The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Film Screening: “Internet Freedom” and Policy Beta: A Short Documentary on the UK Pirate Party’s Policy Crowdsourcing Platform

Date: Friday 26 September 2014
Time: 13:30-15:00
Room: Seminar Room 8


Adam Fish, Lancaster University

Erhan Oze,  Lancaster University


This presentation will feature a discussion and screening of a short works-in-progress documentary video investigating the concept of “internet freedom” in the making of a crowdsourcing policy platform, Policy Beta, by the Pirate Party of the United Kingdom (UKPP). The UKPP is a small international political party with representatives working in governments in Germany, Sweden, Iceland, and the European Union. In the UK they have yet to be elected to public office but they have initiated a number of campaigns combining both in-person grassroots and virtual campaigning. The Pirate Party is known for their stance against internet-based copyright, censorship, and warrantless domestic surveillance, issues that can be summarized in the general notion of “internet freedom.” Contradictions in ideals and implementation abound in such inclusive notions and political parties. For instance, for a technoprogressive individual, internet freedom means the regulatory protection of internet-based civil liberties—personal privacy, free political speech, etc. For a technolibertarian, however, internet freedom means economic expansion unencumbered by the regulations technoprogressive require. Within the UKPP exist both political persuasions. What illuminating tensions are revealed when both ideological sects argue their technoutopian view throughout the policy crowdsourcing platform production process? 

The use of technologies to address issues of political engagement and inclusion is widespread in governments throughout the world. But few political parties compare with the Pirate Party in appropriating technologies to solve political problems. As Steve Kettmann (2012) said in the New York Times, “If Mr. Obama had followed the Pirate method, he would not only have sent updates via Facebook and Twitter, but he would have involved larger numbers of supporters in an extensive dialogue and given them an actual say in determining such priorities as which issues to pursue in the first months in office.” Obama did initiate a crowdsourcing platform in their White House petitions and Engage and Connect initiatives, claiming to be the “most open and participatory administration in history” (White House, Engage). The UKPP reviewed potential platforms to use in crowdsourcing their political manifesto writing process. In 2012 they used Reddit, “the frontpage of the internet,” as a way to crowdsource policy from UKPP membership. Thousands used Reddit and the platform was remarkably successful for drafting policy, collating various arguments for and against policy, collecting evidentiary articles, and gauging levels of interest in different pieces of policy. The use of Reddit as a platform, however, necessitated a huge amount of clerical effort from the UKPP management in order to finalise policy beyond the evidentiary phase and create viable policy for membership’s final vote. Other problems with using Reddit included the inability to collect valuable metadata about their participants—necessary for future campaigning and a Reddit branding which enabled them to exploit the Reddit fanbase but did not allow the UKPP to properly brand the exercise as UKPP project. In order to offshore the clerical work to the technology and the crowd, be able to reap the constituency metadata, and brand it correctly, the UKPP sought to create a new in-house policy crowdsoucing platform. Policy Beta builds upon this earlier experiment in developing a functional prototype or private beta release which allows not only the UKPP constituency, but any entity, to crowdsource public policy from its origins in either a problem (which must be solved) or an idea (which answers a specific problem) and shepherds it with as much automation as possible through the three phases of development: proposal, interrogation and policy submission. In generating Policy Beta, the UKPP draw upon its international network of open-source software enthusiasts, code from the Icelandic Pirate Party, and the German Pirate Parties’ Liquid Feedback platform. Featuring footage from the first Policy Beta brainstorming sessions, interviews with scholars such as Nick Couldry and Henry Jenkins critical of “internet freedom,” and discussions with elected UKPP officials, this 10-15-minute video will explore the challenges of funding, making, using, and making sense of a policy crowdsourcing platform in the context of contradictory ideologies and political objectives.

Policy Beta reveals the mutual construction of political sociality and technology and in the process intervenes within debates central to science and technology and critical media studies. Social constructivists agree that technologies are not neutral (Pinch and Bijker 1984), anthropologists of free and open source software suggest that hackers argue through technology (Kelty 2008), while there are long traditions of media scholars believing that technological bases determine superstructural forms (Mumford 1934) or that humans gather their values from technology (Kittler 1999). Policy Beta is a technological boundary object through which political conflicts are resolved through discursive compromises (Starr and Griesemer 1989). Do some political persuasions better harmonize with the horizontal and inclusive crowdsourcing and policy process than others? Through the experimental ethnography of the production of Policy Beta technoutopian ideals meet the technological realities and in the process a political party matures. 

In 2014, in addition to some limited available UKPP funds, the UKPP was granted monies by Lancaster University and Catalyst, an interdisciplinary research project focused on citizen-led and digital innovation. Funding for the student-led documentary production was provided by a knowledge exchange grant administered by Lancaster University staff. Without the funding provided by Lancaster University neither Policy Beta nor the documentary about its production would happen. While funding may seem ancillary to the functionality of Policy Beta, Policy Beta must be conceptualized as a social assemblage constituted by diverse actors, technologies, and economics (Schwittay 2011, De Landa 2006). A reflexive discussion of the economic genesis of Policy Beta reveals how formal social organizations with traditional bureaucratic structures are often required for the production lateral crowdsourcing practices. The tensions between bureaucracy and decentralization are also evident in events in the documentary as UKPP management argue about how to best use their vertical positionality in the production of horizontal crowdsourcing opportunities. This documentary provides visual evidence to support the claim that there are symbiotic relationships between formal social organizations and organized publics (Fish et al. 2012). These relationships also code a research ethicality as the university researchers claiming to do observational research actually create the context—the production of Policy Beta—in order to study it with visual anthropological techniques. The filmmaker who has made 18 short television documentary and several feature-length films will be present to discuss these issues.

Works Cited

De Landa, Manuel. 2006. A New Philosophy of Society: assemblage theory and social complexity, London & New York: Continuum

Fish, A., Murillo, L. F. R., Nguyen, L., Panofsky, A. & Kelty, C. M. 2011. Birds of the Internet — Towards a field guide to the organization and governance of participation. Journal of Cultural Economy, 4(2), 157-187.

Kelty, Christopher. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Kettmann, Steve. 2012. New Politics, Ahoy! New York Times, accessed March 13, 2014:

Kitter, Fredrich. 1999. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Mumford, Lewis. 1934. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co.

Pinch, Trevor J. and Wiebe E. Bijker. 1984 "The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other." Social Studies of Science14 (August 1984): 399-441.

Schwittay, A. F. 2011. The Financial Inclusion Assemblage: Subjects, technics, rationalities. Critique of Anthropology, 31(4), 381–401.

Star, Susan; Griesemer, James 1989. "Institutional Ecology, 'Translations' and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39".Social Studies of Science 19 (3): 387–420.

White House, Engage, Accessed March 13, 2014.

Adam Fish,