Pirates of Berlin: a global trend for more transparency?

Christian Humborg
ponders the unexpected success of a new political party  in the Berlin state elections last weekend on a platform of internet freedom and transparency, under the unorthodox name of “Pirate Party

The global internet community has been looking with keen interest to Berlin this week, and not just because it is hosting Social Media Week. What has captivated many is the sudden success of a fairly new party with roots in the open internet movement. Their programme is diverse, but major issues are data protection, a new take on intellectual property and network neutrality.

poster piraten partei

photo: Piraten Partei

The main focus, though, was transparency. They ran under the banner of transparency and won a considerable percentage of the city’s votes. The party says they represent more than just different policies and programmes, but the lifestyle of the global internet community, which is not reflected in any of the mainstream parties.

Germany consists of 16 federal states, including the city-state of Berlin. The Pirate Party got nearly 9 per cent of the votes there, easily passing the 5 per cent hurdle needed to catapult the fledgling party into the Berlin Senate with 15 delegates – mainly “young, white men” as The New York Times pointed out.

Leonard Dobusch, an expert on new media and technology at Berlin’s Free University, remarked that the pirate party is in fact a transnational movement, active in 40 countries around the world, meaning that the ramifications of the recent election are relevant far beyond the city’s borders. It comes as no surprise, though, that the movement-turned-party is based in Berlin, where Julian Assange made one of his first public appearances at the annual conference of the European net activist group Chaos Computer Club years ago.

Journalist Niklas Hofmann, writing on the website of German daily Die Sueddeutsche, attempted to excavate the party’s ideological roots. He summarises the buzzwords of the party as “free”, “open” and “transparent” and sees the Pirate Party clearly as a child of the open data movement and the Wikileaks debate. He characterises them as “cyber libertarians”, which I think captures their essence well.

Another factor for the Pirates’ success was a direct vote in Berlin earlier this year – the first successful vote of its kind in the city. 98.2 per cent of voters had called for the publication of the contracts which governed the privatisation of the Berlin Water company 12 years ago. The constituents were frustrated with rising water prices and had voted with an overwhelming majority for transparency and against the government.

The internet revolution has changed expectations of the political process. People from Berlin to Bengazi are increasingly demanding transparency from their governments and administrations, who are finding it increasingly difficult to get away with back door dealings these days. The ascendance of the internet means that the transaction costs for transparency are approaching zero. There are hardly any excuses for secrecy anymore.

But when it comes to open government, Germany is still lagging. President Obama launched the multi-country transparency framework Open Government Partnership at the United Nations a few days ago. Germany is not among the participating states.

Back in Berlin the Pirate Party is now facing the test of reality. Transparency is about process, not about content. It will be interesting to see how the live streaming of party meetings affects decision making and how the Pirate Party’s “liquid democracy“ concept works under the glare of traditional media. There will surely be disagreements about substance, but I will follow this new development with great interest. But analysts seem to agree on one point: the Pirate Party managed to get people interested in politics and democracy who had long ago lost interest.


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