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<nettime> Pirates of the Internets - unite!
Johan Söderberg on Sun, 21 Jun 2009 16:50:43 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Pirates of the Internets - unite!


With 215,000 votes in the European election from the Swedish precinct, the Internet pirates have winds in their sailes. Miltos asked in a previos posting on this list if similar parties will now spawn in other EU electorates. In the ligth of his question, it can be interesting to note that the two major events which angered people in Sweden to point that they casted their votes for the Pirate Party (PP), had only scantly to do with EU intellectual property directives. 

The first major cause of anger was a law proposing to extend military surveillance from radio communication to include Internet trafic. The operation is located at "Försvarets Radioanstalt" (FRA) i.e. a branch of Swedish military intelligence. Supposedly, the FRA is only going to eavesdrop on electrons crossing the Swedish border, but, a message sent from one computer in Sweden to anohter and passing through a server in a foreign country will be subject to FRA snoopers. The law originates in the department of defence and had nothing to do with the EU political machinery, though in the future, for sure, it might converge with IP enforcement. The two commonly accepted explanations as to why it was proposed are, firstly, that the staff at FRA are looking for new job assignments when their old task of listening in on Russian radio communication has lost its rationale, secondly, to gather information about suspects which can be traded with foreign (US) security agencies.

The second cause behind the success of the Pirate Party is, of course, the recent verdict against the founders of the Pirate Bay. The ruling was very harsh, the four accused were sentenced to one year in prison and roughly 3,000,000 euro in damage. Soon after the ruling the legitimacy of the court case was questioned when it was found out that the judge had ties with several of the people on the prosecution side through their joint membership in three different intellectual property organisations (Svenska föreningen för upphovsrätt, .SE-stiftelsen, Svenska föreningen för industriellt rättsskydd) The purpose of the first group is to inform professionals working with intellectual property rights about developments in their field, and the second group administrates the Swedish Internet domain. While the judge's membership in these two groups might have been entirely legitimate, something different has to be said about the last organisation, since it actively lobbies for stricter IP laws. After that debacle, the public image was firmly establisehd that the court ruling against the Pirate Bay was not something emanating from the general will of the people and embodied in national legal institutions, but rahter was executed by corporate America with the Swedish state as its proxy. Hence, just as when the euro-sceptical political party "Junilistan" won a seat in the last EU election (now it will be replaced with PP), one might suspect that an element of nostalgia over lost national sovereignity contributed to this outcome. 

The other question raised by Miltos' posting is what the political significance could be of the recent success of the Swedish pirate movement? The title of his posting, "all pirates of the internets - unite!" suggests how this movement has often been received abroad. After the EU-election, I got cheerful emails from friends and activists in the anti/alter-globalisation movement on the continent who perceived the success of the Swedish pirates as a victory for their broader, political agenda. From inside the borders, however, the link between the traditional left and the pirates is not so straightforward. Before I say anymore on this point, I should underline that it nevertheless is a good thing that the Pirate Pary now enters the EU parliament. European and national legal authorities and the industry lobbyists will have a harder time to portray their political opponents as mere thieves subject to law enforcement. With this victory, the intellectual property question has decisevly moved in to the charmed circle of liberal, parliamentary deliberation. While that is important in many respects, in my opinion, it is insufficient to win the appraisal of a critical, leftist public. The ideology of the representatives of piratedome needs be weighten in in an account of the political significance of Internet piracy.

Since there is no single body representing the Swedish pirate movement, my account of the political ideas of its different branches are necessarily an approximation. That is particularly true of the grassroots members, milions and milions of filsharers who rally, like so many other cohorts in consumer society, behind the demand for lower prices. It is a safe guess that the majority of them are at best dimly aware of the political ideas attached to piracy. Still, without the mass violation of copyright law enacted by these people for opportunistic reasons, the political relevance of the spokespeople of piratedome would have been null. The active members championing piracy can be divided into three main forks, the parliamentary fraction, i.e. The Pirate Party (PP), the organic intellectuals of the blogosphere with Piratbyrån (PB) as a main hub, and the entreprenueral fraction, The Pirate Bay (TPB). Here it becomes meaningful to talk about shared, ideological convictions, even though it requires of us to read the pirate movement against the grain of its own self-epresentations. 

The millennial-political dreams attached to the Internet as a whole in the 90's came to an abrupt end with the IT-bubble. During the first half of 00's, an echoe of those dreams lingered on but in the more restricted domain of the blogosphere. Piratedome has given new lease to these two receding waves of hype, and, subsequently, shares many of the same defaults. Perhaps the pirate movement can be said to differ on one crucial point, namely in having re-discovered antagonism in cyberpolitics. To adress Geert Lovink and Ned Rositer recent posting on this matter: The court case against TPB demonstrates how antagonism springs forth from the plesure principle once the social network goes bit-torrent on private property. However, the heritage of the Swedish pirate movement in the dot-com universe shines through in that the spokespeople of piratedome deny that the conflicts in which they are involved has anything to do with ownership, accumulation of capital, and the like. This is the bottom line of the often repeated statement of faith: That the politics of piracy cuts along an entirely different axis than the (now out-dated) division between left-right. 

That this hypothesis has purchase in the first branch of the Swedish pirate movement, i.e. the Pirate Party, can easily be tested. Before and after the EU-election, the forefigures of the  party have stated in interview after interview in Swedish newspapers that they do not side with any established, political coalision. Trying to claim the middle ground of the electorate is a common, parliamentary tactic in the post-"third way" era and the same move has previously been attempted by other newly established political parties in Sweden (the green party, the feminist party) In those earlier cases, the claim rang hollow because of a clear leftist demography in the member base. The PP seems to differ, however, in that the claim about having advanced beyond the left-right divide is, as far as I can tell, widely believed in by both the leaders and the members. Putting it less generously, the agnostic attitude in regards to left-right issues is not just required of the PP in order to win key votes on the margin, it has also become a necessity for holding together its loose aliance of supporters with convictions ranging from neo-liberal to socialist. If PP can serve as a template of political movements to come, then it seems that the possibility of adressing contested class interests in the future hinges on that those issues are reformulated in a technocratic language purged from leftist alarm words. In spite of this, however, one cannot fail to notice that the first and the second man in command of the PP, Rick Falkvinge and Christian Engström, both have a former engagement in the libertarian and liberal right. The party leader, Rick Falkvinge, was formerly a member of the youth organisation of the Swedish conservative right (Moderata Ungdomsförbundet) but left the organisation because the party was in his opinion too much "social liberal", and he is still calling himself an ultra-capitalist. Christian Engström, who is the person most likely to be sent to Brussels, is a drop-out from another centre-right liberal party (Folkpartiet). 

As for the second arm of the Swedish pirate movement, i.e. the blogosphere, it is harder to give a precise reading of its political colour from the cacophony of opinions. Anyway, having now followed the discussions over a period of five years, my impression is that among the blogs which carry heavy trafic and have high visibility, they either claim to have surpassed the right-left divide altogether (often expressed in the Deleuzian sound-bytes that were in vouge on the contintent in the 90's and chastised by Richard Barbrook in his essay 'The Holy Fools'), or they openly announce an, often idiosyncratic, neo-liberal interpretation of the world. Pro-pirate blogers with leftist sympathies have become more vocal in the last few years. But it is fair to say that the political left has been marginal (and marginalised) in formulating the agenda of the pirate scene in Sweden, quiet unlike some other countries on the European continent where the copy-fight discourse has been influenced by autonomist terminology (general intellect, post-fordism, etc).  

Finally, as concerns the core team behind the Pirate Bay, if judged by their own statements, one of them, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, has declared himself a supporter of  the Ayn Rand-ish the Classic liberal party, another, Peter Sunde, is a recent member of the green party, while the third is awovedly apolitical. Then there is of course the financial backer, Carl Lundström, whose coulours are quite clear from his generous donations to far right, anti-immigration parties in Sweden. I grant that this latter point has been stretched beyond the breaking point by the mass media, quite possibly as a guilt-by-association strategy to tar the more fundamental questions at stake. The lasting impression is rather that the entrepreneurs behind TPB service have not much looking like a political conviction at all, not even in matters of intellectual property. When two authors, Anders Rydell och Sam Sundberg, recently published a book about the Swedish pirate movement, they used the TBP logotyp on the front cover, a pirate ship. It provoked an idignant response from Peter Sunde who felt that their trademark had been violated. History repeats itself. Once upon a time, Shawn Fanning tried to prevent a fan from selling T-shirts with the Napster logotype (a cat with headphones). This political adventure sailes on a gigantic wave of opportunism, from the apolitical consumers downloading music only to get things for free, to the equally apolitical administrators of the service. The safest bet about such an endevour is that while many are working hard to campaign the issues at stake, someone else is going to be laughing all the way to the bank.

Hence, the statements of political fidelity only tells us so much, and, at the final instance, the analysis has to home in on the position of piracy, and, more specifically, The Pirate Bay, in advanced, liberal capitalism. The revenues made from advertising on the TPB website remains clouded in mystery. An estimate by the major Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in 2006 was about 10,000 euros each month, a sum likely to have increased considerably with growing media exposure. The prosecution estimated in 2008 that the venture made 3,000,000 dollar in profit annually, based on internal e-mail communication between the three entrepreneurs and their agency in Israel. What is interesting here is that for a long time, the folk behind TPB pretended that they were not making any profits at all from their service. They portrayed the venture as an grassroots movement motivated on ideological grounds. Indeed, until the disclosure in news media of the fact that large profits were made from advertisments, TPB was asking their supporters for donations, and, according to their own estimates, they earned about 600 euros a month in this way.

My pessimistic reading of the situation is, then, that TPB, just as with earlier instances of profit-making filesharing services harking all the way back to Napster, must be seen as experiments of a new form of exploitation in libertarian capitalism. While established companies are trying to reinvent themselves into sects (corporate cultures etc), TPB eats away from the other end of the rope, it is a grassroots movement in-becoming a profit-making venture. Under the jolly roger, it can milk the subjectivity of its followers/labourers like no corporate-culture-enhanced firm possibly could hope for. The filesharing network has brought the "attention economy"-business model of "free content, free labour" to its apex. The distribution of revenues in TPB between capital (the entreprenuers + the agencies administrating the advertising service + the ISP companies) and labour (the labour power of the artists plus the audience power of the filesharers, with a nod to Dallas Smyhthe) is truly prophetic and probably outdoes even the current IP system in producing inequality. 

The "organical intellectuals" of the pirate movement have been reluctant to enter into this kind of discussion (the exception are those few who declare themselves as belonging to the political left). Ironically, given the common claim in the blogosphere that it is providing a democratic, decentralised mode of journalism more resistant towards censorship than the old, centric forms of news meda, information about the profits made by the TPB entrepreneurs did not travel very fast in the blogosphere. News about it resided for about two weeks in the outskirts of the commentary fields until one major newspapers (Svenska Dagbladet) got scant of the information. This reflects back on the claim that the pirate movement stands beyond the right/left divide. What it says is basically that questions about intellectual property, the Internet etc. are detached from the main point of contestation between the right and the left, i.e. how economical resources in society should be distributed. But this statement is nothing but a variation of the notion of "the death of ideologies", a rhetorcial concept which has been touted by the right since the 1950s and 1960s. It is here remerged once more, precisely in order to avoid the problematic at the heart of the intellectual property question, namely: how the economic gains made in the industry from the introduction of information technology should be distributed in society between capital and labour.

Johan Söderberg





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