Does America need a Pirate Party?

In Washington, there seems to be little understanding of how cyber-activists are changing the balance of power between government and the people, or why legislation viewed by some as potentially curtailing the future growth of the Internet is problematic for so many younger voters.

In this Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, a pirate hat is seen on a table during a meeting of the Israel Pirate Party in Jerusalem. The Israel Pirate Party is one of 34 lists competing in the country’s Jan. 22 national election. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
In this Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, a pirate hat is seen on a table during a meeting of the Israel Pirate Party in Jerusalem. The Israel Pirate Party is one of 34 lists competing in the country’s Jan. 22 national election. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

There appears to be even less understanding of how the free sharing of knowledge made possible by the Internet can lead to a vast bubbling-up of innovation and economic growth from the grassroots level. Politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to be just waking up to the fact that young voters who hold cyber-activists such as RSS co-founder Aaron Swartz in such high esteem, can provide an innovative breath of fresh air in American politics—a break, perhaps, from the divisiveness of left vs. right politics.

What America may need, in other words, is something like Iceland’s Pirate Party.

Campaigning on a platform of Internet reform, Iceland’s Pirate Party recently won a surprising 5.1 percent of the national vote, just barely giving the party their first-ever seats in a national parliament. In Iceland’s parliament, 3 of the 63 seats now belong to what was once a fringe party that advocates cyber-activism, total government transparency, free sharing of knowledge, and direct democracy. The Pirate Party supports universal, unrestricted access to the Internet as the foundation of any civil society—and they’re willing to put their mouths where their Internet connections are. The head of Iceland’s Pirate Party, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, has been willing to take on the United States government over Wikileaks and the whistleblower case of Bradley Manning.

The Pirate Party is a can-do party preaching to the Internet faithful, and it’s a party that plans to go European-wide in 2014. Based on early successes in places such as Sweden and Germany, there’s a plan afoot for the Pirate Parties across Europe to unite, resulting in a pan-continental platform for Pirate Party candidates to run on across 25 different countries for the European Parliament. Instead of campaigning on nation-specific issues, such as taxation or spending, they’d be campaigning on universal issues related to cyberspace. This is somewhat more radical than it sounds—it’s essentially throwing open the party doors to any citizen in any European nation who believes in direct democracy. As a result, you’ll likely get a mix of politicians who don’t look anything like what we imagine politicians to look like – Birgitta Jónsdóttir, for example, defines herself as a “cyber poet” and activist, rather than as a politician. Think of her as the head of a movement, rather than a party. The other two Pirate Party members elected to office in Iceland are a computer programmer and a student from the University of Iceland.

Think what a similar type of political movement could do in the U.S.

Instead of the arguably dysfunctional system dominated by “career politicians” and big campaign donations, you’d get a system in which individuals without any experience at all in politics could potentially get elected. In doing so, we’d get closer to what the ancient Greeks actually had in mind for their model of Athenian democracy, when they suggested that randomizing the political process in some way would be the best way to avoid political deadlock and the rule by the wealthy.  That same idea, in various formats, continues to make its way around the Internet in new permutations, such as a new proposal from Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy to randomly select a group of anonymous “electors” from a group of registered voters.

Of course, all this comes with a caveat. As we saw with the recent case of the Boston bombing, entrusting anything entirely in the hands of the Internet is a dicey proposition. As fun as it would be to elect members of the Twitter and Reddit generation to political office, it also comes with a dark side, as The Post’s Caitlin Dewey reminded us: “The problem, of course, is that the Internet is not the master key able to unlock all knowledge.” The fact remains that, Pirates—even when they’re called “pixel Pirates”—are still Pirates.

But maybe that’s what American politics needs—a new political party that’s radical, just not too radical. In the world of American politics, the emergence of the Pirate Party across Europe should be an early warning signal—issues such as Internet censorship and freedom of expression online are no longer the obscure issues of the intellectual fringe—they are the new way to mobilize huge swathes of the population that view these issues as the linchpins of innovation, creativity and even job creation. Instead of raising the white flag when it comes to solving Washington’s most intractable problems, maybe we should be raising the black pirate flag instead.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

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Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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