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An Internet piracy party grows in Sweden.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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During the Kosovo war in 1999, a lot of Americans got a chuckle out of the story--probably apocryphal--about Yugoslav soldiers storming into a Belgrade news agency and demanding that the journalists hand over the Internet. What was funny was the way the soldiers sort of got it. They understood that the Internet had changed warfare. They just didn't understand how completely.

We may be in a similar position today. While the cutting edge of web development is still in Silicon Valley, the rules and customs of Internet behavior are being shaped elsewhere. In Western European countries, which mostly have higher rates of broadband subscribership than the United States, a new idea of property is evolving--the idea that anything you can manage to download for free, by hook or by crook, is yours. Congress's annual "Special 301 Report" on piracy used to focus on Russia, China, and Southeast Asia. This year's report placed on its list of problem countries Finland, Norway, and Italy. It noted that Spain is a place where pirating music and movies over the Internet is "widely perceived as an acceptable cultural phenomenon, and the situation is exacerbated by a government policy that has essentially decriminalized illicit [peer-to-peer] file sharing."

In the European elections in early June, a fifth of Swedes under the age of 30 voted for a party set up to defend copyright infringement and illegal Internet downloading. The Pirate party got 7 percent of the country's total votes and a seat in the European parliament in Strasbourg for its lead candidate, the former software engineer Christian Engström. (The Swedes aren't the only people rallying to defend, rather than defeat, illegal downloading--a German Pirate party got 5 percent of the vote in one Berlin district.)

Who the heck are these people? Some have cast the Swedish pirates as extremists. Their big bankroller, the Wasabröd cracker heir Carl Lundström, backed the populist and xenophobic New Democracy party in the early 1990s. In an election that saw racist parties take seats in England and Eastern Europe, extremism is an easy word to throw around. But the Pirate agenda is very narrow, and the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter is right to call them an antidote to traditional kinds of extremism. The Pirates polled 10.5 percent among men, 1.5 percent among women. That probably means they are lapping up disaffiliated young males, depriving hardline parties like the Sweden Democrats of their base.

In a way, the Pirates have a lot more business running for the European parliament than Sweden's establishment parties do. For the old political class in virtually all Western European countries, Strasbourg is a sinecure--a place to send party hacks who have lost their seats in their respective national parliaments but still have the itch to pontificate and are willing to travel. The Pirates, by contrast, actually have EU-based business they want to transact.

Various EU intellectual-property directives permit law enforcement to demand the web addresses of those who illegally download materials. A whole activist network has arisen in Sweden to call for an end to such enforcement. In 2003, a forum called the "Pirate Bureau" was opened by downloaders. Two years later that forum turned into Pirate Bay, a "torrent indexing website" that facilitates pirating. In 2006, the Pirate party was founded. Then, this spring, a Swedish judge, responding to a complaint by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, sentenced four principals of Pirate Bay to a year in jail for abetting the distribution of copyrighted content, and fined the site $3.6 million. (The site will remain online pending an appeal.) By the eve of the European elections, the Pirate party's membership had tripled, thanks to publicity from the case.

Pirate Bay and the Pirate party call the decision a sham. According to their highly legalistic reading of the technicalities of Internet law, they are above prosecution. There are a couple reasons why. First, when a U.S. court shut down the file-sharing site Napster for copyright infringement in 2001, the problem it cited was that Napster kept actual music files on its central file server. Not only was this illegal--it was unnecessary. Files can be left on individual users' computers and then accessed as needed through a peer-to-peer networking system such as BitTorrent. No central server needs to be involved. There is, however, an obstacle--figuring out where to find all these copiable files. You need something like Pirate Bay, which is a "BitTorrent tracker" or "torrent indexing site." It does not break into anybody's house. It just gives you the address of a rich man who leaves the door unlocked.