She can’t vote yet, but 17-year-old Victoria Westburg has thrown herself headlong through cyberspace into the realm of real-world politics.
A teenager who spends “a lot of hours” a day on her computer, she’s ticked off by laws that allow the government to snoop into or limit what people do online, and she wants to translate her outrage into action.
“The Internet is a big part of my life, and I think that it always will be,” Westburg said. “These laws that have come right now are very hostile toward the Internet and everything I like about it, and I don’t think that’s OK.”
So with the click of a mouse, Westburg joined a movement that has made a surprisingly loud splash in the placid pool of Swedish politics. She joined the Pirate Party, a fledgling group whose sole aim is to promote the free and unregulated flow of information on the Internet for the people of this generally progressive Scandinavian nation.
It’s been derided by some as a party of nerds, a political club for geeky young males (mostly) with little to clutter their schedules on Saturday nights except some hot and heavy file-sharing.
But few people are laughing anymore. Despite its narrow focus, the Pirate Party now holds two seats representing Sweden in the European Union’s parliament, is gearing up for national elections next year and has inspired similar political parties in more than 20 other countries.
It also boasts possibly the biggest grass-roots youth organization in all of Sweden. No other political party’s youth wing has such a large membership -- about 21,000, nearly as many as the rest of the parties combined -- or carries such weight within the party as a whole.
They are young people galvanized by the Pirate Party’s platform of unfettered access to information and the Internet, which includes an end to restrictive copyrights and an avowed right to free music and movies. Taxes, welfare, the environment, foreign policy -- all other concerns are secondary.
“No one is standing up to take on the issues that the Pirate Party is,” said Max Gnipping, 20, a supporter in Stockholm. “These issues are more important.”
With about 49,000 card-carrying members, the party is Sweden’s third-largest, a remarkable achievement for a single-issue group that was born only four years ago.
Translating those numbers into actual power within Sweden is a trickier proposition, however. Under the Swedish governmental system, a party must pull in at least 4% of the votes in a national election to qualify for a seat in the Riksdag, the legislature.
Crossing that threshold in next year’s election -- the group scored about 0.6% in 2006, less than a year after being formed, and is at about 2.5% in the polls at this point -- is the party’s big goal.
“We’re on a fairly steady climb,” said Rickard Falkvinge, the party’s founder and leader. “It’s going to be hard work, but we have a fantastic campaign machine.”
That the Pirates’ ship has come so far so fast is due to a confluence of factors, analysts say.
Sweden has been at the forefront in rolling out fast, cheap broadband service for the general population since the ‘90s. Surfing the Web on high-speed connections and downloading big files became commonplace here far earlier than in most countries. Consequently, computer literacy and awareness are extremely high.
By the time Falkvinge started the party on New Year’s Day 2006, Swedish activists were questioning copyright laws as the popularity of file-sharing grew. After that, every perceived attack on Internet freedom resulted in a surge in Pirate Party membership.
There was the May 2006 police raid on the Stockholm-based servers of Pirate Bay, a popular website that facilitates file-sharing. The site was forced to shut down temporarily, and its operators have since been convicted of aiding and abetting copyright infringement, to many Swedes’ dismay.
Last year, the Riksdag approved wiretapping laws giving intelligence authorities wide latitude to intercept cross-border e-mails and phone calls on grounds of national security, sparking an outcry over civil liberties -- and yet more interest in the Pirate Party.
“There’s definitely a movement of young people who are really interested in the freedom of the Web, and a strong ideology around that, which has emerged since the late ‘90s,” said Karl Palmas, a sociologist at Chalmers University of Technology in the city of Gothenburg. “What you have coming in is essentially the flower-power, hacker movements.”
Palmas and others also detect a peculiarly Swedish strain of thought in the Pirate movement. Enshrined in Swedish culture is the concept of allemansratten, or “every man’s right,” which basically guarantees people the right to roam and camp in the countryside -- the opposite of “No Trespassing.” Many Swedes approach cyberspace the same way.
Here in Uppsala, a historic university town an hour north of Stockholm, Westburg, the 17-year-old high school student, fears “a controlled society, like ‘1984.’ ” She bristles over being accused of supporting the Pirate Party simply because she wants to watch movies and listen to music without paying.
“The people who say that are wrong. . . . These questions are bigger than you think,” said Westburg, citing abridgment of civil liberties and patents on such products as life-saving pharmaceuticals. “The Pirate Party works for a future that’s so much better than what we have today, a free and open society for everyone.”
Westburg’s gender makes her a bit of an anomaly in a party in which 90% of registered members are male. But not her extreme youth: Membership rolls show that a significant number were born around 1990. (In Sweden, people can join political parties at any age, though they can’t vote until they are 18.)
“Pretty much all of the parties complain about how to get youths engaged politically. . . . Our problem is the opposite,” said Falkvinge, who, at 37, is already an elder statesman. “We’re so youth-heavy that we lack experience.”
In some ways, of course, it’s the luxury of youth that makes the Pirate Party possible, an alternative for Swedes who don’t worry about more mundane issues -- taxes or supporting a family or what kind of schools their children attend. It’s possible that as the members grow older, the gravitational pull of the party will naturally fade.
But Palmas warns against discounting the party as a durable political force. Issues of Internet freedom and privacy continue to make news, which fuels the Pirate movement and could vault the party into parliament.
“I don’t think this issue is going away,” Palmas said. “They have momentum.”