Vote Pirate: The World’s Next Great Political Party?

September 11, 2013 | Kyle Chayka

While we in the United States are accustomed to choosing between Democratic, Republican, and maybe an unlikely handful of Libertarian or Green candidates for political office, Australian voters faced a list that was more like a fast-food menu for their recent September 7 election. Beyond the Labor, Liberal, and Green party politicians that make up most of the country’s government, Australia hosts the Sex Party, Julian Assange’s newly formed Wikileaks Party, and even the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, all of which competed in the 2013 national elections. While most of these efforts are just jokey vanity projects, one micro-party is quietly building an international support network, fielding candidates all over the world under the banner of open-internet utopianism. Enter the Pirate Party.

Founded in 2009, Australia’s Pirate Party stands for “freedom of information and culture, civil and digital liberties, privacy and anonymity, and government transparency,” according to its website. The party’s platform is fully detailed on a Wiki page filled with arguments for internet neutrality, tax transparency, and drug decriminalization. President Simon Frew got involved in the Australia party the year it was founded. “With the advent and growth of social media and moves to try and control what we could access online, I felt a need to get involved in campaigning around internet issues,” he said. “When I joined we were a handful of people in an Internet Relay Chat channel, with a discussion board… We now have over 800 members and have been growing consistently.”

By agitating for the kind of anti-surveillance digital security issues raised by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, the Australian Pirate Party was gathering momentum for its first-ever national election. The question remained: Who would knowingly vote for a pirate?

The original Pirate Party, of which the Australian group is a branch, was founded in Sweden in 2006 by Rick Falkvinge, a software developer and technology entrepreneur who started his first company at age 16. Falkvinge is quite a character. His last name, which he changed from Augustsson, means “falcon wing”; he is openly polyamorous; and he sometimes dons an eyepatch to flaunt his party affiliation. An affable, if not handsome, 41-year-old, he speaks in a gruff, no-nonsense voice that promises to get things done his way.

In the early 2000s, Falkvinge noticed that European Union legislators were clamping down on copyright regulation and passing anti-privacy laws. A 2005 proposal would have created permanent patents on software, but was killed at the last minute. In December of that year, the EU did pass the Data Retention Directive, which “turned mobile phones into governmental tracking devices,” according to Falkvinge. “All of a sudden everyone would be tracked all the time.” Yet Swedish politicians, who actively demonized file-sharers, remained as ignorant of digital security issues as ever. Falkvinge decided to wake them up. “You can’t possibly compete with the other guys in the politicians’ inboxes,” he said. “You have to go straight for their jobs, challenging them on election day at the polls.”

On December 16, 2005, Falkvinge registered a Pirate Party domain name, put up a rudimentary site that advocated against copyright and surveillance, and watched it go viral. The party would need five percent of the national vote, or 225,000 votes, to win seats in the Swedish government. The founder estimated that there were 1.2 million file-sharers (pirates) in the country, and a quarter of those could be angry enough to vote for a party created to represent them. Getting elected just might work.

In the September 2006 Swedish general elections, the Pirate Party was initially perceived as a joke and didn’t pass the voter threshold, but it did come in the top 10, doing better than any other party ever founded on an election year. In May of that year, Swedish police raided the Stockholm office of the Pirate Bay, an infamous file-sharing website that shared some of the ideals of Falkvinge’s party, and confiscated its servers. “There was no one to broadcast information about what happened at the time, so we became the news source,” Falkvinge explained. The incident catapulted the party into the media spotlight.

When the Pirate Bay founders were convicted in 2009, a move that many saw as a “huge miscarriage of justice,” according to Falkvinge, the Pirate Party’s membership jumped from 14,000 to 42,000 just six weeks before the election of the European Parliament (EP), the multinational legislature that governs the European Union. Helped along by the controversy, Falkvinge’s party received just over seven percent of Sweden’s vote, eventually securing two of the country’s 20 seats in Parliament. The positions went to Pirate Party leaders Christian Engstrom and Amelia Andersdotter, who, at 22, became the youngest-ever member of the EP.

Suddenly, Europe’s chief pirates were waltzing around Brussels trailed by international journalists who hung on their every word. The politicians “finally realized they had a blind spot,” Falkvinge, who continued to run the party, told me.

In Parliament, the Swedish Pirate Party created a platform for copyright reform that was taken up by the larger European Green Party, stopped three strikes that would have occurred as a result of the 2009 Telecoms Package, and gave activists a voice in international politics, Falkvinge said. They failed to garner enough votes to succeed in the 2010 Swedish general elections, however, and in 2011 the founder announced that he was stepping down as party leader, a role that would be filled by his deputy Anna Troberg. “I’d served as the party leader for five years, and I didn’t wake up every morning full of fresh, new ideas I wanted to try out,” Falkvinge told me. “I like to get things going; after they go into maintenance mode, I’m not the guy.” He now travels the world, speaking on digital rights and advocating for the Pirates.

Engstrom and Andersdotter are still active in the EP, and while Falkvinge is no longer at the forefront of the Pirate Party, his creation spread like a virus, taking root in political structures around the world. Each new group flew the party’s logo, not skull and bones, but a circle enclosing a billowing black flag.

Following in Falkvinge’s footsteps, Germany’s Pirate Party was also founded in 2006. It entered the 2009 EP elections alongside the Swedish group, but failed to replicate their success. The Germans received less than one percent of the vote, but did qualify for public funding. In 2010, Pirate Parties International was formed to coordinate the party’s global efforts, and in September 2011, the German party returned with 8.9 percent of the vote in the Berlin state elections, winning the Pirate Party’s first seats in a state parliament. They repeated the feat in several other German states, including North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland. The German party branch now has over 35,000 members, with 45 state parliament seats.

The Pirate Party exists or has existed in 60 countries in various official or unofficial capacities. The Austria party has two city councilors in office, while the Czech Republic has one Senate member (backed by a coalition with two other parties) and three municipal councilors. The mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, comedian and actor Jon Gnarr, founded the initially satirical Best Party, which is now affiliated with Pirate Parties International. The country also hosts a separate Pirate Party with three parliament seats.

With its focus on internet freedoms and copyright rather than civil or human rights issues, the Pirate Party has been the most successful in the European Union, where data privacy is a pet issue. Japan likewise has an active, registered party. Pirate Parties exist in Turkey, Russia, and Mexico, but they haven’t entered the official realm as others have.

In the United States, the Pirate Party has popped up in 20 states spread evenly across the country, organized under the Pirate National Committee umbrella organization. The Oregon and Wisconsin branches are recognized by their respective state governments, but no US pirate party member has ever made it into office.

Yoni Miller, a wiry, reedy voiced 19-year-old, is a press liaison for the New York branch of the Pirate Party. The branch was founded in 2009, but Miller joined six months ago after playing an active role in Occupy Wall Street. He’s hoping voters will tire of the old political order and look for a new option. “Occupy and the NSA surveillance revelations create conditions a lot more favorable to something alternative,” Miller said. Their strategy is to start small: “US senate and presidential campaigns are off limits for now,” the activist told me. “Local politics and city councils, mayoral elections; those are spaces the Pirate Party can enter.”

Yet the picture Miller paints of the New York branch isn’t rosy. Out of 45 registered Pirate Party members, only 15 meet actively. Jason Paul Sullivan, a 2013 Pirate Party candidate for Brookhaven Town Council in Suffolk County, has just 38 out of 843 signatures needed to get on the ballot, according to his website.

Miller remains hopeful: “2015, 2016 will be a viable electoral cycle. The Pirate Party is a brand, an idea. It’s going to explode at a certain point,” he predicted.

Back in Australia, the votes are still being tallied for an election that featured ballots of over 100 candidates from the Smokers’ Rights Party, the Future Party, the Voluntary Euthanasia Party, and dozens of others. The vote-tallying situation is further complicated by the country’s “preferences” system, which requires voters to mark not just their first choice of political candidate, but their second, third, and fourth, on down the list. Parties trade preferences, pledging their first-choice votes to other groups in a governmental cattle auction (the Pirate Party pledged to stay out of this wheeling and dealing).

The election results so far point to a decisive victory for the Liberal coalition government over Labor, with 89 predicted seats to 57 — the Liberal party’s prime minister candidate Tony Abott has already declared victory. The Senate election is slower to resolve, but the Pirate Party’s candidates didn’t receive enough votes to be in the running. With around 29,000 votes across four states, they came in below both the competing Wikileaks party and the Sex party in New South Wales (though they beat Wikileaks in total national votes), and below the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party in Victoria.

Due in part to the deal making of the preference system, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party (“We take pride in our vehicles,” their core values run) now has a place in the senate. Newfound senator Ricky Muir told ABC that he’s “just your ordinary, everyday Australian,” which certainly cannot be said for the Wikileaks Party’s Julian Assange. Rather than data transparency, Muir will push for “greater access to public land for off-road vehicle use and changes to laws surrounding vehicle modification.”

“I think we did quite well,” Australian Pirate Party president Simon Frew observed to me in a post-election email. “It was our first election and 0.3 percent nationally was pretty good considering we didn’t run in two out of six states.” As opposed to the Wikileaks Party, which, Frew explained, became embroiled in a preferencing scandal and lost many of its campaigners, the Pirate Party didn’t have celebrity candidates, a large budget, or much media coverage. What they did have was the beginnings of a grassroots movement: social media buzz rallying young voters around the central idea of infiltrating politics with the beliefs of the internet generation.

It’s no longer laughable to call yourself a pirate. “Our evidence-based approach to policy was warmly received and did a lot to dispel the myth that we are a joke party,” the Pirate Party president wrote. “We have a solid platform to build upon for future elections.”

The Pirates will need to cultivate that base, because their fight for digital freedom is just beginning. “It is safe to say that governments will keep ramping up the surveillance we are subjected to. There is still the need to fight against Internet censorship,” Frew argued. “All of this means there is a real need for us to exist.”