Swede ‘pirates’ fight for Web freedom

Marketplace Staff Jun 1, 2009

Swede ‘pirates’ fight for Web freedom

Marketplace Staff Jun 1, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Napster is celebrating its 10th anniversary today. Back in June of 1999, it was the first really consumer-friendly, music-sharing Web site out there. That quickly made it very unfriendly for record companies. The music industry sued for copyright violation, then won. So Napster eventually went mainstream. It’s part of Best Buy now. But the company’s buccaneering spirit lives on. A Swedish political party that wants to restrict copyright protections is attracting a lot of support ahead of this weekend’s European elections. From Stockholm, Sweden, Brett Neely reports.

BRETT NEELY: Meet the Pirate captain.

CHRISTIAN ENGSTROM: My name is Christian Engstrom. I’m the vice-chairman of the Pirate Party, and I’m the top candidate for the European parliament elections.

The 49-year-old IT consultant doesn’t have an eyepatch, or a wooden leg. His party’s logo is a black flag, but the only sign of Engstrom’s pirate tendencies is a discreet lapel pin on his blazer in the shape of a P. For a pirate, his message is peaceful.

Engstrom: We’re basically a civil rights party.

In this case, online civil rights. The Pirate Party says music and movies should be freely shared on the Web. Copyright laws should be rewritten, and the current patent system scrapped. Technology activists founded the party in 2006. At the time, the government tried to shut down a popular file-sharing Web site called the Pirate Bay, which is used by millions of downloaders across the world.

In the center of Stockholm, members of the Pirate Party hand out pamphlets and fliers. Robert Myberg, a young party member, says the government went too far when it tried to close the Pirate Bay.

ROBERT Myberg: It’s very popular in Sweden. That’s why there came such an uproar when the police did this to the Pirate Bay.

There’s no formal relation between the Web site and the Pirate Party, though many party members do use it. Myberg and other party activists aren’t just worried about the Web site. They’re also concerned about other technology issues, like a 2008 law that lets the government tap Internet connections without a warrant. Candidate Engstrom says the law inhibits online communications.

Engstrom: I mean, what’s the point in having freedom of speech if it applies everywhere except on the Internet. And the Internet is the only platform that is being used?

In April, the Swedish government convicted the Pirate Bay’s founders of violating copyright laws and sentenced them to prison. After the trial, tens of thousands of Swedes joined the Pirate Party, making it the country’s third largest with more than 46,000 members. The core supporters are often young men with backgrounds in technology.

PER Gudmundson: These are more like the kind of guys that run your office help desk.

Per Gudmundson is an editorial writer for newspaper Svenska Dageblatt. He says these nerds were shut out of the political debate by the establishment and have used the Web to build a new kind of political movement.

Gudmundson: The traditional parties haven’t really been that good at implementing those social Web techniques that the Pirate Party has mastered.

Recent opinion polls show the party getting as much as 8 percent of the vote in Sweden, enough to win at least one seat in the European Parliament in Brussels, where copyright and telecoms policy is set for the whole of Europe. And the message is spreading to other parts of the continent. There are now registered Pirate parties in several other EU countries, including Germany, Spain and Poland.

In Stockholm, I’m Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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