16 August 2023

Bailey Lamon was just settling in to watch a movie with her boyfriend when they were disturbed by a knock at the door. Bailey went to open it, and was confronted by ten police officers, one with a gun out. The cops placed her and her boyfriend under arrest, citing only the non-descript charges of “mischief” and “conspiracy.”

The next day, it was revealed that the “mischief” in question was in fact an act of vandalism. Bailey and her roommate, members of a media collective that had grown out of the occupy movement, had painted a brick; black, with red text saying, “I’m not just another brick in the wall.”

The judge reduced their release conditions to, in Bailey’s words “no markers, no spray paint”. In the end they wouldn’t be convicted or get criminal records – instead they performed court-ordered “restitution”, specifically, they helped out at the same Food not Bombs table they had previously volunteered at. 

From activism to digital democracy

While the consequences might not have been severe, the vindictive nature of the raid and arrest left a strong impression on Bailey. Documents presented to the court showed that police had been monitoring her and her roommates’ online activity – including the post showing the brick. She was also concerned that the police had been able to search the personal devices taken from her apartment during the raid.

This hardened her political resolve, and drove her towards online activism, and ultimately, digital democracy. 

She started using encrypted services like Signal and PGP. She encrypted her devices. She educated herself on how police forces used technology to surveil political activists. All this led to her “re-finding” the Pirate Party, which she had been previously aware of, as part of the general revolutionary milieu. She had gotten to know them during campaigns to support whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. “Wikileaks was big,” she recalls, “Anonymous was active.”

This was all back between 2011 and 2013, in Bailey’s hometown of London, Ontario, about two hours drive from Toronto. 

The party she describes joining was a bit of a ‘Frankenstein’ – a chaotic alliance including anti-capitalist anarchists (like her) and libertarian entrepreneurs, like the party’s Swedish founder Rick Falkvinge. “I see those people come together all the time and agree,” says Bailey, “in support of whistle-blowers, anti-surveillance, copyright reform,” and “common values around human rights, digital rights, social justice.” 

“Pirate is a state of mind,” she adds. 

Digital tools in internal party collaboration 

As well as a state of mind, the tools used by this new party were new and different – the digital natives who comprised its membership gravitating naturally to an online first approach. No comprehensive list of all the different tools used by the various nation states exists, as experimentation and innovation was freewheeling. “Liquid democracy,” she says, referring to the free delegation of political authority, “was a big thing for a while.”

At the time she joined, the Canadian Pirates were using Loomio, an open source, distributed decision making and voting platform with an origin story linked to Occupy New Zealand, as their key managerial framework. This was, and remains popular, with many of the national pirate parties around the world. So was the use of wikis as a way of developing and capturing policy ideas. 

Over the next ten years she would get ever more involved with the Canadian Pirate Party, first as an ordinary member, then after a period of increasingly active involvement, as party president, which in Canada, she is quick to point out, is an inwards facing management role, not party leader. Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is the leader of the Liberal party, but the much less well known Sachit Mehra is its president.

In the end Canadian Pirates would struggle, and eventually fail to stay registered. Part of the problem, says Bailey, was getting the very online membership to print, sign and send back physical paper forms.

However by then Bailey was also involved in Pirate Parties International, or PPI. PPI is a global body founded in Belgium in 2010, with 28 active member parties around the world, and a similar number of observer parties. Bailey was vice chair of PPI from 2016 till 2019, then chair from 2019 till 2023, before moving into the role of treasurer earlier this year.

Pirates and pioneers going global

Over the years, Pirate Parties would succeed in sending candidates to the European parliament (one of whom would leave the party due to what they considered an inadequate response to allegations of sexual harassment by one of their colleagues) and multiple national parliaments, even forming a government in Iceland, and ruling jointly in a coalition government in Czechia. They have two seats in the Luxembourg Chamber of Deputies, and, based on the polling, look set to keep them in elections to be held there later this year.

A map of Pirate Party activity. Dark orange (EU parliament representation) Yellow (elected nationally) Purple (elected locally) Dark Blue (registered for elections) Light Blue (registered in some administrative regions) Teal (unregistered but active) Grey (status unknown) (image: Wikipedia)

As the party has grown, the number and variety of the digital tools used has only increased. These can be as simple as Etherpad – an open source alternative to Google Docs that the Pirate Party International board uses for asynchronous voting, which is important given their global distribution. At the other end of the spectrum are custom-built native tools. Bailey explains:

It’s also worth noting that Pirates themselves have built their own tools which have been used in their parties and in PPI. For example a French Pirate built something called Congressus which let us take minutes as well as vote. 

A recurring debate within the party has been the use of proprietary versus open-source software. A key contention, early on, was the use of Zoom. 

One of the challenges we had in PPI a few years ago was figuring out where to have our meetings. At the time Zoom was the only video chatting tool that could actually sustain a meeting with the amount of people attending. Some people didn’t like that and understandably so, while others understood why we were using it. We were in a position where we had to choose between having functional meetings or using something “Pirate friendly.” We chose functionality until it was possible to switch to something both functional and in line with our values, which was BigBlueButton. Thankfully the open-source tools are improving tremendously.

Similar parties with varying experiences

While many of the challenges are the same, the experiences of Pirate Parties differ around the world.

In 2021, the Australian parliament raised the minimum membership requirement for registration from 500 to 1500. This put the Australian Pirate Party in a tough spot and led ultimately to its merger with the Science, Secular and Climate Emergency parties, all of whom faced similar issues with the new threshold. The Australian pirates continue as a ‘branch’ within the new “Fusion Party” – continuing to use digital technology within the branch, and promote its adoption among the broader party. As Miles Whiticker, an Australian Pirate Party member, who is now also a key figure in the newly formed Fusion party, puts it:

At present, we use a combination of Oyster, Opavote (online open source voting), Pirate MemberDB (inhouse software for member management), WordPress (website), Trello (task tracker), discord/IRC/matrix, Zoom/Jitsi, google docs, google drive, Nationbuilder (member management, website and outreach), and Zapier (social media automation).”

Miles, along with some of the other pirates, has also been involved in introducing independent councillors in the municipality of Yarra to a variety of democracy technologies. So far this has mostly been ”using google docs to enable collaborative and decentralised drafting for social media and comms,” and using social media to organise and share the results from “large (30-40) person street meetings,” with a longer-term goal of using Strawpoll and Opavote to “support community decision making.”

Once the pioneers on the wild frontiers of digital democracy, the Pirate Party seems to have moderated, only slightly over the years, resisting efforts to water down its message and broaden its appeal.

The strategy seems to be one of sticking to their vision and waiting for the world to catch up.

Time will tell. 

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