Decentralize the Internet: Peter Sunde Interview
By: Yazan al-Saadi
Published Friday, October 5, 2012
SHARE Beirut is a weekend-long conference celebrating “open, decentralized and accessible forms of communication.” This event brings many digital pioneers to the Lebanese capital. Al-Akhbar posed some questions to one of SHARE’s guest speakers, The Pirate Bay’s Peter Sunde.
Peter Sunde Kolmisoppi is a pirate. He is a member of a breed of “outlaws” redefining our use and understanding of the cyberworld.
He is part of a movement challenging powerful nations and commanding corporations in an epic, yet virtually concealed, struggle to maintain an open and decentralized Internet.
“The internet is being controlled by a corrupt industry. We need to stop it,” he once wrote in a short piece for Wired, a prominent American magazine, in which he argued that file-sharing is a product of democratic evolution.
At the age of 34, Sunde has already left a considerable mark in this fight.
In 2008, Sunde, together with Fredrik Neij and Gottfrid Svartholm, founded The Pirate Bay (TPB), the largest and arguably the most influential file-sharing site online, which continues to be operational despite unceasing legal actions by Western states and cyber attacks from unknown quarters.
Two years later, Sunde announced the formation of Flattr, a micro-payments system which enables websites viewers to make small donations in an attempt to generate financial support for alternative, independent web content.
While Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal are committed to a financial embargo against WikiLeaks for publishing the infamous US diplomatic cables in 2010, Flattr continues to facilitate donations to the ground-breaking whistle-blower site.
Al-Akhbar conducted an interview with Sunde, in which he briefly touched upon the idea behind the culture of file-sharing, the potential political-economic ramifications of such a movement, and speculations regarding its future.
Yazan al-Saadi: The Pirate Bay is the largest and one of the oldest BitTorrent sites online. It has inspired others to follow suit and has even inspired a growing political movement in Europe. Did you and your partners expect such a major effect when you first started? What were some of the motivations behind the founding of TPB and is the site currently matching those early hopes?
Peter Sunde: We had no idea that it would ever take off. We wanted to achieve a few goals: make a Scandinavian file sharing forum, educate people on the (then) new BitTorrent technology since it's much safer and faster than the protocols that were in use at that time (mostly Direct Connect) and we wanted to take a stance and openly discuss file sharing and it's political importance. We decided when we got our first legal threat that we should take a stand for the internet instead of being censored. All other sites unexpectedly decided to close down under these threats so in the end we became the biggest site by durability and stubbornness rather than technology.
Today the site is doing exactly the same – being stubborn and durable. I'm proud of that, although I'm sad that TPB is still needed and that there is little or no competition. We always wanted infinite options, not one single site to rule the net.
YS: How do you tackle criticisms that file-sharing is a form of stealing? In particular, how do you respond to critics who argue that file-sharing sites have an adverse effect on struggling artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and others?
PS: Easy – look up "theft" or "stealing" in a dictionary. It means that you're removing someones ability to use a certain item. A copy is something totally different. Those people using the words theft or stealing have decided to argue using bad rhetoric instead of understanding the issue. To have a discussion, we need to agree on where the discussion lies.
Sitting on one’s ass screaming words that have nothing to do with the debate is not getting anyone anywhere.
All studies also show the same thing: 99.9999 percent win from file sharing. The people that lose are the ones that are trying to control distribution that no longer have a place in the online world. That would also be the ones using the word "stealing" – the record companies and copyright dealers. They happen to have a really good connection to mainstream media (actually most of the mainstream media in the US or Europe is owned by these companies, like FOX, CBS, Bertelsmann, Vivendi, etc.) so the discussion about file sharing has [received] unfair treatment in the media.
YS: BayFiles seems to be a “legal” form of file-sharing. Was it in response to certain ethical concerns or was it a response to the growing legal difficulties you were facing at the time?
PS: BayFiles was started since there was a need for "cloud services" that could be trusted. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox and so on are all censoring their users and handing out personal information to third parties.
Most of them are based in the US and must cooperate with their local legislation. We understand that, but it's also a problem since the US should not have access by default to data about a citizen and resident in for instance Sweden, Finland, Lebanon or New Zealand for that matter.
This is an increasing problem on the internet: we centralize data towards being located in the US, with the US building more and more control over the internet itself that way.
We want a global network, distributed and fair. Not run by any single country. The US itself is not the problem I must add – it's that it's just a country with a history of not respecting other countries borders or legislation.
YS: Do you think that the legal actions by states are supported by the public at large? In other words, based on your personal experiences and interactions, is the public aware and sympathetic to the idea of open-source and file-sharing?
PS: The public wants it. Definitely. I have met only a handful of people in my life who are not users of The Pirate Bay or other file sharing systems. These are people that I've met at debates or conferences that are there because they are one of very few people opposing the idea of distributed culture.
I can also say that most, if not all, have a direct financial connection to the record companies. For instance, the main person speaking against file-sharing in Sweden is always presented as the editor of an "open discussion about the negative impacts of the internet," but he just happens to also be the employed spokesperson for the PC gaming industry, since ages ago.
Personally, I daily receive e-mails and messages from people around the world that are so happy that we've been able to help them in their lives. People tattoo the TPB ship or the cassette logo on their bodies and proudly wear t-shirts with pirate logos. It's about taking back our own cultural heritage and people need that.
YS: Would you say that the various copyright laws are exceedingly becoming obsolete in this interconnected digital world? If so, what changes would you like to see in the laws concerning copyright that would be considered most fair to all the parties involved?
PS: The copyright laws never really matched the public views on copyright. It's because copyright is a really boring subject and no one was interested. It was illegal 30 years ago to copy a cassette, but people still did it. No one from the industry cared because there was no public discussion about it.
The big difference with the internet growing has been that criticism of the copyright regime has become public awareness. The copyright holders therefor abuse their large media network to try to stop that discussion, while spending billions of dollars on lawsuits, lobbying and direct illegal actions like bribery.
Most people do not care about copyright at all. This should be reflected in the copyright law. Few would mind copyright if it was just regulations between two financial parties (i.e. company to company) as long as it does not limit our personal cultural life. Copyright was actually meant to ensure that people received fair treatment. It's not today – it's one of the most powerful tools for censoring competition now.
YS: In the last few years, major states have increased their onslaught on various file-sharing and similar free-based sites like Megaupload. Do you think the culture will survive these growing challenges? How do you see the evolution of fire-sharing in the near future?
PS: Culture will always survive because it's in every single human being. File-sharing is just a small part of how to distribute it – actually this is a very boring part of the culture itself. The interesting part is that file-sharing is inviting everyone to participate which is why it has been exploding so much – and why the people that are used to controlling entertainment and culture are so upset about it.
I hope that this is not the way forward, because I don't want people to feel that it's shady to file-share. We were all sure that BitTorrent would have been dead already, instead it's still growing. So forecasting the future of file-sharing is really hard. It will be sharing in the future, but we should not decide already which type. It's more fun waiting to see what clever people come up with.
YS: How do you see file-sharing and the concept of intellectual property rights in the context of the global political economy? In other words, historically nations have “stolen” technology and ideas from others in order to develop. In your opinion, how much are the restrictions by copyright and intellectual property control driven by political considerations?
PS: Look at the US! They have their position in the world because they have been bombarding the world with Hollywood movies in order to get the American world view out. Every single country in the world (besides maybe North Korea) sells Coca-Cola, knows about Pizza Hut, McDonald's and other American companies – even before they come to the country. "The American dream" has been penetrating every single country for decades.
The view on capitalism in countries that have been classically socialist or social democracies has been challenged because of the American cultural influence. The culture paved the way for all of this.
I travel a lot and I can always meet another person that I can discuss the same culture with – and it's sadly mostly American. It has become the world standard. And of course it's making it easier for American politics around the world – we all feel that we understand the US and that we actually know the country.
This is also one of the things I hate about file-sharing – a lot of people file-share mostly the same propaganda stuff that is being pushed through the world. I'm happy that the shift right now is going towards sharing more and more works from elsewhere in the world. The most popular movie on file-sharing systems the past month has been a movie from Indonesia!
YS: Your current company, Flattr, offers an alternative form of payment to that of Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and so on. How successful has this micro-financing project been for you? How far do you see Flattr becoming an influential and significant alternative to the payment systems in place? What is the end goal you envision for the company?
PS: Flattr is still a company in development. It's still not making a profit, but the idea is to build a solid system that will grow. It's been successful in some aspects. In others, we're still trying to find a better solution. Some people live off the income they have from the system, others make enough to take a day or two off work.
The problem I think we have is that most people have the idea that a system like Flattr is not successful if one cannot make their whole income from it or replace another payment system in total. We're not a new PayPal, we're not a credit card company. We're one of many systems one should use in order to fund projects and share money. It's like the internet in general – one single thing can't do it all, yet people always look for that. One doesn't use a fork as a car or a spoon to clean a window…
The goal I have personally is to make it possible for people to share money as easy as they share files on the Internet. In a fair way, relative to one’s income.
YS: Flattr is currently offering payments for WikiLeaks. Would Flattr offer the same services to other entities or countries facing embargoes and sanctions by Western states?
PS: As long as they’re not illegal to send money to in the country we operate in (Sweden), we'll allow anyone to use the service. We can't impose moral judgement on our users – that's censorship and totally against what we believe in! We'd rather see a world where one fights stupid ideas with better ideas.
Not allowing WikiLeaks to receive money on Paypal/Visa/Mastercard was an illegal action taken by these companies. VISA actually lost [its case] in a court in Iceland because of the censorship. I always talk about how centralized the internet has become, but money flows are even more regulated and centralized. It's a problem for all of humanity that we've moved our economy to a few companies, all operated out of the same country, yet again the US.
We need to understand that centralization is always going to be a problem for diversity, no matter how good the intentions might actually have been…