What impact will piracy have this century?
This has been a fortnight in which piracy has seen more news coverage than at any time since Blackbeard. Sadly, for all the romance of the name, piracy is no longer the wooden-legged, eye-patched, be-parroted world of Captain Hook and Long John Silver. In the 21st century, a ‘pirate’ will tend to belong to one of two distinct species: pirata mogadisciensis and pirata suionese (sometimes known as pirata cyberspacensis)
The former can be best identified by the rocket propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s that adorn the shoulders, an attraction to possessions of great worth, and are usually found on small boats off the Horn of Africa. The latter are a global phenomenon, inhabiting bedrooms in every part of the developed world, though their genesis is to be found in Sweden. They are identifiable only by the absence of DRM software on their music files, and thus blend easily into the general population.
What both these types of pirate have in common is that they have proved sufficiently irritating to the great powers that be to ellicit great newsworthy dramas about their means of living and operating. The US Navy Seals this week rescued a captain of a Maersk shipping liner who was being held hostage on a fuel-less lifeboat after his crew re-seized the ship from its attackers. There have been a number of hijackings – for purely monetary gain – off the coast of Somalia in the last few months, and this has become an added headache for the new American President.
What may seem like such an insubstantial foe by comparison to those faced in Iraq and Afghanistan is capable of demanding the attention of the President of the United States. Whether this threat subsides could have a significant impact on how Obama is judged as a first-term Commander-in-Chief: whilst some on the Right (Glenn Beck) were critical of the cautious approach (bringing in FBI hostage negotiators), Obama did win plaudits from Bill O’Reilly and others for his initial handling of the incident. They will not be so kind if this becomes a regular occurrence.
Then in Sweden yesterday the news that a court had found for the major music and motion picture companies in their suit against the operators of Pirate Bay. The four founders will refuse to pay the fine, and are appealing the year-long prison sentences handed down for facilitation of copyright infringement. Their website acts as a directory and conduit for copyrighted materials that are free to download, although the site does not host content itself.
I only use paid-for sites to download TV, Films and Music – not because I disagree with the Pirate Bay operators, but because I was never sure of the legality of their operation. What brought them to my attention was that they were one of three notable pirate organisations operating in Sweden – Pirate Bay (the BitTorrent tracker prosecuted this week), an NGO/thinktank called Piratbyran and a political party who run solely on the issue of intellectual property. My interest in the case is due to the electoral fortunes of that minor party in Sweden that has now spread to Germany, Austria, Poland, and Spain. The Piratparteit has contested the Swedish General election (they got 0.63%) but has had more success in lobbying the other Swedish parties around to its position. The Wikipedia page gives an indication of countries where this is spreading.
So why a PB article? Well partly because issues of maritime piracy and intellectual property start some great discussions (Martin Coxall and I had a short debate on filesharing with James Burdett and Louise Bagshawe – the Conservative PPC for Corby – yesterday on Twitter). The other reason is my interest in non-Tax-and-Spend issues, and how they shape voting behaviour. The strength of feeling about civil liberties, or sleaze, or technology regulation tend to be minority interests, but felt with extreme passion by those who do care about them.
Internet Piracy rulings could either criminalise hundreds of thousands of people in this country alone or put major corporations into severe financial difficulty, and regulatory attempts to keep up with technology (the new front in the war over Net Neutrality, or Burnham’s call for regulating blog content) are likely to intrude (for better or for worse) into people’s lives more visibly than marginal tinkering with taxation levels. What effect could that have – and what are the positions of the major parties on such issues? Barack Obama has a Chief Technology Officer in his administration – I’m not sure (off the top of my head) which Cabinet Minister is even responsible for teh interweb.
So – maritime hijacking off the coast of East Africa and it’s effect on US Presidential approval ratings, compared to technology regulation and the beginnings of an elected piracy lobby in Europe. If you can’t make a conversation out of that, you’re just not trying.