Meet the Pirate who wants to reform Europe's copyright laws

How Julia Reda, the Pirate Party member in the European Parliament, plans to take on copyright and other technology issues.
Written by Michael Filtz, Contributor on

"I want to pass a European copyright law. That's the most important thing for me."

According to Julia Reda, the only Pirate Party member in European Parliament, the EU's current copyright directive, passed in 2001, doesn't mesh with today's internet-driven world.

"With the internet, copyright is no longer a territorially-limited commercial thing," she said over coffee in Berlin recently.

"The current system is keeping us from talking to each other across borders, and from sharing cultures."

Early frustrations

Julia Reda. Image: Michael Filtz

Just 28 years old, Reda got an early start in politics. When she was 16, she joined Germany's progressive Social Democratic Party (SPD), but soon became frustrated that she couldn't influence the party line in any constructive way. She recalled feeling like she was being used. "When you enter, they may put you on a stage somewhere and say, 'Hey, see, we also have young women in the party'," she said.

"But at the end of the day, they don't really want you to actively try to influence their policies."

She broke with the SPD after the party supported an internet blocking law — the Zugangserschwerungsgesetz, or 'Access Impediment Act' – which was intended to curb child pornography but also allowed for the blocking of other websites deemed 'offensive'.

"For me that was just unacceptable because they wouldn't justify their position in terms of any factual arguments or any engagement with the underlying technology, but rather defended it as kind of a strategic decision in terms of the current political situation in Germany," Reda said.

"And so for me that was just not an attractive way of doing politics."

In 2009, Reda joined the Frankfurt chapter of Germany's Pirate Party, the then-nascent privacy-oriented political movement dedicated to the reform of copyright laws, among other things. She found that she was able to make a real impact, partly through the Pirates' use of online 'liquid democracy' tools, with which party members can either weigh in directly on issues that are important to them, or delegate their votes to somebody else if they don't have the time or interest.

"It just took no effort at all to get into the decision-making parts of the party," she said.

At the time, the Pirate Party was gaining traction on a European level. Originally launched in Sweden in 2006, by 2009 there were Pirate Parties in Austria, the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Poland, among other countries. In 2009 two Swedish Pirate Party members, Christian Engström and Amelia Andersdotter, were elected to the European Parliament. Reda interned with Andersdotter when Parliament was considering ratifying the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which promised to curb privacy; critics said that it was misguided and would have stifled free speech online.

"I was organizing demonstrations against ACTA in Germany," Reda said, "and so I thought this was a really exciting opportunity" to follow-through on the demonstrations.

"I was lucky enough to be in Parliament at the time when ACTA was rejected. It was during that time that I decided to run in Parliament."

Reda started her own term in Parliament this year.

Five-year plan

In Parliament, the next five-year term will mean a shifting landscape for technology, given Jean-Claude Juncker's shuffled European Commission. While technology oversight was led by only one digital commissioner in the previous term, Juncker's Commission will have two: Günther Oettinger, from Germany, and Andrus Ansip, the former prime minister of Estonia.

Copyright European Union 2014. Image: European Parliament

Already, Reda has tried to make her mark on the Commission's technology agenda. While the two new commissioners were getting grilled by Parliament, Reda suggested that they both entertain questions from the public on Twitter. Ansip agreed, and then followed through – you can find the questions and his answers through the #AskAnsip hashtag – while Oettinger agreed but then backed out.

"I don't think that he realized what he had agreed to," Reda said, noting that in his hearings Oettinger did not demonstrate "a lot of knowledge about technology in general".

Besides copyright, Reda sees other technology challenges on the EU's horizon over the next five years. Net neutrality, for one: In the previous term, Parliament proposed a strong set of net neutrality regulations, which would have expressly prohibited ISPs from giving preferential treatment to certain internet traffic. At this point, the Commission needs to negotiate with the Council of the European Union – the legislative body that represents the governments of member states – to come up with a net neutrality law that everybody is happy with. Unfortunately, Reda is uncertain about which direction this will take.

"Right now we're not seeing a lot of movement on it," Reda said. "I think that Parliament really made a stance on this. But unfortunately Mr Oettinger in the hearing did not sound like he wanted to actually defend the Parliament's position."

"I'm pretty sure that Council is going to try to change it, in which case we're going to need a big majority in Parliament to get it through. This is also a goal of mine and I hope that I can play a big part in defending Parliament's position against national governments."

Perhaps more fundamentally, Reda wants to establish the Pirate Party as more than just an outside party in Parliament. Part of this is finding ways to make use of 'liquid democracy' tools in her parliamentary work in Brussels. In this way she would be able to measure consensus across all of the various European Pirate Parties, which can inform the way she votes and the actions she takes in Parliament.

However, though these tools have proved effective for the Pirate Party, which is made up of a lot of technologically-engaged, passionate members, Reda does not think that liquid democracy – which relies on volunteers to work – will ever replace the EU's parliamentary decision-making process, which can be subject to influence by lobbyists.

"You need to have people doing this full-time. If you try to outsource [the decision-making process] entirely to volunteers, I feel there would be a huge structural advantage to companies or other organizations that manage to pay people to do that kind of thing," she said.

"Companies are not going to stop having full-time lobbyists."

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