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Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

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Are the Pirates in the Vanguard of a New Politics?

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News that the Swedish Pirate Party has secured a seat in the European Parliament was not totally unexpected, but the fact that the party also gained 7.1% of the Swedish vote, is. It suggests that there is something deeper going on here than a few bored voters choosing a joke party.

The Pirate Party has just three basic policy areas:

The Pirate Party wants to fundamentally reform copyright law, get rid of the patent system, and ensure that citizens' rights to privacy are respected. With this agenda, and only this, we are making a bid for representation in the European and Swedish parliaments.

Although it may be best known for its espousal of file-sharing, this is only a small part of a more detailed copyright vision:

The official aim of the copyright system has always been to find a balance in order to promote culture being created and spread. Today that balance has been completely lost, to a point where the copyright laws severely restrict the very thing they are supposed to promote. The Pirate Party wants to restore the balance in the copyright legislation.

All non-commercial copying and use should be completely free. File sharing and p2p networking should be encouraged rather than criminalized. Culture and knowledge are good things, that increase in value the more they are shared. The Internet could become the greatest public library ever created.

The monopoly for the copyright holder to exploit an aesthetic work commercially should be limited to five years after publication. Today's copyright terms are simply absurd. Nobody needs to make money seventy years after he is dead. No film studio or record company bases its investment decisions on the off-chance that the product would be of interest to anyone a hundred years in the future.

The commercial life of cultural works is staggeringly short in today's world. If you haven't made your money back in the first one or two years, you never will. A five years copyright term for commercial use is more than enough. Non-commercial use should be free from day one.

We also want a complete ban on DRM technologies, and on contract clauses that aim to restrict the consumers' legal rights in this area. There is no point in restoring balance and reason to the legislation, if at the same time we continue to allow the big media companies to both write and enforce their own arbitrary laws.

Those are all ideas that probably find plenty of resonance with young people, brought up on a culture of sharing music and videos, with little regard for the old niceties of a copyright law originally framed for ink placed on crushed trees. The Pirate Party's position on patents, by contrast, is probably less immediately relevant to them:

Pharmaceutical patents kill people in third world countries every day. They hamper possibly life saving research by forcing scientists to lock up their findings pending patent application, instead of sharing them with the rest of the scientific community. The latest example of this is the bird flu virus, where not even the threat of a global pandemic can make research institutions forgo their chance to make a killing on patents.

The Pirate Party has a constructive and reasoned proposal for an alternative to pharmaceutical patents. It would not only solve these problems, but also give more money to pharmaceutical research, while still cutting public spending on medicines in half. This is something we would like to discuss on a European level.

Patents in other areas range from the morally repulsive (like patents on living organisms) through the seriously harmful (patents on software and business methods) to the merely pointless (patents in the mature manufacturing industries).

Europe has all to gain and nothing to lose by abolishing patents outright. If we lead, the rest of the world will eventually follow.

Its alternative to pharmaceutical patents is direct funding of research by governments – something that many others have proposed.

What's interesting is that the Pirate Party is going beyond the P2P idea to the more abstract idea of patents; moreover, it is not being simply negative in its proposal to abolish them, but actually has suggestions for how necessary medical research can still be carried out. I think that argues a pragmatism that is surprising given the way the party is usually portrayed. It also partly explains the third element of its platform:

Following the 9/11 event in the US, Europe has allowed itself to be swept along in a panic reaction to try to end all evil by increasing the level of surveillance and control over the entire population. We Europeans should know better. It is not twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there are plenty of other horrific examples of surveillance-gone-wrong in Europe's modern history.

The arguments for each step on the road to the surveillance state may sound ever so convincing. But we Europeans know from experience where that road leads, and it is not somewhere we want to go.

We must pull the emergency brake on the runaway train towards a society we do not want. Terrorists may attack the open society, but only governments can abolish it. The Pirate Party wants to prevent that from happening.

I think this suggests a surprising understanding of what the bigger issues here are on the part of the Pirate Party, gives a clue as to where it is going, and why it struck a chord with so many voters.

As I've noted many times in this blog, in the UK and elsewhere, we are seeing the rise of a new authoritarianism, mediated by technology, that cuts across traditional party divisions (for example, who would ever have believed that a UK Labour party would be more “right-wing” on ID cards and surveillance than the Conservatives?)

This means that voters are faced with something of a problem: if they wish to express their concerns about this creeping control of their lives, they cannot simply vote for the usual opposition.

The Pirate Party, however trivial it may seem to political observers, is really an early example of a party that is orthogonal to the current political system. It is neither “left” not “right”, but defined by its opposition to digital authoritarianism – specifically, the kind that wants absolute control over your Internet connection and what you do with it.

That, I think, is one reason for its extraordinary showing in the European elections: it met a growing need for an alternative to the old parties and intellectual framework of politics.

If it is to survive, the Pirate Party will need to broaden its policies to build on its concern about surveillance and control to include other cognate fields – pushing for truly open government. If it succeeds in that, we may well see other parties springing up that cannot be defined in terms of the current political spectrum, but are able to draw on particular interest groups across all of it.

Just as it was an apparently minor Freedom of Information request that has essentially destroyed the present Labour government, and perhaps, with it, much of the current UK political system, so it may well be an apparently unserious protest against intellectual monopolies that helps redefine the internal dynamics of the European Parliament.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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