The Internet Party: A progressive force?

Kim-Dotcom-and-Internet-Party-logo--Getty-Images

By Byron Clark, Fightback (Christchurch).

The Internet Party is going to fundamentally change this country’s political landscape, apparently. It’s unusual for a party that has not registered with the electoral commission, and who haven’t announced any concrete policy or candidates, to be viewed in such high regard by the media, yet we are seeing comments like “something fantastic is brewing for New Zealand and I for one am watching happily as it unfolds,” from Derek Handley in the National Business Review, the publication that for one reason or another has given the party the most coverage. “Kim Dotcom will unleash the force of innovation and the internet in the electoral and democratic process,” claims Handley, what exactly he means by that is unclear.

The vague policy points that Internet Party have so far around issues of surveillance and high speed internet are not exactly new and exciting. “The emergence of the Internet Party is somewhat frustrating for the Greens,” writes former Green MP and intelligence spokesperson Keith Locke on The Daily Blog, “given that pretty much all of the Internet Party’s policies (such as internet freedom, defending privacy and withdrawing from the Five Eyes) are already Green policy.”

Locke seems to agree the the new party will be significant though, stating that “the Internet Party and the Greens, together, will be able to push [these issues] more strongly in the election,” and that “the Internet Party helps legitimise Green policies,” implying the policies of parliament’s third largest party need to be legitimised by what could turn out to be nothing more than the latest plaything from the mind of an eccentric millionaire.

Maybe its not the policy that is exciting, but how that policy comes to be. For Vikram Kumar, the former CEO of Kim Dotcom’s Mega.co.nz service who resigned to become general secretary of the new party, “the process of making the Internet Party’s policies, in an inclusive and engaging manner, is as important as the policies themselves.” Presumably Kumar envisions an Internet based system for determining policy. Again this isn’t particularly new, democratic parties have always use some mechanism to create policy, there is nothing  fundamentally different if such a system uses the most up to date communication technology.

The German Pirate Party, with whom the Internet Party has been compared (though ‘Pirate’ is probably a word they are keen to avoid given Dotcom’s circumstances) who have several MPs use an online system called ‘Liquidfeedback’ to shape policy, but the system doesn’t yield anything  particularly profound. “The ridiculous truth about the Pirates,” German Green MP Volker Beck told an interviewer in 2012, “is that they take our proposals from parliament and put in in their Liquidfeedback to discuss… they are taking up our content and [proposing it] as their own”

Liquidfeedback does even less good when the Party is voting on issues of little concern to its membership, when members don’t bother using it. The magazine Der Spiegel  described it as “a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate”.

“The Internet and technology are tools and ways of thinking,” writes Kumar. He is only half right. Somewhat confusingly he states that “Technologists know… that technical solutions to essentially political or business problems don’t work,” but also “it is up to us, whether by design or plodding along, to build a future for New Zealand we want. I believe the Internet Party can catalyse discussions about both the design itself as well as the need for a design in the first place. It’s not only what the State does but how.”

If by “design” he means reshaping the democratic process with a Liquidfeedback type system the future will likely be dead on arrival.

A left-wing option?

With policies most in common with The Green Party the Internet Party appears to be a left-wing option, the involvement of blogger Martin Bradbury, and former Scoop.co.nz editor Alistair Thompson lend credence to that idea. Kim Dotcom however is a capitalist by any definition. He is anti-establishment in that he represents a new media group of capitalists who are going up against states who have taken the side of the old media elite.

When manufacturing based industries began to decline in the USA and intellectual property based industry (such as film, music and software) became a substantial part of the American economy, laws were written to favour copyright holders and protect intellectual property. Among other changes, copyright terms were extended and copyright violation was turned into a criminal offence rather than a civil matter.

While New Zealand may seem a long way from the US, that didn’t stop Dotcom’s mansion being raided by armed police due to alleged copyright violation. Something that should seem ridiculous. In fact,  leaked US embassy cables from the trove released by Chelsea Manning show that a great deal of lobbying went into an effort for local intellectual property laws to reflect those of the USA.

The lobbying efforts for US-friendly copyright and intellectual property law continue through the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPPA), with John Key’s trip to Hollywood, and intellectual property negotiators from the US Trade Representative’s Office visiting Wellington.

Dotcom can take a populist anti-TPPA position that is no way in conflict with his business interests, such as when he told Russia Today two days before the announcement of the Internet Party, “What Hollywood is trying to do is basically to turn the internet into a totally censored and controlled network to their liking, and that’s what I’m fighting against.”

He’s not alone of course, no doubt Amazon.com would like to see copyright reform that let them create thousands of new ebooks that could be sold cheap but profitably without paying royalties to the authors, and Google would love to stream every possible movie and TV show on Youtube (with their own advertising of course).

But while the founders of Google and the CEO of Amazon.com are among the 85 people who together own more wealth than half the planets population, Kim Dotcom is relatively small player, allowing him to keep his folk-hero status even at a time when the wealthy are increasingly disliked and distrusted.

Kumar wrote in his NBR piece that, “the things that New Zealanders typically care about when voting can all benefit significantly from the Internet and technology. This includes the economy, jobs, health, education, and inequalities.” He doesn’t elaborate on how ‘the internet’ or ‘technology’ will solve inequality, in fact he goes on to say that “technological innovation not only perpetuates but amplifies societal divides.”

If not left, then what?

Some have been quick to label the party as ‘libertarian’, a political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens. Certainly the announced policies of the Internet Party would not be out of place in a Libertarian manifesto. Pure libertarianism with its talk of dismantling the welfare state and abolishing the minimum wage has never been popular in New Zealand for obvious reasons (as we go to press the electoral commission has just deregistered the Libertarianz Party, most likely meaning they now have less than 500 members).

The Internet Party is unlikely to veer to that extreme, and more than likely it will want public money to fund the broadband internet infrastructure required for the high-tech future they appear to envision, as well as expecting the state to pick up the tap for the education required to create ‘internet-economy’ IT professionals, in line with how things are done in actually-existing capitalism.

The question must be asked though, with all the talk of innovation and entrepreneurship; quickly moving on from the brief mention of inequality Kumar praises “technologists” Rob Fyfe of Air New Zealand and Sir Ralph Norris of ASB Bank. Kumar then asks readers to “consider the simple yet immensely powerful call from the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan for New Zealand to be a country where talent wants to live.” How would Internet Party MP’s vote on issues such as raising the business and high income tax rates to fund social programmes? Or bringing about protections for casualised workers?

But will they get anywhere?

Despite the hype, there has been no obvious groundswell of support for the Internet Party. While the press release for the first Roy Morgan poll conducted since the party was announced noted their existence, they failed to make a showing in the actual poll. Perhaps when the party registers with the electoral commission, announces some candidates and policy and begins a campaign funded out of Kim Dotcom’s deep pockets they will improve their polling, but its hard to say for certain.

Much of the media optimism about the Internet Party has spoke of their potential to bring members of generation Y who didn’t vote in 2011 to the polls. This view is somewhat condescending – members of this generation have concerns greater than their internet speed, things like student debt, insecure work and the falling prospect of home ownership, just to name a few examples. While digital populism may motivate some young voters, the Internet Party does not represent the alternative needed to address these concerns.

While progressives may share some common ground with the Internet Party, there is no sign that it represents a progressive force.

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