BY DAVID MEYER | Monday, May 7 2012
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In the midst of the political upheaval affecting Europe, a relatively new movement is making stunning progress, particularly in Germany. On Sunday, the Pirate Party entered its third German state parliament in eight months, demonstrating momentum that surprises even its core members. The party is now on track to pick up a double-digit percentage of the vote in next year’s federal elections. And it’s dealing with this explosive growth through the medium it knows best: technology.
Founded in Sweden in 2006 by Rick Falkvinge and known at first for its stance on reforming copyright to suit the digital age, the Pirate Party began to gain ground in Germany in 2009. That year, the country’s family minister proposed blocking extensive lists of websites as a way of combating child pornography. The country’s large hacker community cried censorship, and the then-tiny German Pirate Party again reaped the benefits.
“This protest against the idea of website blocking by political institutions helped to build the Pirate Party in the structure it has now,” says political science professor Christophe Bieber, of the University of Duisburg-Essen. “They had 800-900 members at the start of 2009, and 10,000 afterwards.”
In 2011, Pirates put up 15 candidates for the Berlin state elections. All of them won seats, putting the Pirates into a regional parliament for the first time. Then the Pirates entered the Saarland state parliament, before repeating the trick in Schleswig-Holstein last weekend. Membership is shooting up again, and is now nearing 30,000.
“That the Pirate Party is able to attract people to join a political party organization is quite a unique phenomenon, because the image of party politics is not very good,” Bieber says.
But growth has led to growing pains. According to Simon Weiss, one of the Pirates who became a politician in the Berlin parliament, the party structures that existed in its early days don’t work in the context of a much larger membership. “They were designed to fit fifty people, not thousands,” he says.
The same core ideology that seems to have attracted all of those new members may also help the party deal with this growth. While the Pirate Party is still vocal on copyright issues, transparency has become so central to its platform that any party in German Parliament wanting Pirates as a coalition partner would have to live-stream negotiations online. No one is likely to take the Pirates up on the offer, and that suits them fine; they are seeking additional experience in parliament before making a play to become part of government.
And the Pirates’ uniquely technological bent has come in handy. Members have tools at their disposal to discuss issues online in large-scale dialogue, then bring the conversation offline to reach official consensus at party conventions.
Tools of democracy
“What we’ve observed during the last months is that almost any decisions the Pirates took at their conventions were heavily discussed beforehand by a large number of people, many of whom did not attend the conventions,” Bieber says. “[Absent members] will support the decisions being made there because they had the chance to input into the discussions beforehand. It’s one reason for the stability the Pirate Party is showing.”
The most widely-used online Pirate platform is PiratePad, a collaborative text editor. Adapted by party members from the commercial EtherPad software, which Google acquired and open-sourced in late 2009, Pirates use it alongside chatrooms, wikis and mailing lists to collaboratively work on policies.
But a few of the local Pirate chapters, notably the one in Berlin, are also experimenting with a platform called Liquid Feedback. Also open-source (and therefore available for implementation by anyone), Liquid Feedback is built around a concept called ‘liquid democracy.’ It’s effectively a technology for hacking traditional politics.
If PiratePad is about collaboration and discussion, Liquid Feedback is about competition and decision-making. Any of the 6,000 members that use it can propose a policy. If the proposal picks up a 10 percent quorum within a set period, such as a week, it becomes the focus of an almost ‘gamified’ revision period. Any member can also set up an alternative proposal, and over the ensuing few weeks these rival versions battle it out, with members voting their favorites up or down.
“In the ideal case you have five or six people working on alternative initiatives, and everyone tries to be the better one so they can win the poll in the end,” Berlin Pirate Party spokesman Ingo Bormuth explains. “We hope it’s healthy competition, but we want people to compete against each other so they stay [involved] in the topic.”
Each member has one vote, but most are not interested in marking up endless reams of policy papers. So the system allows every vote to be entrusted to another member – for everything, or for certain topics or specific proposals, or not at all. What’s more, the person who has been delegated the votes of others can then re-delegate all those votes, plus their own, to someone else.
It’s a trust-based approach and the nearest thing Liquid Feedback has to a reputation system. Members don’t get points-based kudos for their involvement and expertise; they collect real votes. In theory, votes being passed up the chain like this could lead to a crony elite or even a dictator, but there is a failsafe mechanism. Every delegated vote can be reclaimed at any time, so no high-flying Pirate can operate without a continuous mandate. “We want effective people to be powerful and do their work, but we want [the grassroots] to be able to control them,” Bormuth says.
This is liquid democracy: a sliding scale between direct democracy and representative democracy, where each member can decide where they sit in the spectrum at any given time.
“Just recently we had something regarding the EU Data Protection Directive,” Weiss recounts. “The [winning] Liquid Feedback initiative said the Pirate faction in [the Berlin] parliament should bring those proposals forward. We discussed it in the faction and decided to bring it into parliament. It’s not quite correct to say it was successful there, but an amended version was successful.”
However, Weiss is wary of overstating the importance of Liquid Feedback relative to more frequently-used tools, and he is certainly sceptical of the idea that the platform is in itself a big draw for voters. “The average person knows we’re a grassroots movement and they know we do things over the Internet, but they may not know about liquid democracy,” he says. The politician also points out that, while Liquid Feedback does work for handling fundamental topics, it has limitations.
“For questions such as ‘do we want to institute a basic income’, there’s more to it than decision on Liquid Feedback,” Weiss says. “There’s a decision at conference, and by an elected group of people. You can’t have a system that maps the whole discourse that has to happen for this kind of democracy. But you can have quantified feedback that shows you where the majority lies on a given point.”
Bieber reckons Liquid Feedback’s interface may be seen as “nerdy or geeky” by many new recruits, especially when compared with the familiar mechanisms of wikis and collaborative text editors. It has an interface only a developer could love, although the Pirates have recently published APIs so people can build more attractive front-ends for smartphones and the web.
While other tools are open to all, Liquid Feedback can only be accessed by registered members. “With PiratePads, you don’t need to be a member of the Pirate Party to join the discussion and edit the text,” Bieber says. “To some this is the starting point for a critique of Liquid Feedback … that erecting areas of restricted access for members is against the grassroots attitude.”
As the party grows, some are asking Liquid Feedback to grow with it. Right now, it is not used to finalize position papers, just inform decisions at party conventions. Others want the party to take that extra step. Bieber, the political scientist, suggests that the scale of collaboration would create a Wikipedia-like environment where pranksters and outside political saboteurs would be quickly caught out in any attempt to game the system.
But the Pirate Party’s growth may force its members to rethink its approach to identity. Liquid Feedback now allows the use of pseudonyms. At the national level, it’s designed to verify that each user is really a Pirate Party member but keep no record of exactly which user account corresponds to which person. For now.
“There is a lot of talk in the party about changing that and forcing everybody to put their real name at least somewhere, maybe not publicly, but to make it clear who is who,” Bormuth says. “In Berlin there are people talking about dropping pseudonymity altogether. The point is not so much about security, but now that we have politicians in parliament, they say they want to use the system a lot more. And they say, ‘If I follow the system, I want to know that these are real people I’m talking to.’”
Bieber is cautious about making predictions, as data on the system’s performance remains scarce, but he is intrigued by the idea of connecting liquid democracy with the parliamentary process.
“It can quickly give you an idea of what the base is thinking during a parliamentary discussion and maybe before a talk in parliament,” he says. “Pirate politicians can then say, ‘This is just in part my opinion; it’s partly also the opinion of the base I’m related to.’ This is some evidence of the sliding scale between direct and representative democracy.”
Liquid Feedback has always been intended as a prototype for a future version of democracy, Weiss points out: “If you want to propose that as a way of organising things, you need to see if it actually works, and we’re experimenting on ourselves. It’s the same thing with transparency – if people say it doesn’t work, we can say we are trying it, and so far it has worked.”
The Pirates may have been the first party to try implementing liquid democracy, but others are cautiously following suit. The center-left SPD is experimenting with a system based on Adhocracy (a more user-friendly alternative to Liquid Feedback) for its party thinktank. Even the federal parliament isusing Adhocracy for a commission on digital policy. Whether or not the Pirates maintain the pace of their push, they have already proved to be, in Bieber’s words, “a generator of innovation for the political process.”