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Pirates

2224 words

I am not a big fan of pirates. Die Wilde 13 were scary opponents and I didn’t run into pirates as a kid otherwise. Lucky me. I also wasn’t particularly interested in more recent comings of pirates on the silver screen, be it in Hollywood or the one that scored a bunch of AVN awards.

At some stage it became clear that what one may call the ‘content industry’ today decided to hijack the term ‘pirate’ for themselves and use it to label people handling their ‘products’ in a way they didn’t approve of. Things they didn’t (and still don’t) approve of included selling copied versions of videos or CDs but also copying a songs for a friend. Fortunately the latter is legal in most places, even though the ‘content industry’ presumably disagrees with that.

This abuse of language is an interesting way of doing propaganda (marketing, lobby work). As propaganda goes it’s also fundamentally wrong in that the harm done by media ‘piracy’ is very different from that done by piracy deserving the name. In the media case people possibly violate the ‘intellectual property rights’ of the copyright owners - rights which are both hard to grasp and to a certain extent questionable. In the real world, pirates tend to kidnap, steal, possibly even kill. So while this abuse of language is witty to a certain extent, one starts wishing media bosses to be victims of actual piracy and then ask them how appropriate they find that language of theirs.

Probably as a reaction to this abuse of language, the ‘Pirate Bay’ file sharing site which is nothing but a search engine for bit torrent files - and an ugly one at that - boldly labelled themselves as ‘pirates’. I thought that was a funny move. If the word ‘pirate’ has been demoted to meaninglessness, one may as well start using it for anything. Just because someone calls it a pirate, does not make it a pirate, may be the lesson to learn there (a lesson which the modern ‘consumer’ will have wearily learned: just because a corporation calls it healthy food, doesn’t make it healthy food, just because a corporation calls it a capable electronic device, doesn make it one &c). Strangely those Pirate Bay people have ben sued into oblivion nonetheless, despite the people going after them having nothing resembling an argument. One has to guess that enough money and patience will unearth sufficient incompetence in the legal system sooner rather than later. And if doesn’t work today, I’m sure the ‘content industry’ will be happy to pay more lawyers with their customers’ money tomorrow to give it another try…

An interesting aspect about that whole Swedish ‘pirate movement’ was that they seemed to have a bit more of an agenda than just running a server on the internet. They seemed to say that the ‘content’ they helped people to swap should be freely accessible. That the barriers restricting access to the ‘content’ should be removed. Judging from the success of torrent tracking sites, they were right and many people agreed with that. So, even from a capitalist ‘market democratic’ point-of-view one should welcome such sites as their sheer success legitimates them (at least that argument keeps being used in favour of junk food, inefficient cars or clothes made by child labour, so why shouldn’t it be used here?).

People don’t feel bad when downloading a film or TV series from the internet. In part that is because media companies are more than happy to constantly feed films and TV shows to everybody for free via TV channels. So it’s hard to understand why they shouldn’t be happy with people feeding themselves and just being a bit more flexible with the time at which they get to watch stuff. Another issue is the question of least resistence, the iTMS lesson if you wish: If people can go to the internet and are able to watch the episode of their favourite TV series they just missed after a few clicks and a twenty minute wait, it’s hard to see why they should find waiting for half a year until some corporation sees fit to let them have ‘legal’ access to the same junk preferable. And with a global world of international audiences who may not get access to new episodes at all (or who may have to put up with poorly synchronised versions at home), the problems become even bigger. Hooray for globalisation. Hooray for wise global media corporations.

Of course the situation is a bit more complex than that. Creating ‘entertainment’ is a lot of work. It costs a lot of money. If the entertainment is good, I am tempted to say that people are willing - for my taste even overly willing - to pay for it. Selling DVD sets must be a lucrative business. But, face it, DVD sets or their modern online equivalents are quite expensive. Not everybody can afford them. And hence an unhealthy alliance of corporations legal systems are keen on turning all their kids into criminals.

So where should one draw a line? How should one re-organise the rights attached to media? and the money? It seems that the current system is unsustainable and mainly serves lawyers and corporations rather than the people who create or those who want to enjoy the creations. Cutting out the corporations would probably be good, but I guess they’re too strong and influential to get rid of them quickly. Of course one also wants artists or people helping them to be able to earn a living doing that - at least the good ones among them - so there needs to be some kind of compensation and it should probably be merit-based in some way. I haven’t heard any realistic sounding suggestions for these issues yet, and it seems hard to come up with one.

I've gone cranky for 2009. Have you? While coming from a different angle, this may be a good place to mention Joe Clark’s Cranky Copyright Book project. It aims to discuss the status quo and trends in copyright and how it could do with reform. If you’re interested in that subject it may be worth offering monetary or vocal support. While it’s not clear what will come out of this, Joe has a track record of pursuing topics thoroughly, so I’m optimistic the result will be interesting in some way.

But back to the pirates! The ‘political’ pirates that spun off the pirate movement to form a political party, first in Sweden then in other European countries. Their focus is on civil rights with a strong, possibly narrow, focus on internet topics. And they do have supporters. Enough to put a pirate in the European Parliament and quite recently in the councils of a few German towns.

As the utter cluelessness of traditional political parties and the (mentally) old people means that it is important to have a debate on ‘modern’ topics of the digital age. The term Internetausdrucker (people who print out the internet) has become quite popular for the people in power and unfortunately there’s more truth in it than desirable. We currently live in a situation where politicians perceive the internet as a rechtsfreier Raum (lawless space) while at the same time any move in the internet in Germany seems highly dangerous with hoardes of clueless lawyers waiting to nitpick on people’s sites and charge hefty fees for that ‘service’.

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There’s no American-style ‘fair use’ in Germany which gives people a reasonable way to express themselves. As far as I can tell, any image grabbed from a Google search can lead to legal trouble around here, your own photos with pictures of people on them published on the web can be troublesome once these people decide they don’t want to be your friends anymore, running a forum is a potential time bomb if participants there say the wrong things and people having a business web site will need to fulfill silly formal requirements which incompetent lawyers and their competition will be keen to police (no kidding: a friend on mine once had a job to surf on competition’s web sites to check whether they listed the tax IDs correctly).

Currently the established political parties just see the internet as a source of child pornography and other forms of criminality. They want to regulate, control, censor. All of which will be hopeless efforts unless we switch to a total censorship regime. Strangely the internet I - and, I suspect, most other people - am seeing looks quite different. There may be criminals, but they’re just like criminals in the physical world: people trying to sell you crap or stolen goods, people trying to get your money or steal your personal information. Presumably all of that is illegal already, it may just be harder to catch the people.

The pirate parties may deal with those topics more competently than their colleagues in the other parties. Yet a problem remains that they seem to be mainly a geek-club. They have found a topic that resonates with the zeitgeist, that needs to be solved sooner rather than later. But they seem to have tunnel vision and hardly a clue or an ambition beyond that ‘core competence’. The question is how responsible it would be to have such a group in your parliament. How will they deal with other issues (education, environment, social, international, …) which are arguably more important than digital progress? Shouldn’t they just be some sort of group or committee in an existing party, bringing them to the 21st century? To me having a single separate party like this just seems to litter the political system with a further group. Perhaps that’s good marketing. Perhaps that will force the other participants to arrive in the present. But perhaps it doesn’t.

To me this political pirate enterprise keeps having the unfortunate feel of the open source world. Poeple have an idea, not necessarily a bad one and they decide to write their own library for it. While doing so, they omit or only superficially consider the step of looking whether an existing library might do the job quite well already and could just need some updating. Doing that will likely be harder than starting from scratch, but it will also avoid many of the pitfalls and yield the more useful product: a library that’s both tested and updated for current needs, rather than just the latter. But such a humble and effortful approach is not how things work. People always seem to prefer reinventing the wheel because it’s their own wheel that way, they don’t have to dig through the mess others left behind. It’s the lazy approach and thus the more tempting one which will be justified by having a ‘clean architecture’.

Adding the open source aspect to this even makes them immune to critique. After all: if someone disagrees they are free to improve the software or political party; There are wiki pages wher everybody can chime in and add their expertise. I don’t even doubt that people are open to the things suggested in this way, but it’s a typical open source behaviour to not think about issues one isn’t interested in oneself, offer the product as something generally useful and then suggest it’s the responsibility of the others to do the actual legwork of thinking things through and making them work. All this with the excuse that the others ‘are more competent’.

Instead of coming with a holisitic view and interests and bringing initiative to fill the gaps of their own expertise, these people need - or even expect - others to do all that. If people point out a gap in their programme, they’ll acknowledge it, and expect someone ‘more competent’ to fill it. I suspect they’d like to assign a ticket number to the ‘issue’ as well. To me this is a tunnel vision approach. It’s not a matter of ‘issues’ that people can ‘look up on their wiki’. Those are big topics affecting the daily life which I expect people working in politics to have opinions on. Opinions which they thought about and can defend; Statements by which I can try to judge what drives those people and whether they deserve my trust.

This line of ‘arguing’ and improving things seems quite popular in the open source world. To me it frequently seems lazy and wrong [and in many cases even leads to a parallel universe in which the people running things immunise themselves to critique by simply defining the wrong things they do to be ‘as expected’ and pretending that people who disagree are idiots]. While such an approach may be feasible (if unpleasant) for software, I doubt that it is a way to work in politics which in the end have an impact on the lives of millions of people.

All this makes me think that, attitude-wise, the pirate party is not a particularly good idea. They may have an interesting thing or two to say, but that’s about it. Add to that that politics is a slow business which takes a lot of patience until things start happening, I also wonder whether the pirate people will stick around long enough or whether they’ll find a new fad to stick to once the 140 characters of their attention span are exhausted.

September 21, 2009, 18:33

Tagged as pirates, politics.

Comments

Comment by LKM: User icon

“How will they deal with other issues (education, environment, social, international, …) which are arguably more important than digital progress?”

This assumes that there is no connection between digital rights and education and society. I would argue that the opposite is true. Society needs culture, and culture can’t be owned. Similarly, education requires access to information. These are important parts of the Pirate Party’s mission statement.

“To me having a single separate party like this just seems to litter the political system with a further group.”

And why is that a problem? In fact, you guys have far too few parties, so two parties pretty much divide the power among themselves and decide what goes. The result of this is that these two parties are practically required to be populistic and generic; otherwise, they could not reach the mass market which they require to remain at their current size.

If anything, there should be more small parties.

The fact that the Pirate Party doesn’t bother to address issues outside of its competency is not a problem, it’s a strength. It allows everyone who agrees with the things the Pirate Party wants to achieve to vote for them. If they also decided to be, say, a right-wing or left-wing party, they’d alienate a huge part of the people who agree with their core ideas.

“If people point out a gap in their programme, they’ll acknowledge it, and expect someone ‘more competent’ to fill it.”

How is that in any way worse than what pretty much every other politician does when confronted with things outside of his or her expertise, namely just spouting noncommittal nonsense? I prefer people who acknowledge the boundaries of their knowledge to those who just make stuff up.

“They may have an interesting thing or two to say, but that’s about it.”

And as long as I agree with these few interesting things, I can vote for them.

“Add to that that politics is a slow business which takes a lot of patience until things start happening, I also wonder whether the pirate people will stick around long enough or whether they’ll find a new fad to stick to once the 140 characters of their attention span are exhausted.”

As long as our freedom is being screwed up by content owners, people will be motivated to fight against it.

September 21, 2009, 20:11

Comment by ssp: User icon

This assumes that there is no connection between digital rights and education and society. I would argue that the opposite is true. Society needs culture, and culture can’t be owned. Similarly, education requires access to information. These are important parts of the Pirate Party’s mission statement.

Those are just a few points and the way the ‘pirates’ present them makes them look like collateral effects of their main agenda, thus putting the focus at the wrong end.

And why is that a problem? In fact, you guys have far too few parties, so two parties pretty much divide the power among themselves and decide what goes. The result of this is that these two parties are practically required to be populistic and generic; otherwise, they could not reach the mass market which they require to remain at their current size.

It’s a problem for a number of reasons. One being that you don’t get to vote on a party for each topic there is but there’s only one (well, two) vote which has to cover everything. Putting that vote on a niche topic and ignoring the others does not seem a good idea.

I also think that Germany has effectively had four parties involved in most governments for the past decades with the number starting to reach five recently. This doesn’t seem to make forming a working government easier (the current federal government certainly not being a coalition of love) it also dilutes responsibility and the ability to follow a clear course. Lastly, Germany’s experiences with many small parties in the 1920 weren’t the best, leading to an effective lack of government, and keeping tiny parties out of parliament these days.

The fact that the Pirate Party doesn’t bother to address issues outside of its competency is not a problem, it’s a strength. It allows everyone who agrees with the things the Pirate Party wants to achieve to vote for them. If they also decided to be, say, a right-wing or left-wing party, they’d alienate a huge part of the people who agree with their core ideas.

The problem remains that parties are elected for more than one topic. It’d seem unwise to vote for a party which will behave randomly on issues outside their ‘core’ topics. Even worse if it seems they haven’t thought about those topics at all. Sure, having an opinion will alienate some people (the current re-election campaign by Mrs Merkel being a strong example in opinion avoidance), but as a voter you need to know what people want to do. They are going to do something, and I’d rather know about their plans beforehand. After all I’m supposed to give my vote for them.

How is that in any way worse than what pretty much every other politician does when confronted with things outside of his or her expertise, namely just spouting noncommittal nonsense? I prefer people who acknowledge the boundaries of their knowledge to those who just make stuff up.

There is a difference between personal ignorance (which politicians tend to have) paired with the inability to admit that and an organisation like a party not having thought about an issue at all. If the party has decided on their opinions to all relevant topics and agreed to stick to that, the behaviour of their members, even if not personally experts on the topic in question, becomes decidedly less random.

[Think about it as a user interface if you wish. Which one would you prefer? The one which has been designed after considering all relevant interactions with it or the one which focuses on the idea for a single interaction and has hacks for all other interactions tacked on later after people filed a bug report on it?]

And as long as I agree with these few interesting things, I can vote for them.

Of course technically you can, I’m just suggesting you shouldn’t ;)

September 23, 2009, 12:21

Comment by Stefan: User icon

The Piratenpartei in it’s current state is absolutely worth being criticized. The narrow party program is certainly not the answer to todays crucial questions. I see mainly two possible futures.

In the first future the Piratenpartei forces the traditional parties to embrace the digital human rights. In this future there will be no more left-wing politicians that simply wave through highly questionable new internet laws. Digital human rights will not be something that they stand for on paper, but in reality. I am most certain this future would make members of the Piratenpartei happy because it would make the Piratenpartei superfluous, which is to my understanding an inofficial goal.

In the second future the Piratenpartei would gradually extend it’s party program to finally reach completeness. It would then attract more people with a non-technical background. It would attract more charismatic people. It would attract more intellectuals. It would attract more people with an international background. It would by this become a worthy opponent of the traditional parties.

I don’t really care which of these future will take place, but I see reasonable chance for one of them actually happening.

September 25, 2009, 23:17

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