Fighting for Internet Freedom: Pirate Party Makes Bid for German Parliament

By Merlind Theile

Germany's recently enacted legislation against online child pornography has sparked a new movement, Germany's Pirate Party. But can the champion of the Internet community appeal to a wider audience and survive as a party on the national stage?

For Dirk Hillbrecht, 37, a computer crash is normally an affront to his quality of life. Last Thursday, though, the avid Internet user was actually happy when his group's Web site overloaded.

Dirk Hillbrecht, head of Germany's Pirate Party Zoom
Stefan Thomas Kröger

Dirk Hillbrecht, head of Germany's Pirate Party

Hillbrecht is the chairman of Germany's Pirate Party, which has dedicated itself to fighting online censorship. When the German parliament, the Bundestag, ratified controversial new legislation on blocking certain Web sites, a surge of outraged Internet users temporarily shut down the group's home page. Far from being upset, Hillbrecht was elated. "This shows how much people are interested in the issue," he says.

Officially, at least, the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs drafted the legislation to contain child pornography on the Internet. Under the new law, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) will provide lists of Web sites to be blocked. For critics like Hillbrecht, though, the legislation is dangerous. Once the government starts blocking Internet sites, they argue, the censorship threshold will have been breached and Article 5 of Germany's constitution, or Basic Law, which relates to free speech, will have been practically annulled.

Filling the Gap

For months, an image of Federal Minister of Family Affairs Ursula von der Leyen was prominently displayed on the Pirate Party's home page. The site referred to her simply as "Zensursula" (Censorship Ursula), and it included a petition that people could use to voice their opposition to the law. The petition was signed by 134,000 people -- the largest number of people to ever put their names on a single Bundestag petition.

As Germany prepares for parliamentary elections in late September, the nascent movement has focused unexpected attention on the debate over online freedom. Software developers and Internet geeks founded the party in 2006 and, until now, it has tended to operate under the radar. But now the pirates have found their cause. The traditional parties don't feel truly committed to dealing with issues of how best to protect both online information in the Internet age and trademark rights for software licenses. Or they make decisions that completely disregard the interests of many users.

"The Internet has created a completely new realm of experience in which especially people under 40 move quite comfortably," Hillbrecht says. "But most politicians belong to a different generation; they have absolutely no clue about these issues."

Hillbrecht's party wants to fill this gap, and it's looking toward a foreign pirate party for inspiration. In the elections for the European Parliament held in early June, Sweden's Pirate Party captured an astonishing 7.1 percent of the national vote, while its counterpart in Germany garnered 0.9 percent of votes -- or enough voter support to qualify the party for the government to reimburse its campaign costs. The German Pirate Party plans to run in the Bundestag election in September for the first time, and it already has most of the signatures it needs to qualify.

A Sudden Flood of Support

Sebastian Schneider tosses a stack of paper onto the table. "About 100," he says. It's Wednesday evening, and that's when he and other activists associated with the Berlin Pirate Party meet at C-Base, a hacker bar in Berlin, for their weekly meeting. About 20 members are there. There are more men than women, most of them under 30. They're sitting outside along the banks of the Spree River, sorting through their supporters' signatures.

Schneider is thin and wears a striped, sailor-like shirt and a pirate bandanna on his head. He's spent the day collecting signatures at a student demonstration. "They were actually waiting in line," he says. The party already boasts about 2,000 members nationwide and is growing at a steady pace. "Right now, we are literally flooded with applications," says Florian Bischof, the party's leading candidate in Berlin.

Bischof keeps his laptop open on the table in front of him as he moderates the meeting. Press releases have to be written, and the party needs to open an office. A supporter has donated a desk. "Who can pick it up?" Bischof asks the group.

For the moment, it all seems a little improvised -- and not entirely serious. In the Bundestag election, more than anything, the Pirate Party wants to "be visible on the horizon," Bischof says. They have even built a symbolic float for their "buccaneer's assault on the government district."

Can One-Issue Parties Survive?

Despite such half-serious activities, Bischof still resists being characterized as the representative of a joke party. "Our name may sound funny at first," he says, "but at least people will remember it." It's derived, of course, from the concept of Internet piracy, a term groups like record companies use to describe the illegal downloading of music or other products available for download online. The Pirate Party, on the other hand, wants to ensure that downloads for private use are legal.

The movement may be important to the Internet community, but the real question is whether it can survive as a national party. "At the moment, we're more of a one-issue party," Bischof concedes. But, he adds, this has often proved to be an advantage in Germany. He uses the example of the Green Party, which came into being 30 years ago with only a single issue as its platform. "In the long term," Bischof predicts, "we will broaden it."

For now, though, the young politician is focusing on getting Internet-related and data-protection issues on the national agenda. "If other parties started pushing our aims," he says, "that'd be fine with us."

Some members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) are already trying to hop on the Pirates' bandwagon. On the party's Web site, there's a new forum that already boasts hundreds of members. The title says it all: "Pirates in the SPD."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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