The golden age of piracy: can open-source democracy redefine citizenship for the internet age?

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Author: Cole Edick
Date: Summer 2015
From: Harvard International Review(Vol. 36, Issue 4)
Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,032 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1250L

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The number of pirates worldwide is on the rise. Iceland is a demonstrative case: pirates in Iceland outnumber any other kind of person--not pirates in the Caribbean sense or even the Somali sense, but the political sense. The so-called Pirate Party is now the largest political party in Iceland, receiving 23.9 percent of the vote in the latest election. This party has been most successful in Iceland, but it is part of an international movement that was founded in Sweden in 2006 and has now spread across over 60 countries. The Pirate Party's stated mission is to fight "for real transparency and responsibility in politics, easier access to information, direct democracy, freedom of information and copyright reform." An international, grassroots populist movement focused on information and technology policy, the Pirate Party appears to have an agenda and a model that is equipped for the Internet Age.

Iceland's Pirate Party was founded in 2012 by Internet activists, among them politician Birgitta Jonsdottir, who was a member of The Movement, a grassroots party that has now merged with several others to form the Dawn Party. Jonsdottir makes a good pirate. She was a Wikileaks collaborator and remains an advocate for whistle-blowers today, voicing support for notable individuals such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Having already held a seat in Iceland's Althing prior to the party's founding, Jonsdottir's reelection on a similar platform under a new name might appear unsurprising, but her party's successes are unprecedented. Pirates first got on the ballot in Iceland's April 2013 parliamentary elections and won three seats in the Althing, becoming the first national iteration of the global Pirate Party movement to experience electoral success on the national level. The Pirate Party has yet to push through any major legislative feats, but it has put forward controversial legislation, such as a bill to grant asylum for whistle-blowers. Despite this lack of results in the legislature, the party's popularity has soared and the party is currently experiencing its most rapid growth rate. Over 35 percent of the party's members in April 2015 had signed up during the previous month of March. There is something about the Pirates' digital platform that resounds with the public. But it is not just about the agenda. Pirates boast a unique model of political organizing and decision-making as well.

What is that model? It is crowdsourcing: opening issues up online for the masses to work out. Pirate parties are advocates of a free and open Internet, but they are also savvy users of online open-source platforms. From GitHub to Reddit, party members organize, debate, and decide online. In accordance with their values, parties are entirely transparent via the web as well. But most importantly, the Pirate Party uses what it calls "liquid democracy." Citizens' votes have a liquid authority: a voter can delegate their vote to others, like a known expert or trusted friend. The idea was implemented by Pirates in Germany in November 2012 with a software they developed called LiquidFeedback, which allows citizens to propose, discuss, and vote on legislation online. Mostly used to organize local Pirate Party meetings in Germany, the software has potential applications for civic organizations, corporations, or the average civically-minded citizen. But the tool has mostly been a failure. It is highly decentralized, making coherence difficult to achieve even in a party of like-minded individuals. It is also marked by low participation, with only 15 to 20 users debating over a given issue. This may have to do with the fact that the technology, while innovative, is not attractive to use. Likely the first thing anyone on the site will notice is its entirely unsexy headline: "LiquidFeedback is an open-source software, powering internet platforms for proposition development and decision making." But most importantly, it simply does not seem effective. If technology like LiquidFeedback is to succeed in the Internet Age, it needs to be compelling. To get that appeal, open-source tech needs a good story.

Fortunately for pirates and other open-source hopefuls, there is a good story out there: the Net Party of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Net Party takes things a bit further than Pirates, operating on the explicit mandate that any of its elected rep resentatives would, on a given issue such as a legislative bill, be subject to decisions made by party members on a developing open-source platform called DemocracyOS (which has occasionally been shortened to DemOS, demos being a term for "ordinary citizens" of ancient Greece, where all citizens participated in decision-making). Users of DemocracyOS can vote or debate on current legislation, as well as propose their own. They can also delegate their vote to a peer who can serve as a proxy; if the user does not know anything about healthcare, and their friend is a health administrator, they may wish to let their friend vote on their behalf. Seem familiar? Well, unlike LiquidFeedback created by the Pirate Party, DemocracyOS came before the Net Party, originally hoping to work with mainstream parties, but found that breaking the mold was not so simple. The founders of DemocracyOS, including spokeswoman Pia Mancini, struck out on their own, and founded the Net Party to test their model for democracy. She says, "We need to start thinking about whether systems that were developed in the 18th century, and fully implemented in the 20th century, make sense in a 21st century societal context." Her team's answer is that a 21st century societal context requires direct, grassroots democracy. And it looks good. Mancini is a young, fresh face appearing on news segments and giving TED talks on what appears to be a polished product with a millennial aesthetic. While the rhetoric around the software is inspiring, advocating "Better Decisions, Together," the young team is self-aware and charming. Their mascot is Pantufla, a rabbit, who is paired with the quote "follow the white rabbit." DemocracyOS has a fresh appeal that LiquidFeedback does not, and its origins as a young start-up with a vision for the future are aligned with true grassroots activism.

Still, like with LiquidFeedback, large numbers have yet to get on board with the developing software. The Net Party is confined to Buenos Aires alone, where it earned a meager 1 percent of the vote in 2013. Some political groups and local-level politicians across the globe have picked it up for their own purposes of reaching out to voters, but participation is low. Its public demo is currently online, but even its most popular issue of debate has attracted no more than 175 participants. DemocracyOS was rebuffed by mainstream parties, and since then the Net Party has been been working largely alone.

So what can make the open-democracy dream come to fruition? Perhaps what is needed is both a large and energetic political party as well as an attractive platform. Pirates are not the only ones who are using open-source technology for political organizing. In Spain, the up-and-coming left-wing Podemos Party works on a similar model. It used Reddit in its nascence, and Plaza Podemos, a website used for grassroots debate amongst members of the movement, attracts between 10,000 and 20,000 daily visitors. Podemos was founded in January 2014 by academic Pablo Iglesias, the party's young and charismatic leader, along with some students and fellow academics. It began as a small, moneyless anti-austerity party inspired by Latin American populism of history, but in its young life has grown with considerable speed and surprising sophistication. Podemos, meaning "We Can", is now a burgeoning party predicted to make major electoral gains. Some polls put it ahead of both of Spain's predominant political parties, and many have suggested that Iglesias could be the next prime minister. Its supporters have used open-source platforms to spur its rapid growth and maintain its grassroots integrity, but the effort remains mostly decentralized.

These non-traditional, anti-establishment parties, with a deep commitment to free Internet and an affinity for open-source platforms are on the rise. Some remain marginalized on the fringes of their political environs, while some take center stage. But a running tension within parties like the Pirate Party or Podemos is that there is no fixed system of grassroots decision-making. Some regard this as appropriate in that, as anti-establishment parties, working to create a new establishment for decision-making is counterproductive. Still, while opportunities abound for party members to get involved, they can get muddled in the overwhelming and nebulous nature of open-source platforms. Not to mention that, as parties grow, more members become involved, including those who may not be so tech-savvy. To maintain momentum and sustain success, these parties need simple, unified, user-friendly platforms. DemocracyOS, with its familiar format that resembles liking and commenting on Facebook, future app capability, and simple visual appeal, may be that platform.

It is hard to say what the implications of open-source democracy might be. As far-fetched as it may seem, imagine for a moment that the entire world had Internet access and a smartphone with the DemocracyOS app on it. This vision is almost utopian. In the ancient Greek city-state, citizens, the demos, were obligated to make decisions and politick all day long; it was what made them citizens. The caveat was that, in order to perform this task, to participate in their democracy, they could not work during the day. As such, citizens owned slaves who could perform the day's tasks for them. It was a democratic paradise for the fortunate, and a life without liberty for all others. Today the citizens of democracies worldwide do not live like ancient Greeks; they live in republics, where they vote for a politician to represent their will. While the ancient Greek city-state held slaves so that its citizens could make politics a full-time job, the citizens of modern republics do their own work and have elected officials who can make politics a full-time job. But the ease and accessibility of technology like DemocracyOS means that a member of a democracy could keep their day job and express their political will without significant inconvenience or time consumption. Contemporary citizens could have the widespread democratic governance of ancient Greece, independent of a slave-owning society. There could be a world that may not even need politicians, just opinionated voters who spend enough time checking their smartphones.

However, constructing this collective democratic utopia is unrealistic and perhaps unadvisable. Global, free, reliable Internet access alone may be impossible to achieve. But is it something we should even want? If politicians are mandated to vote in accordance with their constituents on every issue, will this invoke a tyranny of the majority? In the case of the German Pirate Party, for example, LiquidFeedback is dominated almost entirely by white men. Especially in the initial stages of development of open-source democracy, how are we expected to protect the rights of minorities? And the liquidity of liquid democracy implies the possibility for accumulation. What is to keep the enterprising individual from selling their votes to proxies with vested interests in a particular legislation? Are traditional democratic party politics, complete with technocracy and corruption, simply going to be reproduced in a new form that masks itself as a better manifestation of the popular will? These questions are difficult to answer. It may soon become crucial for law and academia to consider the possibilities for ordering a world where open-source democracy is the norm. It may be even more crucial to keep it from becoming the norm, at least for the time being. Internet access remains a privilege, and if it becomes critical to participating in democracy, the open-source revolution may end up pirating not from the establishment, but from the already disenfranchised.

Regardless, time is of the essence for political pirates. These non-traditional parties are beginning to lose their momentum; the Pirate Party got its start in Sweden, where it has experienced a steady decline and is largely defunct, despite initial influence on altering mainstream party platforms. However, with the incredible potential evident in cases such as Iceland and Spain, a technology like DemocracyOS could revolutionize how citizens participate in their governments. Just like the Caribbean's Golden Age of Piracy, the new Golden Age of (Political) Piracy requires just the right set of circumstances to blossom.

staff writer


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Gale Document Number: GALE|A428356339