Last December, Amelia Andersdotter, entered the European Parliament as a representative for Sweden’s Pirate Party, becoming the youngest MEP at the age of 24. She was actually elected way back in 2009, but as is the way of European institutions, she was forced to cool her heels for two years waiting for the Lisbon Treaty to be ratified. Now finally there, she has wasted little time getting to the heart of things, securing an important dossier as rapporteur to the Industry, Research and Trade committee for ACTA, the controversial copyright and trade agreement. A baptism of fire indeed, but not one likely to faze the combative and alarmingly well briefed Swede, who interrupted her studies to run for election.
(Her committee, incidentally, is known as ITRA, the T having once stood for Trade, which now has its own committee. “But everybody still calls it ITRA because it takes time for anything to change in institutions,” she explains.)
Her background, such as she’s had time to develop one, was as International Coordinator for the Young Pirates, the youth wing of the Swedish Pirate Party movement, now one of Sweden’s largest youth organisations. Youth is not a topic she’s particularly keen to discuss when we meet in Paris, evidently already weary of questions centred around her age and inexperience. “Being young in the Parliament is the same as being old in the Parliament,” she recites. “You have to navigate the same decision making processes and relate to colleagues in the same way. I prefer to focus on the issues I’m working on.”
So how has she found the institution of the Parliament itself, often seen (perhaps unfairly) as inefficient and glacially slow to reach decisions.
“Some parts of it (are slow), maybe. But when you have a democratic debate about policy updates, it’s sometimes good if it takes time. Particularly in my field of telecommunications policy and intellectual property rights, often when legislators have acted hastily we’ve ended up with bad legal frameworks.”
But the European decision making process in general does take a lot of time. From the time a proposition is first made at the European level it can take five, six, sometimes up to 10 years before a policy is implemented by member states.
“It’s a very unique working place. The European Parliament is a bit like a mix between a political institution and a diplomatic institution. There is a certain amount of regionalization, an aspect of people being more connected to their individual member states. For instance my experience with France is very low – I don’t speak French, and I don’t read French news for that reason. Which means that what goes on in the French popular debate on a national level, I don’t really pick that up much.”
In 2011, the German Pirate Party stunned many by picking up 15 seats in Berlin’s regional parliament. Just last week the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, Rick Falkvinge, declared that the party were receiving “hundreds” of membership applications each day. What does she put these signs of progress down to?
“What the advance of the PP in the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, Catalonia, highlights is that people are looking for political alternatives, which they’re not finding in the current establishment. Maybe that’s also because the Pirate Party questions the current modus operandi of the legislative process. These days many things are getting ‘harmonised’ at a level which is beyond the traditional democratic systems.”
So if 50 years ago most of the relevant decisions for any member states would have been made in the national parliaments, today a lot of very relevant decisions are being made in trade agreements, for instance. There’s not a sufficient questioning of this from the currently established government actors.
Trade agreements such as ACTA. As rapporteur for the ITRA committee, she will author a recommendation to the main trade committee.
“We knew this was going to be quite a big thing when it landed on our desk last year, but we didn’t fully anticipate the level of popular debate surrounding it. What was painfully obvious during the negotiation process was the difficulty in getting access to the meeting documents. When these negotiations started in 2007 they were quite unexpected, as most previous negotiations of this type had been held in more or less open, public, multilateral forums accessible to all industry representatives and civil society.”
ACTA was not like that, and it took until 2010 before there was any substantial documentation on the agreement available to a wider range of people than just the negotiators themselves and a few select industry representatives. And even then it was mostly because of leaks.
Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens braved arctic temperatures to protest around Europe on February 13, and again on February 25.
“I think it’s an expression of a general concern with the fact that copyright as a legal institution is often very invasive of how people act and interact with each other in their private lives. When I see objections to ACTA being brought to to the Parliament, they’re often objections to the general state of debate in our society.”
The way legislators are dealing with the copyright issue is so very very far away from how people imagine themselves interacting with information and culture. They don’t recognize what could be behind this agreement.
Do these kinds of mass protests, and the online petition now signed by nearly 2.5 million people, have an effect within European institutions?
“The political pressure that comes from a petition with that many signatures is actually very high. From inside the European Parliament it’s very tangible that this is a high profile issue. That some member states have suspended ratification of ACTA is at least partly to do with this petition. Normally you would not see this kind of response from institutions.”
At the time of writing eight member states had suspended ratification of the agreement. One of the most recent of those, Belgium, has postponed any decision on ratification until they are satisfied that it will not adversely impact on Belgian law. Germany, on the other hand, has postponed any decision on ratification until ACTA has been ratified by the European Parliament.
“This is really interesting. I’m assuming the implication of this is that the German bundestag is likely to follow the decision of the European Parliament. Belgium is saying, ‘Belgium will make their own assessments and then make their own decision’, whereas the German bundestag is basically just pushing the political pressure over onto the European Parliament. I find the Belgian approach more sensible and admirable.”
Normally I would have expected national parliaments to take a greater interest in the issue before their governments signed it, but unfortunately parliaments are sometimes lagging behind a bit.
ACTA seeks to place responsibility on ISP’s and hosting companies to police what customers are doing with their Internet connection. Is she concerned by that plan?
“These business actors aren’t meant to be legal institutions. Making an agreement which implicitly encourages them to take up the responsibility of judging when there’s an infringement, and how an infringement should be stopped, is a bad idea.”
If you’re going to have enforcement, have it under some sort of judicial control. You can’t privatize the enforcement of a legal framework.
The same concerns were raised about SOPA and PIPA, which also witnessed unprecedented online protest.
“I was surprised by the audacity of SOPA and PIPA. It’s such a stupid proposal, I don’t understand where it comes from. What they were proposing was to give US institutions direct jurisdiction over the DNS system, so that you could take down web pages from the net. To me its strange to think that one country should apply their intellectual property laws all over the world. It’s not OK for a country to extra-territorially apply a piece of legislation that even on its own soil is heavily criticised.”
My best guess about how SOPA came into being is that some US congressman had a piece of paper put in his hand, didn’t read it too carefully and just tabled it.
Some have argued that the lack of due process afforded to Megaupload before its recent shuttering shows that SOPA, at least in some form, already exists.
“Right now though the US still needs to ask for consent. When they pressure other embassies this is still a form of political process, whereas SOPA would have allowed them to bypass all of that. But yes, I find it a concern when the legislation in one jurisdiction is such that it enables that jurisdiction to cause economic harm in other regions.”
Why the European institutions didn’t protest this takedown is also beyond me. This impacted European citizens who actually were using the services legitimately.
“We already have court decisions in Europe that say that these types of ‘cyberlockers’ have many legitimate uses, and therefore can’t be attacked in this way. I know the Pirate Party in Catalonia and the EFF have been very active in helping people file class action lawsuits against the FBI over loss of revenue and loss of personal data. It will be a while before we know the results of those lawsuits.”
Does she feel her own party have been influential in getting these issues, previously relegated to the Tech section of the media, into the News section?
“I found the Pirate Party in Sweden did create a debate on information policy that wasn’t really there before. But I also believe that the fact that the Pirate Party is getting support should be seen as a reflection that these issues are becoming important to voters, particularly issues surrounding data protection and privacy. Now the institutions are slowing catching up to that fact.”
The European institutions have proven consistently to be incapable of responding to any problem that occurs with information or communications policy. They choose to wait, they choose to avoid regulation where regulation is needed, they choose to regulate more in areas that are obviously already over regulated. There’s been a lack of progression in this institutional debate.
What’s been changing particularly in the last two years is that people are cautiously bringing up the fact that maybe the current regulatory framework is too stringent and needs to change.”
How can the Pirate Party be most effective in pursuing its agenda? Is there a limit to its growth?
“We’re a focus party. It wouldn’t make sense for us to have our own majority in a parliament. But it makes perfect sense for us to be part of a parliament, and part of a coalition government. For the Swedish Pirate Party, when it comes to other issues (not to do with information or privacy) we would support the parties who support us. But information policy is amazingly pervasive – it pops up many areas where our perspective could be useful.”
“Because of the political duopoly in the US, and the electoral systems in UK, US, France & Spain makes it next to impossible for the PP to get someone elected.”
Image: Samuel Huron CC BY-NC-ND