Friday, May 11, 2012

Pirate Parties (and their ilk) on the March

From Helsinki to Toronto, from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Bamberg, Germany, clever and committed activists are simultaneously launching a variety of online efforts to create a more inclusive and direct form of modern democracy.

Etopia News, an independent television channel specializing in remotely-recorded, Skype-based video interviews, has been talking to them over the last two weeks, and certain patterns are emerging from an examination of what these digital democrats have to say.
All of them are attempting to create systems of online participation that will greatly flatten the hierarchical nature of the political process, putting every Internet user at the center of policy formulation and implementation.  Each of them argues, implicitly or explicitly, that the decentralizing and individually-empowering nature of the Internet now makes possible, desirable, and even necessary the construction and adoption of a political process built around the Internet's capabilities to connect people and facilitate the discussion of issues.  They are demanding the transformation of a political system based upon a by-gone industrial-era paradigm into one suited to the information age world of instantaneous point-to-point communication we are now living in.

Many of these political entrepreneurs march under the aegis of the Pirate Party, which first emerged in Sweden as a campaign for the reform of copyright; migrated to Germany, where it (under the name Piratenpartei) grew due to government efforts to censor the Internet; and now provides the banner under which a candidate in Massachusetts is running his campaign for State Representative.

The form and prospects of these Pirate Parties vary according to their current level of organization and the political environment in which they find themselves.  Due to the proportional and minor-party-friendly representational system in Germany, the Piratenpartei has already succeeded in seating 15 of its members in the state legislature of the city-state of Berlin and others in the state of Schleswig-Holstein.  They are expected to do well in an election on May12th in the most-populous German state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

One of their most active members, University of Bamberg linguistics professor Martin Haase, talked about the Piraten in an Etopia News interview here.

In Democratic-controlled Massachusetts, JP Hollembaek, a young Army veteran, is seeking the seat representing Lowell and Chelmsford in the State House of Representatives under the banner of the Massachusetts Pirate Party, assisted from the Boston area by Pirate “Captain”  James O’Keefe.

Similar in some ways to the Pirates but distinct in others is the Online Party of Canada (OPC), which was founded by Michael Nicula, who discusses its origins, principles, and operation here.

Also related to, but not exactly the same as, the Pirates is the “Open Ministry” in Finland, organized by Joonas Pekkanen, which facilitates the creation by Finns of initiative proposals to be circulated online and submitted to the national legislature.

Whatever their position in the current political landscape of their respective countries, and the exact nature of their decision-making structures, these newly-emerging political entities have many traits in common.

All of them care about having a free Internet, and want a more responsive political system.

All of them reflect a desire to use the Internet to disintermediate the existing hierarchies of political power, in the same way that the Net has done so in some many other realms already.  All of them want to empower individual citizens to participate on an egalitarian basis in the formulation of policy.  All of them stress the ability of online communications to allow for rapid, nuanced, and participatory decision-making.

The Piratenpartei uses a system called Liquid Feedback to formulate its policy positions.  This platform allows members to propose policies online.  If they get a minimum amount of support, they are discussed online.  Alternatives are considered.  Participants can (contingently) delegate their votes to others, who can do the same (the delegation can be revoked at any time).  Eventually, a policy is selected by these votes.

The Finnish Open Ministry works much the same way, but without delegated voting.

The policy-formulation system used by the Online Party of Canada allows members to vote directly on a multitude of policy questions in a simple “yes” or “no” manner.

All these groups are anti-ideological.  They have principles of process but want to leave the substance of policy up to the discussion and voting of their members. 

All are represented in the Etopia News programs by smart, determined political innovators who want to empower people through technology.  They are all articulate exponents of their specific projects.  They come from around the world, but they all want the people themselves to decide the direction of their organization and their countries.

What are the immediate future prospects of these cyber-roots groups?

The German Piratenpartei seems destined for at least a short-term run of success.  See  “Germany's Pirate Party riding high”.  The Massachusetts Pirate Party has a small base and may struggle to compete in single-member district elections.  Open Ministry in Finland is in the process of deploying its technology and seems to hold promise for greater participation there.  The Online Party of Canada is about to qualify for recognition as an official party in the next few weeks.

All of these groups stand to benefit and grow from the pervasive mood of dissatisfaction with the substance and process of existing, legacy political parties.

All of these experiments in democracy are part of a worldwide movement towards political empowerment based on the Internet.  Whatever constantly changing forms this effort takes, these current expressions of the trend warrant further attention and, if you share their goals, your involvement and support.


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