Andrew Norton: PPI Became a Pirate Chimera [Pirate Visions]

Andrew Norton: PPI Became a Pirate Chimera [Pirate Visions]

Being one of the founders of Pirate Parties International, Andrew Norton looks back on how it all started, before gazing ahead on what is to come. He reflects on his initial efforts with PPI and wishes for a future similar to that.

These articles are part of the weekly series ‘Pirate Visions’ from different prominent international pirates. We asked them to write as individuals and not in their official capacities in their party or organisation. We hope you would like to join us in discussing the future direction for pirates internationally by commenting on this article, sharing it and reflecting upon what the author is saying.

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Seven years ago, PPI wasn’t a thing. It existed, somewhat, in the form of a website and a forum, but it was hardly ever used. There was an international mailing list, open to Pirates worldwide. There were even some international conferences, but they were organised with a single aim in mind – coordinating towards the 2009 European elections. However, by the summer of 2008 it was clear that if there was going to be any real progress, there needed to be something in charge, leading and coordinating. That’s where I came in.

During the time I had been the international contact the US Pirate Party had almost died, following an interesting start (US politics is HARD, way too hard for most people). I became the leader in early/mid 2007 where I managed to resurrect the US Pirate Party into an entity that could mostly run itself, and was at least functioning somewhat.

Being UK born and raised (I even cut my teeth on UK politics) caused me to have a keen – strong some might say – interest in European politics. Watching what was going on across Europe with the various Pirate Parties showed me one thing above all – each party was operating solo; a dozen different parties operating in a dozen different ways, each doing the same thing with slight variations and duplicating a lot of effort. There was little real communication and not even a real platform to bind them together (although one was thrown together and announced to the press, yet most parties knew it existed only after reading about it in press reports).

It was clear that there was something needed to tie all these parties together, some sort of structure to streamline cooperation. At the time, there was very little choice in who could lead it. I came up with the thought, and offered to take on the roll myself. I am European, so I understand European politics, which was important considering the focus was to be on the European elections. However, I no longer lived in Europe, which meant I could act somewhat objectively on the cooperation. Being a native English speaker was important, since English is the Lingua Franca of the Pirate movement, but I could also handle other languages (I had studied French, Spanish and Italian in the past, and I was amenable to trying to read, if not speak, more languages).

This was the start of PPI as a thing. The idea was to provide a point of contact and communication, someone that parties could contact for help with resources – ‘fixers’ if you will. Not only that, but also to be an ear and a ‘sounding board’ for the party leaders, giving them someone to vent to when needed (it’s lonely at the top). One important task was therefore to act as a supporting group, in the shadows, holding parties together into a smoothly functioning coherent whole. In addition, where needed, PPI could act as an outside referee or observer, for things like internal party elections if requested (a role undertaken in July 2009 with the US Pirate Party leadership elections for instance).

PPI had other actions as well, one of the most important being the “Manifestos at a Glance” project. It might seem unusual to some but while Pirates have the same basic principles, the devil – as they say – is in the details. While all Pirate Parties are for copyright reform, for instance, the reform goal differs. Delegating this to Carlos Ayella of the Spanish PIRATA was important to me, not just to get the job done, but to give a model for future PPI tasks, which would be refined and improved on with subsequent attempts.

That was the plan, and it happened, somewhat. The biggest problem was myself. I was one person, and I was thousands of miles, and 5-8 timezones away from most of the parties. Above all else, it was a lot of work, and the strain of it nearly drove me to a nervous breakdown. Through July, I looked for someone like-minded suitably skilled to take over the organisation,  while there were a few candidates that looked promising (Samir Allioui of the Dutch party, and Switzerland’s Denis Simonet for instance), it was apparent that it was too much work for one person to handle. This caused the job to fall to a coreteam, who would work to formalise things, while I took a year’s break from all Pirate activity in order to refresh and recharge.

This is where PPI, as it was intended to be, failed. Instead a new structure and a new direction became evident. Some took a focus on making PPI a legal entity, which could then help through being able to own its own assets and ensure continuity of options. Others shepherded the rules, regulations, practices and procedures in a different direction. At first it seemed like it was going to be more of the same but the statutes, combined with the manner of running the first meeting in Brussels, led to a structure that was less suitable for a supporting role and more indicative of an international ‘frontman’ group.

One thing which became an obvious issue in hindsight, was the Brussels meeting itself. The idea was to help celebrate the election of a Pirate to the European Parliament (with the potential for another if/when the Lisbon Treaty was ratified) with a tour and the use of the facilities (Belgium is often used as a base for international organisations due to the presence of the European Parliament). However, in the end it fostered a Euro-centric attitude in the PPI organization. The problem was that the EU would help cover costs of people coming to tour the parliament but only if they were EU citizens. So it ended up being subsidised for the people who were already close (and thus had lower costs) and incredibly expensive for the non-EU people. It was the start of the Euro-centric era, which has continued to the present day, as well as an underlying aura of incompetence.

This also began the era of personal fiefdoms and injecting personal interests in the administration of affairs. Since 2010, at least one of Germany’s two International Coordinators have been on the PPI board at all times. In fact there’s been an incredible dominance of central European party members on the Board since then, with only one non-European on the Board since its founding (US/Canada’s Travis McCrea in 2012-13). The insularity is ensured by mechanisms that let the board pick a place for General Assembly (GA) events that tend to suit them, being able to pick who chairs the meeting, its’ agenda, what kind of vote system will be used (and if it is secret or public), and even at times who is allowed to vote (explained further down in text). PPI was acting in the most covert and undemocratic ways possible, which is odd, in an entity that’s supposed to be representing the Pirate Parties – entities all about transparency, democracy, and accountability – at an international level.

From this there has been a string of questionable actions and activities over the past few years. One of the first being the decision to admit Catalonia, on a late application foisted on delegates last moment, with many members unclear on what exactly they were voting on. This had to, eventually, be settled in the Court of Arbitration where it was decided that since “country” can in very specific instances mean a region of a sovereign state, the term ‘country’ is therefore ambiguous, or at least ambiguous enough, for the intent to be ignored to placate those in charge.

Lately there has been two consecutive failed attempts to impose membership fees (by an entity that can’t manage to keep a bank account). Most egregious of them all though, was the expelling of the Dutch Pirate Party mid-votes, based solely on an unsubstantiated email. Rather than hold the Netherlands as ‘provisional’ and decide one way or another later (after investigating the validity) the Dutch delegate was excluded from voting. This decision caused many to question if the identity of that delegate – Samir Allioui – had any bearing, as he had been a constant and outspoken critic of the PPI Board.

If this were all, it’d be enough to undermine any claim for legitimacy by PPI, but there’s so much more, from ignoring their own statutes, to lies (outright or by omission) about who and what goes on, with double-talk throughout. It makes it incredibly hard to see the organisation, or the movement as a whole, as serious.

However, even when they had the breaks, they were squandered. A prime example of this was the WTO meeting in Bali. Having been granted observer status, PPI’s representatives (consisting of one of the co-chairs, his wife, and another German-speaking Board member) did a poor job of selling the party narrative. Nowhere was this better exemplified then in the “paper” that was submitted, which was only a few paragraphs long. This paper was apparently written ‘the night before’ (actually over just a two hour period by Mr Engels, from 23:51 on December 4th to 02:03 on December 5th) and was almost entirely free of substantive content. Nevertheless, they’re quick to mention the fact that the WTO published it (which was ‘talked up’ excessively) , overlooking (deliberately?) that as a matter of course the WTO publishes ALL submitted papers, irrespective of quality.

Above all else, though, the biggest problem with PPI is that it has become utterly tone deaf. The mandarins, those that have spoken out and challenged the status quo, have been seen as the cause of the issues, a source of strife and a dissent with their cassandraic warnings. Comments and critiques were ignored, based on the source, and group actions were put down (attributed to overly persuasive individuals), although now the PPI board is starting to look increasingly weak. PPI’s biggest problem is that it has become like the Royal Family – a bunch of people that don’t do anything except look at things and ‘represent’. However, when proposals are made to change this, they’ve gone back and cancelled announced events that adhere to Pirate principles, to hold a different event but firmly under their control. As one person put it:

“Yes, you can have your online GA, but only about the topics we’re happy for you to talk about, and we’ll be responsible for running it, despite the well-known problems with our handling of online participation in GAs historically. It’ll be fun!”

The funny thing is that if this was any other group (say a government) doing this to a Pirate Party, the Pirate Parties would be right out there shouting and denouncing it as a farce. Here, few dare to raise voice, for fear of being seen as querulous. Worse, there’s an unstated assumption that there must be ‘unity’ at all times, and that critique should be private. However, one of the greatest strengths of the Pirate movement is its underlying integrity. Refusing to rock the boat for fear of being seen to rock the boat is perhaps the most dangerous of justifications, since it encourages a mob-mentality where any suitably loud or charismatic mouthpiece can direct things, even if they’re against base principles. It’s cowardly, and a bad sign in general for the Pirate movement.

In the meantime, two of the founding parties have already left, Australia left February 11th, while the UK left a week later on the 19th. It’s no surprise to anyone either. Australia was vociferous that a well administrated General Assembly should be held with an open agenda, clearly documented procedures and time for proposals to be openly discussed by all (including within the parties themselves). This was not just the position of its leaders, but of over 90% of the membership at their annual conference. As previously mentioned, this GA was granted but once initial discussion started it was abruptly halted and withdrawn once the scope of potential change, and the lack of ability to dominate, was realised. As a result Australia withdrew. They were tired of being treated as a second-class entity, and refused to take it any longer.

The UK party has long been discontent with PPI. In 2013 they held a membership vote over the future of the party’s involvement with PPI. “Should the Pirate Party UK remain a member of Pirate Parties International (PPI)?” While a majority indicated a wish to reduce PPUK’s association with PPI, the biggest single category was to stay and try to make things better. At the time, the best argument (indeed the only argument) for staying was that perhaps we should try and help things along more. We did, we tried, significant time and effort was put in by multiple people (including myself) to try and give PPI the sort of reforms it needed. In the end they were all rebuffed. So, as a result, the PPUK Board of Governors held a vote on the following statement:

“The Board of Governors of the Pirate Party of the UK (PPUK) hereby finds that “Pirate Parties International” (PPI) is by its actions and deeds an organisation that is at odds with the principles of PPUK.”

It was perhaps the most one-sided vote, and certainly one of the quickest I’m aware of. It was assisted by the fact that the Governors, as a body, had been observing the actions of the PPI board, including their interactions with other members for a considerable period of time (years). The NEC agreed, also having dealt with them for years. PPUK had done all the members had asked, and not only had things not improved, things had actively gotten worse.

What will it mean for PPUK? Well, not much to be honest. PPI really hasn’t done anything positive for PPUK. Instead it was a drag of time and effort dealing with their issues, and for that they’ve been insistent that PPUK (and every other party) pay for two years. Of course, not being a member of PPI isn’t the handicap many would like to think it is. I’m currently Chair of the US Pirate Party as well, a position I have held in the past (and stepped down from to form PPI, to go full circle back to the start) and as a result, PPI has never sought the US Party (or any of its state parties) as a member. One state (Florida) did join as an observer member, but there’s been no difference between it and other states as far as support goes.

PPI had such potential. It had the means to really push the Pirate movement forward. It could have been a powerful instrument to spread the pirate message and aid parties to fulfill their aims. Instead it has become a private vehicle of privilege, and one that has caused division, strife and wasted effort. It’s such a shame, as it has set the Pirate movement back several years. At least now parties are starting to see it for what it is, and attempt to put PPI behind them, leaving them free to pursue the work of their members, without choking on the detritus of arrogant self-interest.

PPUK has national elections in only a few months, USPP is facing a make-or-break year. Without the distraction of PPI, both should be able to operate to their fullest potential, especially with the help of international cooperation free of personal ambition. Yes, international cooperation exists despite (or should that be because of) PPI and, if nothing else, spells doom for PPI.

Portrait of Andrew Norton

Image used with courtesy from Andrew Norton.

Andrew Norton is the Chair of the United States Pirate Party and the first head of the international umbrella organization Pirate Parties International, as well as a Governor of the UK Pirate Party and Vice Chair of Pirate Party of Georgia.

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