Europeans joke about how Americans will tell you their darkest secrets five minutes after meeting you. Maybe Europeans know better than Americans that data is power, and often money.
In Europe, data protection laws allow individuals to ask companies exactly what personal data these companies have. An Austrian student filed a complaint with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s Office to compel Facebook to reveal what data the company holds about him. Facebook’s international headquarters is in Ireland, and thus subject to European regulation.
Unlike in the U.S., data protection has been a European ideal since 1981, when the Council of Europe signed the “Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data” and was later enshrined into EU law as part of the 1995 EU directive on data protection.
Data protection and privacy again matter in mainstream European politics, thanks in part to the Pirate Party.
The first Pirate Party was founded in 2006 by a Swedish technology entrepreneur, Rick Falkvinge. He was concerned about intellectual property laws.
The Pirate Party platform consists mostly of:
- reducing the length of copyright protection;
- banning copy protections, or “digital rights management”
- improving civil rights and government transparency through the use of anonymity and cryptography, particularly online.
It might sound weird that Europeans, with their preference for privacy, would follow a party demanding more openness. But personal privacy doesn’t conflict with the idea of open institutions.
At the start the Pirate Party was a fringe group of politically-minded geeks. But it’s morphed into a political force that seems to be tapping into, and perhaps even altering, the technological zeitgeist both in Europe and around the world.
There are Pirate Parties in 32 countries in Europe, including Sweden, Germany, Russia, and as of this week, Greece, where the party will participate in the April elections.
The Swedish Pirate Party now holds two seats in the European Parliament. Pirate Parties hold a handful of local seats in city councils across Europe. For now, it’s done best in Germany, where it holds 15 seats in Berlin state parliament. Despite its Swedish origins, the party only managed 0.65 percent of the vote in the 2010 parliamentary elections in that Nordic country. (Some Swedish Pirate Party members did succeed in registering Kopimism as a recognized religious institution in Sweden — the group says that information is holy and copying is a sacrament.)
“The Pirate Party isn’t for or against saving intellectual property,” said Nils Jakobi, a 21-year-old German member of the Pirate Party, who lives in Bochum, in western Germany. “It’s more like: it’s not theft, it’s copying. If I steal your bike, it’s lost for you, and I have a bike. But if I copy [something], you have it, I have it, and we’re both happy.”
There is a fledgling Pirate Party in the United States. It is officially registered as a party in a handful of states, among them Massachusetts, Oregon, Oklahoma and New York. At present, no American Pirate Party members currently hold political office at any level.
A U.S. awakening
That may change, after the huge flap in January over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in Congress, which saw sites like Wikipedia and Boing Boing go dark for a day. Outrage over SOPA might create a political boon for the Pirate Party.
If Pirate lawmakers get elected, they may find a sympathethic ear in America’s courts. Traditionally, U.S. courts have stuck to a line that giving up data on a voluntary basis eliminates any right to privacy. But in United States vs. Jones, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in January that obtaining GPS data without a warrant is an act of trespass against private property rights. In that case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that traditional privacy approaches were “ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.”
Pirate Parties worldwide may also gain from their opposition to the Anti-Counterfeiting Treaty Agreement (ACTA). ACTA has sparked a wave of protests in central Europe. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have all said they are going to halt their ratification process, and Germany has said it will not sign the treaty until the EU has acted on it. (ACTA will not take effect until it is ratified by at least six nations– so far it has only signatories.)
It may be that the Pirate Party’s main political role is to shape one party’s politics, a la the Tea Party’s impact on the Republican Party in America. The Pirate Party is already influencing the Green Party in Europe. Last fall, the European Green group adopted the Pirate perspective on openness, transparency and accountability — leading Rick Falkvinge to compare the rise of the Pirates to the rise of the European Green parties two generations ago.
“People see that there is a digital revolution going on, and at the same time they see that there are some lobbyists who don’t want this change and are working against it and think that they can control it,” said Malte Spitz, a Green Party member of the German parliament.
Those in the tech law field are watching with interest.
“Politicians that understand the Internet will have a competitive advantage,” said Katitza Rodriguez, the international rights director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group based in San Francisco.