Liquid Democracy: Web Platform Makes Professor Most Powerful Pirate

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A linguistics professor in Bamberg is considered the most powerful member of Germany's burgeoning Pirate Party, even though he holds no office. Martin Haase engages in politics almost exclusively through the Internet using the party's Liquid Feedback software. The platform is flattening the political hierarchy and is unique among German political parties.

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Martin Haase doesn't have to give any hard-hitting speeches at party conferences, nor does he spend time at board meetings or in back rooms to hone his power. When the 49-year-old professor wants to engage in politics, he just opens his laptop and logs in to Liquid Feedback, the Pirate Party's online platform for discussing and voting on political proposals.

For hours at a time, the political newcomers (the Pirates first formed in Germany in 2006) discuss their party's goals, and each member has the opportunity to use Liquid Feedback as a platform to promote his or her positions -- which can range from the Pirate Party fielding its own presidential candidate to the appeal to deescalate the conflict with Iran. It isn't always easy to secure a majority for a given cause on the site.

Until Haase intervenes, that is. The linguistics professor has a sort of virtual alliance backing him on Liquid Feedback. Up to 167 fellow party members have periodically delegated their vote to him on the site, which is more than any other Pirate Party member can claim. When members recently argued against extending the term of their national leadership by two years, Haase intervened. Annual elections of the executive committee would mean the members would have to spend too much time dealing with getting reelected rather than devoting their attention to the real issues. "We need more time for political work," he said. Haase's vote was like a decree.

Seven Percent Support Nationwide

Polls show the Pirate Party enjoying the support of up to 7 percent of voters nationwide. It has secured seats in the parliament of the city-state of Berlin, and in a few weeks it could also enter the parliaments of two other states, Saarland in the west and Schleswig-Holstein in the north.

Many voters aren't quite sure what exactly the Pirates stand for. Perhaps its open and straightforward participation in the political process will attract more public support. And it's possible the party will only become attractive through careers like that of Haase, who became arguably the most powerful Pirate without even holding an office in the party.

On a winter's day, the professor is standing in a lecture hall at the University of Bamberg, talking about how language was used as a political tool at the time of the French Revolution. After the overthrow of the monarchy, the new leadership wanted to eliminate dialects and regional languages. It wanted people to speak only French, so that they could understand the ideas of the revolution. "Freedom through oppression," Haase says to his students. It's a view to which he has a strong aversion.

Haase, an impish-looking man with a three-day stubble, holds a professorship for Romance studies and speaks nine languages. But the digital world is just as important to him, and it's been that way for more than 20 years. He had an email address as far back as 1991, when unfiltered information still flowed from one Internet exchange point to the next. It was a time of freedom, the same freedom that continues to influence Haase's thinking today. "I feel violated when someone tries to block information," he says.

Starting in 2003 Haase, who goes by the name "Maha" on the Internet, and others developed the German version of Wikipedia. He later became a member of the board of the Chaos Computer Club, the globally influential German hacking association. Initially, he was skeptical about the Pirates. Haase saw how activist friends became interested in the organization but then gave up because it felt too chaotic to them.

This changed in 2009, with the Access Impediment Act, pushed through by then-German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen under the previous government to block websites that contained child pornography. Fearing it would violate freedom of speech by blocking websites and that it might set a precedent for further incursions on Net freedom, Web activists disparagingly dubbed the family minister "Zensursula," a play on the German word for censorship and the politician's first name. The law was passed and signed by Germany's president, but it has not been implemented by the government. Earlier this year Chancellor Angela Merkel's government said it would move to delete any websites that feature child pornography rather than block them. The Pirate Party's popularity surged as a result of the protests.

A Net Movement Takes Shape

The Net movement in Germany began in earnest around the same time as the "Zensursula" debate, and the Pirates became its strongest political wing. In an unexpected victory, the Pirate Party captured 0.9 percent of the vote in the June 2009 elections for the European Parliament, the legislative body in the European Union that is directly elected by citizens of the member states. Haase joined the party the very next day. For years, he had been sharply critical of the established parties for their incompetence on matters relating to Internet policy, but now he had found a political home. "It had a therapeutic effect on me," says Haase.

In the established parties, like the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, he would have had to fight his way to the top, but not with the Pirates. Haase writes his own blogs, has more than 5,000 followers on Twitter and produces the Pirate podcast "Klabautercast" ("Hobgoblincast"). As a result, he quickly made a name for himself in the community.

He also used his podcast to introduce a family and gender policy concept. Haase wants marriage and registered life partnership to be legally equal and to eliminate the tax advantages in Germany that are bestowed exclusively on heterosexual marriages. He also wants the government to stop documenting the gender of its citizens.

Together with allies, he campaigned for his proposal on Twitter and in Pirate forums, and then he introduced it on Liquid Feedback, where he soon found enough supporters. Haase won the non-binding vote on the Internet and, in November 2010, took the results to the party's national convention. His motion was accepted.

The open source Liquid Feedback software -- developed in Berlin and launched by the Pirates in 2010 -- is unique in German party politics. With the platform, issues that would previously only gradually find their way to the national leadership through local, district and state organizations can quickly gain momentum and importance, so that they can then be voted on at party conferences.

"It is difficult to vote against a clear opinion that is emerging on Liquid Feedback," says Haase, who, when he isn't teaching in Bamberg, lives in Berlin and is a member of the party's state organization there.

A Powerful Professor

Some fellow party members have so much confidence in Haase that they have given him their permanent vote on Liquid Feedback, meaning he can speak for them on all issues. This is referred to as "global delegation." Other supporters give him their blanket votes on specific issues only, such as education ("subject area delegation") or on a specific issue ("issue delegation").

The professor is one of the most active members of the online platform. He has submitted almost 30 motions on Liquid Feedback, and almost all have been accepted, says Haase. His ideas on education, integration and family policy, for example, shape the party's profile. Haase has become the digital éminence grise of the Pirates, even though he has never held party office.

Even Pirate Party Chairman Sebastian Nerz frequently gets a taste of the power the professor wields with his virtual votes. He and Haase have never met in person, but they have tangled with each other online, disagreeing over family policy or procedural questions on Liquid Feedback. Haase prevailed in both cases.

In other parties, when an ordinary member challenges the national chairman it triggers a political earthquake. In the Pirate Party, it's taken for granted.

"Maha doesn't grandstand, and yet he is approachable at any time," says Andreas Baum, the party's floor leader in the Berlin city parliament. "People trust him because he has never come across as a schemer," says Pavel Mayer, another Pirate Party member of the Berlin city parliament. For the two men, Haase embodies the concept of the grassroots Pirate, who seeks to bring about change but isn't interested in leadership positions. This appeals to people in a party that rejects authority.

The Pirates call their political approach "liquid democracy," meaning that for them everything flows, and there is indeed something fluid about the way they reach consensus on the Internet. Once gained, though, influence can disappear just as quickly.

This is also an experience Haase has had with Liquid Feedback. Many pirates gave him their votes in 2010, when the party was seeking to define its position on the concept of an unconditional basic income guarantee. They were confident that Haase would support it. To their surprise, however, he transferred his votes to another party member, who voted against the motion, and was defeated.

As a linguist, says Haase, he was also opposed to the initiative because of linguistic weaknesses. But this didn't convince his supporters, and about 50 Pirates promptly withdrew the votes they had assigned to him. Haase eventually approved a revised motion, and since then the number of members supporting him has gone up again.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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