led government.

With Pirates yet to make a serious impact in Welsh or UK politics, their electoral aims are more modest - winning a council seat would be a start. However, it would be premature to write them off, as events in Iceland show the global movement could be on the cusp of a significant breakthrough.

I've been given an opportunity to question the spokesperson for Pirate Party Wales (website), and recent Bridgend Parliamentary Candidate, David Elston (@ThyPirateDave) - some answers have been edited for brevity.

Pirate Party candidate for Bridgend at the 2015 UK election - and
spokesperson for Pirate Party Wales - David Elston.
(Pic : Wales Online)
1. Newer and smaller parties are often dismissed by rivals as "single issue parties". Beyond your core issues, what do the Pirate Party offer?
"I completely agree on your statement regarding smaller parties. For some parties that's precisely their aim. There is a Vapers in Power Party, which focuses on E-Cigs and Vaping laws while we also have a NOTA party, which simply offers people a "None of the Above" option on the ballot.

The Pirate Party are not content being a focus group for just a handful of policies; instead we have crowd-sourced policies on Culture, Economy, Education, Environment, Society, Health, Justice... and many other areas.

For example, the Pirate Party is best known for our campaigns for Free Speech, protection of privacy and Copyright & Patent Law reform. However, outside of that, crowd-sourcing leads to other national policies; for example, we would abolish tuition fees as we believe education should be a life-long right. We want to re-nationalise Royal Mail to ensure all of the UK has access to postal services and we seek a national halt on fracking - especially in Wales where we produce an energy surplus."

2. Why and how should copyright law be reformed?
"Copyright law stifles growth.

Firstly, I must be absolutely clear : reforming copyright doesn't mean everything ever invented automatically becomes free; it means copyright laws are rolled back to their original purpose. Copyright restrictions originally lasted 14 years while they now last 70. It allows corporations to horde rights and chokes creativity.

For example, big pharmaceutical companies can make a new and successful cancer treatment drug. This company could keep the drug recipe and not share it with anyone for 70 years because they profit more from their other, less-effective, drugs. Alternatively, they could charge astronomical costs for the new drug for up to 70 years, which devastates institutions like the NHS. We're already seeing the NHS swap between similar drugs to avoid patent costs - I've seen my asthma medication change - not due to effectiveness, but because “new” drugs are cheaper.

In short, in its extreme, drug patents are killing people. We want copyright reduced to 10 years, which still gives ample time for companies to make a healthy return on investment and allows creativity to flourish."

3. Many parts of Wales still suffer from poor internet access. What does the Pirate Party propose to improve the situation?
"We have to acknowledge that Superfast Cymru has failed us on so many fronts.

Firstly, new housing developments are still being set up with copper cables, not fibre optic connections. This provides a terrible standard of connection and it was reported in The Telegraph that it knocks 20% off the value of a home.

Secondly, even where new cables are being retrospectively rolled out, consumers are expected to increase their subscriptions just to be brought up to a European standard speed. We shouldn't have to pay more for what is the norm on the continent, it will only put the UK technologically further behind the rest of the EU.

We aren't opposed to the private sector, so we would not nationalise anything for the sake of nationalisation, but at a minimum we should seek to nationalise OpenReach. This is on the basis that we've already tried supporting and incentivising the company within the private sector and it hasn't worked.We would guarantee a basic Internet connection for all and provide public Wi-Fi spots so everyone can benefit from the Internet, allowing them to freely exchange thoughts and ideas and take part in the digital revolution."

4. With current concerns about privacy and safety on the internet – and the introduction of mandatory adult content filters by ISPs – how would you counter arguments that the Pirate Party's support for freedom of speech and privacy on the internet puts children at risk or turns a blind eye to criminal activity?
"The digital world is like the physical world. There are some streets and cities which have safe areas, without anything of substantial risk to children and without any real criminal activity; some websites are absolutely fine while others not.

Much like police can't 100% guarantee you don't come to risk or harm, filters cannot replace the parental role of assisting their children on the Internet. Feeding information to the public that censoring the Internet at an ISP level as a “positive step” that is “necessary” to protect children is an absolute fallacy. Not only does it far from guarantee their safety, and should not be trusted to do so, it also fundamentally breaks the Internet. We're already seeing reports of harmless websites being caught in the ISP filter.

As for crime, filters don't stop criminal activity. The idea we can just flick a switch in a server room and that will end all online criminal activity is naïve at best. It's about as effective as closing down roads that have a high percentage of crime in them; the crime simply moves to another location or people find a way past the barriers.

Again, the best defence against cyber-crime is to educate the user. If you educate society and allow people to make their own choices, not by using ISP level blocks en-masse, people will willingly not expose themselves to risky material."

5. How do you believe the internet can improve and strengthen democracy?
"The Internet was originally a tool but has become entwined with our physical world. I recently ordered a coffee which had a voucher clipped into the paper cup – the voucher specified that terms and conditions were on the website. To sign up to most providers or companies now, you have to use a website. Jobseekers essentially have to be online at home. Even homeless people carry smartphones and use Wi-Fi spots.

Rather than the question being how can the Internet improve democracy, the Internet is now essential to democracy.

The Pirate Party are utilising the Internet to bring about direct democracy. As mentioned earlier, we crowd-source policies from sites like Reddit and community forums, we advertise these on social media, then these policies are discussed within the communities before being compiled into a workable policy set. Finally, our membership vote on which policies to accept or reject.

We offer a new way of being involved in politics. If you have an idea, small and succinct or encompassing and complex, you can submit it in our crowd-source – it gives people something to point at as something they contributed to. Too many parties have some grand manifesto that doesn't reflect their membership, who don't see it as their policies. In the Pirate Party, I can tell you exactly what policies I suggested and how I voted on each other person's policy.

One of the things that makes us stand apart, including the incumbents in Westminster, is we make a positive case for the Internet. Most people love our Internet. We're constantly keeping in touch with friends, those who are lucky enough are browsing for the best deal on their next holiday, others are looking on Shelter's website with rent worries. We want our Internet to stay exactly how it is. Free from censorship, completely open and neutral.

If you want to protect the Internet, the Pirate Party is the one for you."

6. What are the Pirate Party's plans for the 2016 National Assembly elections and beyond?
"Every election is an opportunity to raise awareness of the rights we are losing, such as human rights, the ability to express ourselves, privacy and more. We just fielded our first Welsh candidate - myself in Bridgend. We put up candidates in Scottish and European elections and we're always in local elections.

Next year we have both the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections again. Right now we're focusing on the internal NEC and Governor elections, getting our house in order before considering the best strategy. However, I fully expect at least one Welsh Assembly candidate.

So I say this to my Welsh friends, if you think different, then vote different, vote Pirate."


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