Can we learn from the Pirates leading the polls in the home of the world’s oldest parliament?

Postcard from Reykjavík

The photo above shows the location of the world’s first parliament, which was established here in Þingvellir, Iceland in 930. Interestingly, the Alþingi or Althing was held in the fissure (like a plain) between the edge of the European continental plate (on the right) and the end of the American continental plate, which is out of shot to the left.

I visited this historic site on Monday and was inspired by the awesome setting and its parliamentary history. It’s a place with much to offer those interested in geology and the history of democracy alike. The parliament moved to Reykjavík in 1844, where it has taken place ever since. The building on the right was constructed in the 1930s and is now the Icelandic Prime Minister’s summer residence.

During my amazing visit to this remarkable island nation, I noticed an article on the success of the Icelandic Pirate Party in the local English language newsheet, the Reykjavík Grapevine. They have three MPs and have led the polls for seven months on the trot. This is unprecedented in Iceland. The Grapevine reports:

This summer, Píratapartýið (The Pirate Party)—a small, radically forward-thinking, activism-based political organisation—stormed from being a marginal presence with three sitting MPs (out of 63), to being the front-runner in the national opinion polls. Amongst many reformist policies, their agenda includes an eye-catching reboot of democracy itself, via increased voter participation that allows the people to guide parliament on key issues via e-democracy, direct influence on policymaking, and referendums.

The Pirate Party is an international organisation that began in Sweden, and first made their name championing copyright reform and freedom of information. But the Icelandic group took an ingenious next step when they extrapolated their political philosophy into a framework they call the Core Policy. These guidelines were employed to create the Pirate Platform—a wide-ranging manifesto that covers everything from fishing quotas and healthcare to internet porn and data protection (both the Core Policy and the Pirate Platform can be found on their website).

Reading through the Icelandic Pirate Party’s Core Policy and Pirate Platform there seems much with which we, as Liberal Democrats, can agree. The whole package seems refreshingly visionary, modern, radical and forward-thinking. There’s an air of insurgency about it all. I wonder if we can learn something from all this. The Pirate party has the sort of reforming zeal which is, and has been, often the raison d’être of our party but which did, perhaps, get muddied and blunted by the tawdry compromises of coalition government. Maybe it’s unrealistic nostalgia, but I wistfully remember conferences in the 90s when our party had such a clear, uncompromising reforming zeal.

A good example of Iceland’s Pirate Party in action is the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative which, as a set of laws, was shepherded through parliament by Pirate MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir (pictured below). The Independent reported in October 2011:

Iceland has passed a sweeping reform of its media laws that supporters say will make the country an international haven for investigative journalism.

The new package of legislation was passed unanimously at 4am yesterday in one of the final sessions of the Icelandic parliament, the Althingi, before its summer break.

Created with the involvement of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks, it increases protection for anonymous sources, creates new protections from so-called “libel tourism” and makes it much harder to censor stories before they are published.

“It will be the strongest law of its kind anywhere,” said Birgitta Jonsdottir, MP for The Movement party and member of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which first made the proposals. “We’re taking the best laws from around the world and putting them into one comprehensive package that will deal with the fact that information doesn’t have borders any more.”

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is currently taking a break from his role as one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • We could ask some of our local pirates. Except they don’t like us very much after coalition and I suspect last night’s decision won’t have helped that.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Dec '15 - 10:53am

    y Paul Walter | Wed 2nd December 2015 – 9:49 am The Liberal International had a meeting in Iceland, led by Alan Beith (MP). With 250,000 people there were no traffic jams. A Lutheran cathedral has a lift, allowing us all to see the views. Free hot water for the whole of Reykjavík of course, and ambitious plans for an interlink to Scotland transmitting electric power, which is still on the agenda of the UK government.

  • +1 what Jennie said.

    I find much to admire in the Pirate Party, and the UK already has one (although many people won’t have noticed). They are getting traction in a number of European countries, but it seems to me that most people in this country don’t much care about the key Pirate Party issues unfortunately.

  • Conor McGovern 2nd Dec '15 - 12:09pm

    +2 for Jennie! Nick Baird, the lack of a PR system here can’t be helping matters.

  • Blimey! Reading an article about my Party on LDV… Unexpected 🙂
    In answer to some questions – Yup – lack of PR is really, really, unhelpful. (True for all small parties I think – but when you don’t have a natural geographically based ‘potential core’ vote it’s even worse). We also have a massive issue with lack of people who actually want to do anything / those that we do have leaving to join other parties as it’s ‘easier’ / they want to feel like they are achieving something. (The old, are you better being a small party making waves on the outside, or joining a large party and trying to get it to change in the small area you care about discussion)
    On the plus side – we get fewer Parrot / Treasure jokes these days as people start to hear about Pirates in other countries and realise that we are a genuine party, rather than a ‘joke’ one.
    Oh, and Jennie – personally I don’t have an issue with the LD’s decision last night at all – genuinely uncertain which way I would go if forced to choose. Equally, I’m probably slightly ‘atypical’ for a Pirate…

  • I think we’re assimilating the “take what you can, give nothing back” aspect of Pirate culture pretty well! In all seriousness, I think a lot of the Pirate agenda is great; the anti-copyright aspect has been seriously toned down in the Icelandic party over the past 5 years, seemingly much to its benefit.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Dec '15 - 3:51pm

    Copyright law is meant to be a balance between interests of producers and consumers of content. There are those like ChrisB who seem to think that only the interests of content ‘producers’ deserve consideration, while some Priate Party policies go too far the other way. In general, the lobbyists for the former group are the ones that mostly have the ear of politicians, as they are well funded by big content (media, book publishing etc) companies, so groups like the Pirate Party are a much-needed corrective (even if I don’t always agree with them). Before anyone says that the big tech companies are also wealthy and have an interest in reducing copyright protection, first of all they are not so effective at lobbying and second they are unreliable allies in the fight to curb copyright control (e.g. Micro$oft is very keen on strong copyright enforcement).

    In the digital environment where practically every use is a copy, the aim from the pro-copyright lobby to be able to control and monetise every single copy of content is neither achievable nor desirable. Remember that early drafts of the EU copyright directive around 1999-2001 would have outlawed web browsing!

  • >There are those like ChrisB who seem to think that only the interests of content ‘producers’ deserve consideration

    You seem to of misunderstood my position. I’d like to see copyright terms reduced to 25 years,, government promotion (and use) of open licences, fair use copying of physical media reintroduced, a complete rethink on health related copyright and a bunch of other copyright liberalisations. I’d also like to see content producers compensated for copies of their work, as you say, it’s a balancing act.

    I believe big tech companies are great at lobbying and have produced plenty of evidence to this effect in the past. I understand you don’t agree and I doubt I could change your mind, which is a pity because I think you’d realise that our positions are closer than most. There are big chunks of what you’ve written I agree with entirely, and some that echo what I’d already written. There are only two areas of disagreement – first, what I think, and secondly whether tech companies are good at lobbying. I’ve addressed the first and I’m happy to evidence the second. The issue lies in my belief that media groups, politicians and tech companies can be the same thing (often literally), whereas you differentiate between these things. I think new media is old media on computers, AOL, Fox, Apple, Microsoft all hold stakes in other media companies, I prefer to differentiate between small and large companies when discussing copyright. To me, the 3 object you’ve used look a bit like this :

  • Alex Macfie 3rd Dec '15 - 12:46pm

    ChrisB: I know that there is considerable overlap between media and tech companies, and I have no doubt that corporations and other organisations are interlinked in the way the graphic suggests However, it is wrong to suppose that this means they are necessarily all singing from the same hymn sheet on any issue. Moreover, where corporations and their lobbyists influence intellectual property (not only copyright but patents as well) policy, it tends to be in favour of strengthening it rather than weakening it. The primary (sometimes only) voices in favour of weaking it come from NGOs and digital-rights activists.

    Although you seem to think that digital-rights activists such as ORG support the interests of Big Tech, this is mistaken. For instance, ORG may well agree with tech companies on government snooping on communications, but it will also oppose interference with online privacy by tech companies themselves.

    Another different issue where the interests of Big Tech and digital-rights activists definitely do not align is software patents (i.e. patents on generic programming techniques, separate from copyright). Here the division is definitely between big and small: when the European Parliament debated software patents a decade ago, the big tech lobbyists were almost univerally arguing in favour of patent protection. Microsoft even funded an astroturf lobby effort, called the Campaign for Creativity, to argue for software patents. Digital rights activists, open-source developers and small tech companies were arguing against it. Note, however, that the fact that Microsoft’s corporate view was (and is) that software should be patentable does not mean that its individual workers think this way: if you ask them for their personal opinion they would most likely be opposed. This why I am sceptical of arguments like “the creative industry has x million workers, and digital rights activists number a few thousand, which is more important?”: it’s apples and oranges, and this is a classic astroturfing technique.

  • Alex Macfie 4th Dec '15 - 12:48pm

    The principal reason so many big tech companies support software patents is that their intellectual property departments speak for them on the issue. And IP lawyers have a direct vested interest in the system.

    The EFF (US equivalent of ORG, or actually it’s the other way round since EFF came first) is currently suing Google for privacy violations. This gives the lie to the idea that digital rights activists are in the pockets of Big Tech and are prepared to look the other way at its misbehaviour.

    and onto a case where the positions of media and tech definitely do not align. I mentioned that EU copyright law nearly made web browsing illegal. This is because the original version would have made cached copies of content on ISPs’ servers and on users’ computers subject to copyright protection. The traditional media industry (record labels, publishers etc) fought hard for this in the European Parliament. It was reversed by the Commission, but only at the last minute, after lobbying by ISPs. This is an example of the traditional content industry’s obsession with monetising every copy of content, and how it can be counter-productive. Another current example is the proposed “Google tax”, where search engines and news aggregators would have to pay royalties for text snippets of web pages and news articles; it is counter-productive because where it has been implemented Google has pulled its News service, so the publishers get less traffic sent to them.
    Back on the web caching issue, it is worrying that the content industry lobbyists were able to persuade a majority of MEPs who voted that web-caching was some nefarious plot to steal content, when actually it’s simply how the Internet works and the cached copies are not accessible to users except when browsing as intended. It also shows the danger of emotive arguments about copyright theft, and the need for tech lobbying if only because they are the people who actually understand how technology works. (But this does not mean we should support their view uncritically either.)

  • >However, it is wrong to suppose that this means they are necessarily all singing from the same hymn sheet on any issue

    You’re suggesting the Murdoch empire doesn’t considers issues like copyright at board level? If you see one hand arguing with another you might be at a puppet show!

    I’m not accusing the ORG of only supporting big tech companies, that’s just an unfortunate side effect of some of the campaigns, I’d accuse it of damaging our digital rights. The biggest effect the ORG had was making the coalition realise its legislation was no longer valid, creating the DRIP “emergency”. Then Huppert (an ORG member, I believe), Baker and others coming here to tell us why it was completely vital. The ORG rushed the government just prior to the summer holidays, allowing Tories to scaremonger Lib Dem MPs into agreeing to legislation that was later ruled unlawful in the high court (thanks, in part, I believe to some ORG members). I saw the whole thing as a taxpayer funded circus and yet another distraction to what I believe to be the more pertinent topic of oversight – how do we know GCHQ complies with these laws? Without that legislation is meaningless, and Snowden gave us plenty of cause to think these bills have little effect on the inner workings of our intelligence services.

    It’s nice to see things move on in other countries and digital rights maturing as a subject with more aims and manifestos that the broader public can support, hopefully that’ll happen here too. Sadly, I think it more likely that the current climate of fear will ensure that many digital “rights” are eroded, with the public (and Lord Carlisle) cheering on.

    Nobody likes software patients (except big business), but we haven’t had them in the UK since the 70s.

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