Cue: Pirates of the World, Unite! – that was the message at this weekend’s Pirate Party International meeting in Prague, the third in the organisation’s history and the first in the Czech capital. What started as a Swedish protest movement against the criminalisation of file-sharing has grown into a tangible political body, setting its sights on continent-wide success in the 2014 European Parliament elections.
Some 25 Pirate Parties from all over the world set sail for Prague this weekend, dropping anchor at the city's Hub co-working centre. Computer geeks in black T-shirts rubbed shoulders and swapped USB drives with civil liberties campaigners and newly-elected Pirate Party council members.
Pirate Parties believe global anti-piracy legislation such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement or ACTA threatens the very foundations of democracy, by eroding the right to privacy and the freedom of speech. It’s the Orwellian underside of legislation such as ACTA, says the president of the Czech Pirate Party Ivan Bartos, that threatens the future of Internet freedom.
“I think it’s more a fight for control of the Internet, because once you set up all those mechanisms as for example ACTA, you can control almost anything that’s happening in there. So we have to keep this freedom, because no-one can buy the Internet.”
What began as a marginal protest movement in Sweden – with the legal case against the file-sharing site the Pirate Bay – has mushroomed into a political movement that spans international borders. The Swedish Pirate Party won 7% of the 2009 European Parliament elections and now has two MEPs. An Austrian Pirate Party candidate was just this week elected to Innsbruck’s local council. In Germany meanwhile, the Pirate Party controls 15 of the 149 seats in the Berlin state parliament. A recent national opinion poll put them on 13 percent – ahead of the Greens, the Left and the Liberals.
That's Rick Falkvinge, the spiritual father of the Pirate Party movement, who gave the closing address at the Prague conference. The IT entrepreneur who founded the Swedish Pirate Party now describes himself as a political evangelist, spreading the message that government surveillance of private online correspondence is spiralling out of control.
“In the offline world, if you send a letter, you have the option of deciding whether to identify yourself as the sender on the outside of the envelope, on the inside in the letter, or not at all. Nobody has the right to track your communications. And nobody certainly has the right to open every letter just to check for contraband instructions. So I think it’s absolutely reasonable that our children enjoy the same civil liberties as our parents enjoyed.”
At the last parliamentary elections in 2010 the Czech Pirate Party won 0.8% of the vote. That might not seem like a massive amount, but they still came 11th out of 26 parties standing – ahead of several more established fringe parties.
The delegates agreed in Prague that they will, if successful, form a Pirate Party grouping in the European Parliament, and a single pan-European Pirate Party may one day be formed. The tide does seem to be turning in their favour; the Czech Republic was one of a handful of countries whose governments suspended ratification of ACTA after noisy protests by young people – protests that were largely organised by Pirate Party members.