[governance] Web Platform Makes Professor Most Powerful Pirate

Riaz K Tayob riaz.tayob at gmail.com
Mon Mar 5 03:11:00 EST 2012


  Liquid Democracy

    Web Platform Makes Professor Most Powerful Pirate

By Sven Becker <mailto:Sven_Becker at spiegel.de>

Photos <http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/fotostrecke-79356.html>

*A linguistics professor in Bamberg is considered the most powerful 
member of Germany's burgeoning Pirate Party, even though he holds no 
office. Martin Haase engages in politics almost exclusively through the 
Internet using the party's Liquid Feedback software. The platform is 
flattening the political hierarchy and is unique among German political 
parties. *

Martin Haase doesn't have to give any hard-hitting speeches at party 
conferences, nor does he spend time at board meetings or in back rooms 
to hone his power. When the 49-year-old professor wants to engage in 
politics, he just opens his laptop and logs in to Liquid Feedback, the 
Pirate Party's online platform for discussing and voting on political 

For hours at a time, the political newcomers (the Pirates first formed 
in Germany in 2006) discuss their party's goals, and each member has the 
opportunity to use Liquid Feedback as a platform to promote his or her 
positions -- which can range from the Pirate Party fielding its own 
presidential candidate to the appeal to deescalate the conflict with 
Iran. It isn't always easy to secure a majority for a given cause on the 

Until Haase intervenes, that is. The linguistics professor has a sort of 
virtual alliance backing him on Liquid Feedback. Up to 167 fellow party 
members have periodically delegated their vote to him on the site, which 
is more than any other Pirate Party 
<http://www.spiegel.de/international/topic/pirate_party/> member can 
claim. When members recently argued against extending the term of their 
national leadership by two years, Haase intervened. Annual elections of 
the executive committee would mean the members would have to spend too 
much time dealing with getting reelected rather than devoting their 
attention to the real issues. "We need more time for political work," he 
said. Haase's vote was like a decree.

*Seven Percent Support Nationwide*

Polls show the Pirate Party enjoying the support of up to 7 percent of 
voters nationwide. It has secured seats 
<http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,787044,00.html> in 
the parliament of the city-state of Berlin, and in a few weeks it could 
also enter the parliaments of two other states, Saarland in the west and 
Schleswig-Holstein in the north.

Many voters aren't quite sure what exactly the Pirates stand for. 
Perhaps its open and straightforward participation in the political 
process will attract more public support. And it's possible the party 
will only become attractive through careers like that of Haase, who 
became arguably the most powerful Pirate without even holding an office 
in the party.

On a winter's day, the professor is standing in a lecture hall at the 
University of Bamberg, talking about how language was used as a 
political tool at the time of the French Revolution. After the overthrow 
of the monarchy, the new leadership wanted to eliminate dialects and 
regional languages. It wanted people to speak only French, so that they 
could understand the ideas of the revolution. "Freedom through 
oppression," Haase says to his students. It's a view to which he has a 
strong aversion.

Haase, an impish-looking man with a three-day stubble, holds a 
professorship for Romance studies and speaks nine languages. But the 
digital world is just as important to him, and it's been that way for 
more than 20 years. He had an email address as far back as 1991, when 
unfiltered information still flowed from one Internet exchange point to 
the next. It was a time of freedom, the same freedom that continues to 
influence Haase's thinking today. "I feel violated when someone tries to 
block information," he says.

Starting in 2003 Haase, who goes by the name "Maha" on the Internet, and 
others developed the German version of Wikipedia 
<http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,690402,00.html>. He 
later became a member of the board of the Chaos Computer Club, the 
globally influential German hacking association. Initially, he was 
skeptical about the Pirates. Haase saw how activist friends became 
interested in the organization but then gave up because it felt too 
chaotic to them.

This changed in 2009, with the Access Impediment Act, pushed through by 
then-German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen under the previous 
government to block websites that contained child pornography. Fearing 
it would violate freedom of speech by blocking websites and that it 
might set a precedent for further incursions on Net freedom, Web 
activists disparagingly dubbed the family minister "Zensursula," a play 
on the German word for censorship and the politician's first name. The 
law was passed and signed by Germany's president, but it has not been 
implemented by the government. Earlier this year Chancellor Angela 
Merkel's government said it would move to delete any websites that 
feature child pornography rather than block them. The Pirate Party's 
popularity surged as a result of the protests.

*A Net Movement Takes Shape*

The Net movement in Germany began in earnest around the same time as the 
"Zensursula" debate, and the Pirates became its strongest political 
wing. In an unexpected victory, the Pirate Party captured 0.9 percent of 
the vote in the June 2009 elections for the European Parliament, the 
legislative body in the European Union that is directly elected by 
citizens of the member states. Haase joined the party the very next day. 
For years, he had been sharply critical of the established parties for 
their incompetence on matters relating to Internet policy, but now he 
had found a political home. "It had a therapeutic effect on me," says Haase.

In the established parties, like the center-right Christian Democratic 
Union (CDU), the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green 
Party, he would have had to fight his way to the top, but not with the 
Pirates. Haase writes his own blogs, has more than 5,000 followers on 
Twitter and produces the Pirate podcast "Klabautercast" 
("Hobgoblincast"). As a result, he quickly made a name for himself in 
the community.

He also used his podcast to introduce a family and gender policy 
concept. Haase wants marriage and registered life partnership to be 
legally equal and to eliminate the tax advantages in Germany that are 
bestowed exclusively on heterosexual marriages. He also wants the 
government to stop documenting the gender of its citizens.

Together with allies, he campaigned for his proposal on Twitter and in 
Pirate forums, and then he introduced it on Liquid Feedback, where he 
soon found enough supporters. Haase won the non-binding vote on the 
Internet and, in November 2010, took the results to the party's national 
convention. His motion was accepted.

The open source Liquid Feedback software <http://liquidfeedback.org/> -- 
developed in Berlin and launched by the Pirates in 2010 -- is unique in 
German party politics. With the platform, issues that would previously 
only gradually find their way to the national leadership through local, 
district and state organizations can quickly gain momentum and 
importance, so that they can then be voted on at party conferences.

"It is difficult to vote against a clear opinion that is emerging on 
Liquid Feedback," says Haase, who, when he isn't teaching in Bamberg, 
lives in Berlin and is a member of the party's state organization there.

*A Powerful Professor*

Some fellow party members have so much confidence in Haase that they 
have given him their permanent vote on Liquid Feedback, meaning he can 
speak for them on all issues. This is referred to as "global 
delegation." Other supporters give him their blanket votes on specific 
issues only, such as education ("subject area delegation") or on a 
specific issue ("issue delegation").

The professor is one of the most active members of the online platform. 
He has submitted almost 30 motions on Liquid Feedback, and almost all 
have been accepted, says Haase. His ideas on education, integration and 
family policy, for example, shape the party's profile. Haase has become 
the digital éminence grise of the Pirates, even though he has never held 
party office.

Even Pirate Party Chairman Sebastian Nerz frequently gets a taste of the 
power the professor wields with his virtual votes. He and Haase have 
never met in person, but they have tangled with each other online, 
disagreeing over family policy or procedural questions on Liquid 
Feedback. Haase prevailed in both cases.

In other parties, when an ordinary member challenges the national 
chairman it triggers a political earthquake. In the Pirate Party, it's 
taken for granted.

"Maha doesn't grandstand, and yet he is approachable at any time," says 
Andreas Baum, the party's floor leader in the Berlin city parliament. 
"People trust him because he has never come across as a schemer," says 
Pavel Mayer, another Pirate Party member of the Berlin city parliament. 
For the two men, Haase embodies the concept of the grassroots Pirate, 
who seeks to bring about change but isn't interested in leadership 
positions. This appeals to people in a party that rejects authority.

The Pirates call their political approach "liquid democracy," meaning 
that for them everything flows, and there is indeed something fluid 
about the way they reach consensus on the Internet. Once gained, though, 
influence can disappear just as quickly.

This is also an experience Haase has had with Liquid Feedback. Many 
pirates gave him their votes in 2010, when the party was seeking to 
define its position on the concept of an unconditional basic income 
guarantee. They were confident that Haase would support it. To their 
surprise, however, he transferred his votes to another party member, who 
voted against the motion, and was defeated.

As a linguist, says Haase, he was also opposed to the initiative because 
of linguistic weaknesses. But this didn't convince his supporters, and 
about 50 Pirates promptly withdrew the votes they had assigned to him. 
Haase eventually approved a revised motion, and since then the number of 
members supporting him has gone up again.

/Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan/

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