What do the EU results and Pirate Party mean for digital rights?

Stand back from the media frenzy concentrating on Labour’s woes for a moment, and ask yourself what these elections mean for digital rights.

Several parties that broadly supported digital rights concerns did well in this election, including, in the UK, UKIP and the Greens. The Liberal Democrats also had a fair showing.

Across Europe, the Green Party have been very supportive on patents, copyright and privacy, and gained in strength. ALDE, the Liberals, have also been helpful, and remained roughly as strong.

The two groups that have been most difficult to influence have been the traditional left and right parties, the PES and EPP. Both have suffered in the election. Between them, they are likely to continue to dominate the parliamentary agenda, but more digital rights-friendly voices are stronger.

But the biggest shock from a digital rights perspective is the election of the Swedish Pirate Party, with one representative, or two if the Lisbon Treaty is adopted. Their membership and votes have been boosted by the Pirate Bay trial, although they are separate organisations. The Open Rights Group’s perspective is rather different, but we welcome their election, because it will force a public debate on issues which of concern to us.

Politicians would be making a mistake to simply mock or ignore this new if eccentrically-named political force. The Pirate Party have shown that politicians can lose their jobs if they fail to defend our rights. They have demonstrated that young people want the public benefit from the new digital world. The Pirate Party have demonstrated that privacy rights and fair copyright systems matter to people enough to vote for them.

Their election will open up a debate about how well the public interest is served by our current copyright and patent laws. Their position is for a five year copyright term, and a file sharing exception. These are somewhat extreme positions – but the very respectable ‘cultural flat rate’ proposal might in practice be something similar to a payment made in exchange for a file sharing exception. And many copyright academics feel the economically optimal term for copyright is nearer 15 years than the life plus 70 years that most authored works can claim.

Many moderate reforms to copyright have been advocated by academic and groups like ORG and Consumer Focus – and resisted by rights holders in recent years. These include copyright ‘exceptions’ to give the blind the right to transform works into formats like Braille that they can understand, or the right for consumers in the UK to ‘format shift’ or create parodies of copyrighted works. We have also consistently argued for a sensible and balanced approach to copyright enforcement online. We can note that failing to take this concern seriously has led directly to the Pirate Party’s election.

The Pirate Party want patents abolished – they argue that public research would do a better job. There are good reasons to be skeptical about current patent laws, from prevention of distribution of drugs in the developing world, through the patenting of genes, to software patents. While the Open Rights Group does not want patents abolished, we are very critical of how these systems work in practice: they are in urgent need of reform.

The Pirate Party’s positions are great openings for a genuine debate about what copyright and patent laws are for. For once, we should expect the benefits to the public of ‘intellectual property’ laws to be forced into the centre ground, and be the subject of public discussion, rather than finding that the relatively narrow commercial consideration of the rights holders dominate an internalised policy debate within EU institutions.

Privacy concerns have also been strong a factor in their election. Sweden has seen resistance to implementing the Data Retention Directive, and the same link to protection of citizen’s interests has been made. These are serious debates, and by and large, existing political voices, with a few notable exceptions, have failed in their duty to protect our fundamental human rights.

The Pirate Party has made comparisons between its success and the first ‘Green’ breakthroughs to parliament, as a ‘single issue’ concern entering and changing political discourse. On one level, they are no doubt correct; but neither ‘digital rights’ nor ‘green politics’ is truly a single issue any more than ‘labour rights’; they are all fundamental re-examinations of the way we organise society.

For Greens, sustainability must change economics if the human race is to survive. For digital rights advocates, the information age can revolutionise democracy, culture and society, or, if technology and laws are misapplied, damage them severely. This is an over-arching, not niche concern, and building it into the work of European political groups can only be a good thing.