From the Fall Issue “Connectivity”
A conversation with Amelia Andersdotter
In 2006, when the Pirate Party was launched in Sweden, Amelia Andersdotter was 18 years old. The movement, launched on a platform of reform for European laws regulating copyrights and patents, quickly adopted a broader mandate as it swept across Europe— supporting the individual’s right to privacy, both on the Internet and in everyday transactions, as well as government transparency in its interactions with its citizens. Five years later, Andersdotter took her seat as the youngest member of the European Parliament, her party having catapulted past the Green Party to become the third largest in Sweden by membership. Giving up her studies of mathematics, physics, Spanish, and law, she left university to take her seat in Brussels, where she focused her attention on information policy. A bitter opponent of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, she was largely responsible for its parliamentary downfall. However, this past Spring, Andersdotter lost her parliamentary seat. She has since turned her attention to the role that social media and Internet freedom can play in individual lives, which she discussed with World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and managing editor Yaffa Fredrick.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In terms of connections, let’s start by looking at the role of social media in a modern political campaign, particularly in Europe, where such penetration is perhaps the highest in the world. How do you think social media has impacted campaigning in the past, and how might it impact politics in the future?
AMELIA ANDERSDOTTER: There are different types of social media. In my experience, social media has not helped to make politicians more accepted. Social media can be helpful in the political world if you are attempting to keep in touch with particular constituents. Social media can also help you keep in touch with subject matter experts from all over the world. What social media doesn’t help with is finding new constituencies.
WPJ: In terms of political parties, your Pirate Party is a small, narrowly focused party. In Europe, is social media a way of broadening your appeal and your visibility?
ANDERSDOTTER: The Pirate Party has had the most success building our own policies and our own approach to policies when we had an online forum that people came to—when we were providing the platform for people to discuss future policies that they found relevant. We were using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate—contacting specific people at specific times—but if you don’t have a platform which is exciting for people, there’s too much information on social media for people to have the time to sift through.
WPJ: One of your central platforms of the Pirate Party is a free and open Internet. Is that even possible in this age when there is so much fragmentation of perspectives, not only in Europe but worldwide as well?
ANDERSDOTTER: Yes, I’d like to believe that we can have a free and open Internet and a free and open world where people can realize their own potential and feel empowered. I don’t think you can just sit down and say that is not possible and therefore should not be one of our political goals. There are many political goals whose utility could be questioned. I do believe we have a serious problem with intermediary liability, which is counter to the idea that individuals could be empowered by asking platforms to control users. By imposing on the platforms a general obligation to keep track of what their users are doing and stopping users from doing specific things, you are incentivizing the building of infrastructure in such a way that users ultimately cannot do anything that isn’t approved by the platform providers. This is the big problem with platforms like Facebook and Twitter where you cannot share links that are connected by copyrighted content. The entire platform is made in such a way that Facebook is really deciding what links are being shared.
This, I believe, will become more of a problem as intermediaries are burdened with more liabilities. There are serious policy questions to consider for Facebook—in Western Europe and the United States. If we also believe that freedom and individualism, empowerment and democratic rights, are valuable, then we should not be constructing and exploiting systems of control where individual disempowerment are prerequisites for the system to be legal.
WPJ: Are you not concerned about any anarchic tendencies of a totally open and free Internet? That is, the ability of a truly uninformed person sitting in the basement of his parents’ home with access to the Internet that is as broad as The New York Times or Frankfurter Algemeine?
ANDERSDOTTER: For me, it makes little difference if you are producing content in your parents’ basement, but rather what is the result. For instance, I do not think that extortion should be legal. I do think that we should chase down people who extort other people and ensure they are punished for extortion. I am more skeptical about whether we have the proper incentive model for the Internet today. We can say that most of the legislation around Internet users protect systems from individuals. I believe that individuals should be protected from the system. Individual empowerment means the individual is able to deal with a system, use a system, work with a system, innovate on a system—for whatever purpose, social or economic. Right now we have a lot of legislation that hinders such [empowerment]. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have anarchy in the sense that you have no laws or that anyone can do whatever they want at anytime. It’s more a question of ensuring that the capabilities you are deterring are actually the capabilities that are most useful to deter.
WPJ: We have been watching European elections and voting patterns for many years. This year, in the European parliamentary elections, there appears to be a trend— Europe is shifting increasingly toward the right. Do you agree with that assessment? Second, what do you expect the impact might be on social media and open Internet access if such a trend continues?
ANDERSDOTTER: It depends on what you mean by right and left in this case. People were really voting in many member states against capitals or against Brussels. They are not voting right wing or left wing. In fact, a lot of the conservatives are for the protection of the welfare state, what one would commonly associate with “social democracy” in Europe. So what you have are people that are concerned with the removal of power from individuals— far enough away they can no longer understand, or interact with, or influence events. I think the Internet and Internet policy are very good tools for bringing power closer to people, decentralizing and ensuring that we have distributive power and distributive solutions. This needs to be built into the technical, as well as the political framework. It is a real challenge for the European Union to win back the confidence of European voters because I think a lot of people are increasingly concerned that they don’t have power or influence over tools and situations that arise in their day-to-day lives.
WPJ: Why do you think the European Union has been so backward in winning back voters? Some of the countries are remarkably advanced, particularly in comparison to the United States.
ANDERSDOTTER: The European Union is a big institution that relies too much on centralization. The European Union is a good platform for solving some problems but all too often resolves them all the same way. The European Union needs to be more user-centric. It must provide more control [directly] to users. If the European Union decides that intermediaries could not develop technologies specifically to disempower end users, we could have a major shift in global political and technical culture, not only in Europe but worldwide, that would benefit everyone. And the EU would have the leadership and the guts to make that kind of change.
WPJ: One concern about a totally free and open Internet is the whole concept of security. Is there room to compromise some openness for the sake of national security or security even of an individual’s private numbers or data ?
ANDERSDOTTER: The European Union, in terms of data protection regulation, actually made a really smart move toward data security, so by now we have quite a well developed security theory. We have need only to incentivize this through a secure infrastructure or secure services. For example, now if an electricity provider fails and doesn’t provide electricity, then they must reimburse customers. And imposing a small or even a big fine on an electricity provider that fails to provide electricity it had promised would immediately ensure these electricity networks became first of all decentralized and also more generally secure for all of society. No commercial actor actually wants to pay a fine.
It’s the same case in IT security. What we actually lack in IT is not removing more privacy from end users—it’s transparency about security problems. We are not able to create good and reliable insurance policies for IT because the insurance companies don’t have enough information about what goes on. We must always have the right economic incentives to improve and fix the problems that we know are there. Instead, what we are doing now is surveying everything in hopes we’ll find some kind of threat that we’re not even sure actually exists. If you’re going on a kind of wild fishing expedition for potential problems that may or may not occur— first of all that’s a very costly expedition— but it distracts our attention from actual problems that exist and aren’t being fixed.
I just think the entire problem has been framed in a very strange way, where fixing known problems has been completely set aside in order to account for problems that don’t even exist yet.
WPJ: You’ve been named one of the top ten most important Internet activists. I’m curious, what does it mean to be an Internet activist in 2014? What’s your obligation to the European Union? To your party? To the young people that you represent?
ANDERSDOTTER: Well, the reason I was voted one of the top ten activists is because I led the charge in the European Parliament with the group that rejected the Anti- Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. This pact would have taken a lot of power from end users without any consensus that these provisions were good. I think ultimately how I’ve been successful in the European Parliament is by helping the Parliament understand that end users should be empowered. We are very much aware that in the United States institutions such as the Cato Institute are criticizing the copyright lobby. These are known problems and have been for a very long time. I received this award because I was able to get my colleagues’ support and show that bandaging the problem is not the right way forward. We need to sit down and consider if we have to change the direction of this apparatus.
WPJ: So who’s going to take up this role now? Is there anyone there to assume this function?
ANDERSDOTTER: The German Pirates actually have a woman elected this year to the European Parliament, Julia Reda, who is going to focus specifically on copyright issues in this legislature. We’re hoping that the European commission will have the courage to make progress on that reform.
WPJ: Copyright is a pretty narrow issue when it comes to the whole spectrum of Internet freedom and social media, isn’t it?
ANDERSDOTTER: Everything on the Internet is information, and copyright can be applied to any kind of information that is put together in a specific way. Most material that’s online is copyrighted. How you define the copyrights that emerge affects so many different aspects from libraries on the Internet to how online commerce can be run to what your Internet service provider is allowed to do. Imagine you’re living in a country where the government doesn’t want you to criticize it. A platform capable of tampering or removing data can also be used to block or de-insentivize you from criticizing your government. So copyright is potentially and inadvertently encouraging the creation of tools that very specifically deprive end users of the ability to define themselves, their own relationship, and their relationship with friends, society, government. And even if the copyright industry has not intended that technical development, it does lead to that. Copyright can take power from users in every field.
Equally, when large banks file copyright cases against platforms that publish leaked documents about the banks, because copyright laws are so strong, they claim that the Internet service provider or the platform provider should be liable for removing such content. Copyright has more and bigger implications than a lot of people are willing to admit. It is therefore important that the European Commission initiate the reform that gives more power back to individuals.
WPJ: One of the biggest Internet decisions to have come out of European courts recently deals with Google. Now, people can determine what comes up in their Google search results throughout the EU. What do you think that opinion says about the nature of European courts on Internet issues, and how do you feel when an opinion like this is decided? It seems that that is really restrictive of free expression on multiple levels.
ANDERSDOTTER: Google removes hundreds of millions of links from their search engine every year for copyright issues. They have collaborations with major pharmaceutical companies and other industry groups about removing links from Google search results that I don’t personally know about. We don’t know because Google doesn’t publish information about all the links they remove. This has been going on for a number of years. Google has already been engaging in large scale censoring of the Internet with corporate blessing.
Now, the one time individuals are extended the same right as multinational corporations, that’s when everyone starts talking about how there is serious damage being done to the Internet or the legal system. So I think that there is a major imbalance in how it’s being communicated, because the only thing that the European Court of Justice said is that we, as private individuals, are not less important than large corporations, which I think is a quite sound position for the court to have. I should have the same rights to protect myself and my interests as a big company has to protect its interests.
Normally, we expect not the company, but the court to be the right institution in society to make decisions about whether something is constitutionally protected. The court extends its argument that courts are incompetent to decide what is constitutionally valid. I would rather have it that the courts went the other way and said that neither the copyright industry nor the telecommunications providers are allowed to make their own assessments about what is or is not freedom of speech.
WPJ: Is there not a broader right for the public to know what has actually happened and not have history rewritten or redacted according to the whim of one individual player within it? Is there not also the right for journalists or commentators to write what they believe has actually happened, without an individual censoring that? Isn’t there a broader collective social right to know what has happened in the past without history being edited by an individual?
ANDERSDOTTER: This is Google taking the initiative to remove it from its search engine. I think what the courts were going for is a kind of algorithmic regulation. The courts never intended for anything to be censored, and that speaks a lot to the general implications that Google should make an assessment. Clearly Google does not have the right to make such an assessment—specifically of information that is too old or no longer of general interest. This is why due process is incredibly important.
WPJ: Do you sense an increasing young-old divide, that’s widening in Europe, in these kinds of issues?
ANDERSDOTTER: The question is not of age here but of educational level. Normally the people using social media tend to be well educated.
WPJ: Not long ago, you wrote about the Pirate Party: “For me being a Pirate, I take the view that politics and technology should conspire to create opportunities for individuals and their good relations with other individuals. I believe the Internet is fundamentally a nice and useful place which we can use to make everyone happier and find new friends, something akin to a tool for world peace; rather than megacorp domination.” So tell us, personally, what you believe being a “political pirate” means?
ANDERSDOTTER: Information systems are essentially systems that we use to share with other people. And I do think that we need to have a politically systematic approach to information systems in the same way that we have democratic systems or other government systems. How you construct technologies does affect how people can or cannot interact with each other. So we need to decide what values we can attribute to the technical systems because this is a political problem. I think this is something that needs to be done collectively, not just decisions being made in a place far from users without users being able to understand what the decisions are, or how they’ll be affected, or how the decisions can be made by user participation.
WPJ: The Pirate Party has made the free and open Internet its core issue, and in some ways the Internet is the most extreme form of a democracy, potentially a very free and open place. Effectively, the Pirate Party should not by extension represent any particular vision for the world or the Internet, if it’s representing a more free and open democratic space. Now such a free and open Internet can mean you’re also giving voice to very fascist views. You’re allowing those to be promoted on the Internet as well—views that would seem to be very antithetical to the views of the Pirate Party. Does that trouble you? Particularly in this time in Europe, when there is a considerable polarization in many European countries, that the Internet might be specifically facilitating that?
ANDERSDOTTER: I believe that fundamentally people want to be able to get along with other people. As long as you have the infrastructure available to allow people to do that, they will do so. I do however think that some of the policy choices that we’re making concerning the Internet aren’t really helpful for people to get in touch and communicate in spaces and ways that they find meaningful.
WPJ: How would you like to change the Internet to make that more realistic?
ANDERSDOTTER: Well, I ultimately accept the democratic framework where I find myself. So I guess I will be acting in the public space and hope we get support for our ideas.
WPJ: What do you see as the future of the Pirate Party? You’re now one of its main leaders Europe-wide. Do you see this becoming an increasingly expanding European movement? Do you see it becoming one of the major parties in Europe? Is it effectively another form of the Green Party, which has had an amazing life span in a number of European nations? Is that what you see for the Pirate Party?
ANDERSDOTTER: Well I do know we will continue to work in many European countries. There is a space for debate on Internet issues. It is increasingly a concern for individuals in their day-to-day lives. It is something that a lot of people feel they don’t understand very much. I do think the Pirate Party will grow in many European countries and be able to take charge of these large, systematic issues that are facing us in an increasingly globalized world—where we could be giving ourselves the right tools to make use of globalization, from a social perspective.
WPJ: Now it seems to be confined pretty much to the European Union. Should it have a role in the United States or Canada, in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, even Asia? Why is this being confined to a European context?
ANDERSDOTTER: In the United States, I believe the first-past-the-post system makes it more difficult to launch new political initiatives. In Europe, it’s quite easy to get into publically elected institutions. It’s a much more achievable goal. We have parties—Pirate Parties and movements— in Latin America. The idea of a party assumes you have a democratic system that is somewhat functional. If you don’t have a democracy, why would you form a political party? It largely depends also on what the conditions are in various parts of the world—and how useful a political party could be in those situations. The European Union has the greatest advantage because all of the member states are parliamentary democracies—so political parties make a lot of sense. The democratic conditions in Europe are more feasible.
WPJ: Do you have any suggestions on how our readers might become more conscious of the role of the Internet in their lives?
ANDERSDOTTER: It’s important to be able to question oneself and question the information that one is receiving and the distribution. It’s essential to think about the distribution and who has power, what it means to have power. Who has the means to influence you and your abilities? How should these means and powers be distributed in the information environment? Those are the most useful questions to ask yourself.
WPJ: Thank you so much for joining us today.