In Berlin, technology pirates democracy

BERLIN -- Germany's Pirate Party has emerged as one of the strongest of its kind in Europe. But can its open data platform and youthful sensitivity survive the restrained world of politics?
Written by Shannon Smith, Correspondent (Berlin) on

BERLIN — Tables strewn with cables, laptops, pecking fingers, black t-shirts and mischievious smiles: it’s not a hack-a-thon. It’s the national convention of Germany’s rising Pirate Party — now the 4th most popular in a country with a strong tradition of multi-party politics.

Marina Weissband, small in stature, big in presence, addressed the convention in April after stepping down as the party’s managing director to focus on a Master’s degree.

“Hello dear… people,” she opened, cracking a smile.

Aside from pushing for the removal of all gender-based references on government-issued documents, Germany’s Pirate Party actually unites most coherently under a strong belief in open data and the rising significance of the internet in politics.

“We are ready to entrust mankind with more than society currently does, and we are ready to give people both more freedom and more responsibility — two mutually dependent rights,” Weissband stated to cheers and applause.

In a country where data privacy concerns have caused big-shots like Google and Facebook major headaches, a party united under the flag of data freedom doesn’t seem necessarily likely.

But Germany’s Pirate Party has emerged as perhaps the strongest of its kind in Europe. Winning seats in four state parliaments, including Berlin and North Rhine Westphalia over the past nine months, the party has been painted as something of a dubious hero — strong on emotion and interest, particularly weak on issues like the Euro crisis and other foreign policy points.

Its platform though — which harps heavily on the concept of “liquid democracy” — has yielded technology that everyone from Germany's center-left Social Democrats to the conservative Christian Democrats is scrambling to copy.

Liquid Feedback is the name of open-source software developed by the party's Berlin branch for proposition development and decision making. In practice, it attempts to tow the Pirate Party’s most important line, equal two-way communication and influence between elected officials and the public.

“We believe in a network, because we know that the best ideas for society come from the input of many and not just a few,” Weissband said at the party convention.

But critics, including members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, argue that the Pirates are riding high on a gimmick, and that Liquid Feedback cannot compensate for the party’s lack of coherence on non-technology related issues — and for its general eccentricity.

Party committee member Julia Schramm was heavily criticized last year for comments she made suggesting that the private sphere no longer exists and cannot be protected. Furthermore, the writer has been under media pressure to reconcile her views on issues like intellectual property rights in the face of record advance payments she received for her upcoming book.

But the 26-year-old says it's tough pushing for openness with data and technology in a place like Germany, where even with a multi-party system, old political habits die hard.

“I think this kind of criticism results from a deeply-rooted belief in hierarchy, that politicians have to be earnest in order to be able to take responsibility," Schramm told SmartPlanet.

"It's the idea that, as a leader, a politician cannot be a manifold human being. I reject this kind of political thinking.”

Just this kind of perspective seems to shake the party internally over and over — as well as attracting intrigued new supporters all the time. But as they learn to deal with nationally-sized criticism and intra-party conflict, the Pirates continue to grow — as does Liquid Feedback, with version 2.0 due out this August.

Whether a growing portion of the public embraces the platform through development or participation —  and whether large-scale legitimate decision-making processes can succeed on this basis — is a critical concern the Pirate Party has yet to quell.

But as its relatively young members across the country and Europe continue to develop, convene and learn for better or for worse both at home and abroad, its ideals have also begun to show signs of maturity.

"I want to engage in European politics as I believe in the European project," said Schramm. "I want Germany to be a part of this project. And the idea behind the European project is respect, solidarity, justice and democracy."

PHOTOS: Flickr/humanoid23

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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