Web Platform Makes Professor Most Powerful Pirate

PHOTO: Delegates of the Pirate Party sit in front of their computers at the third state party meeting in Anderbach, Germany, Oct. 2, 2011.

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 proposals.

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 site.

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 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 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.

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