With his polished shoes, and formal three-piece pinstriped suit, Rick Falkvinge looks like the kind of man you might meet to discuss your tax affairs, or the finer points of your investment portfolio.
Not radical politics. Or illegal file-sharing. Or revolutionary e-currencies that may destroy the global banking system. Although sipping a soy latte in the Stockholm cafe that he calls his office, Falkvinge has the air of a successful corporate lawyer. He’s actually the founder and chief ideologue of Europe’s youngest, boldest, and fastest growing political movement: the Pirate Party.
The Pirates are a political force that have come out of nowhere. Dreamed up by Falkvinge in 2006, they’re an offshoot of the underground computer activist scene and champion digital transparency, freedom and access for all. In three years, they gained their first seat in the European parliament (they now have two) and became the largest party in Sweden for voters under 30. Since then they’ve gained political representation in Germany and swept large parts of Europe.
What they’ve done is to use technology in new ways to harness political power. Falkvinge describes how “we’re online 24/7,” how they operate in what he calls “the swarm” — nobody is in charge, and nobody can tell anybody else what to do — and how, essentially, they are the political embodiment of online activist culture.
The Pirates are geekdom gone mainstream and Falkvinge is the Julian Assange-style figurehead. A leading player in a fight for digital freedom that last week, came to a dramatic head when the US Congress prepared to vote on the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), and Wikipedia, supported by the likes of Google, led a 24-hour blackout of the Internet.
The legislation has, temporarily at least, been shelved, but Falkvinge is unequivocal about the gravity of the threat. The law would have given US courts the right to crack down on internet sites anywhere in the world and to monitor anybody’s private communications. It is, he claims, nothing less than an attack on fundamental human rights.
“We’re at an incredible crossroads right now. They’re demanding the right to wiretap the entire population. It’s unprecedented. This is a technology that can be used to give everybody a voice. But it can also be used to build a Big Brother society so dystopian that if someone had written a book about it in the 1950s, it would have been discarded as unrealistic.”
The creeping attempts at legislation are down to the power of what he calls the “copyright monopoly,” and although the US record industry and Hollywood studios view file-sharing sites as theft, and this week succeeded in having the founders of one site, Megaupload.com, charged with racketeering, Falkvinge is clear that it’s no such thing.
“It’s not theft. It’s an infringement on a monopoly. If it was theft and it was property, we wouldn’t need a copyright law, ordinary property laws would suffice.” Nor does he have any truck with the argument that file-sharing hurts art and artists.
“It’s just not true. Musicians earn 114 percent more since the advent of Napster. The average income per artist has risen 66 percent, with 28 percent more artists being able to make a living off their hobby. What is true is that there’s an obsolete middle market of managers. And in a functioning market, they would just disappear.”