An Open Response to Peter Sunde

Dear Peter:

I read this morning on Motherboard that you have “given up your fight for the Internet.”  This is the second time I’ve come across a public statement in which you say you are throwing in the towel on the ideological principles you, your partners, and your political allies believe were manifest by operating The Pirate Bay. And it’s the second time I’ve been motivated to respond.

The aspect of your recent statement that I find most striking is that one of your core complaints about the Internet we have today—the money-for-nothing Internet—is actually aligned with many of the same criticisms that I and my copyright-supporting colleagues have of the business models that tend to dominate Silicon Valley enterprises.  But the thing you clearly don’t get, Peter, is that this is the Internet you helped create.  You say the following:

“Look at all the biggest companies in the world, they are all based on the internet. Look at what they are selling: nothing. Facebook has no product. Airbnb, the biggest hotel chain in the world, has no hotels. Uber, the biggest taxi company in the world, has no taxis whatsoever.

The amount of employees in these companies are smaller then ever before and the profits are, in turn, larger. Apple and Google are passing oil companies by far. Minecraft got sold for $2.6 billion and WhatsApp for like $19 billion. These are insane amounts of money for nothing. That is why the internet and capitalism are so in love with each other.”

In a sense, you’re exactly right.  The stock market valuation of these companies is insane and most likely toxic. Many of these Internet giants that produce neither goods nor jobs nor any real progress, are designed predominantly to cannibalize what already exists in the market; and they entice investors with short-term ROI while creating no apparent long-term value.   But Peter, this is the culture you and your colleagues promoted.  This is what comes of evangelizing the idea that it’s okay to exploit other people’s investment of real labor and real capital in goods and services that would otherwise have regenerative value. And exploiting these types of investments is precisely what you and your colleagues did with The Pirate Bay.

At least part of the Internet you don’t like is what comes of preaching to a whole generation that they can have whatever they want, free of charge, as long as it’s just a mouse click away.  And indeed, we are lately seeing the wheels come off that naive (and frankly predatory) idea. As the leaders of Pandora and Spotify begin to see that “freemium” isn’t a business model; as Facebook’s video service “freeboots” the promised ad-share value out of the pockets of YouTube creators; and as the global network of pirate sites is revealed to be a malware-infested and sophisticated black market that preys on individual consumers, you seem to have missed the point, Peter. The “fight” you lost is not with the MPAA and the principles of real capitalism—but with the unfettered greed you helped foster on the Internet you asked for.

Capitalism isn’t really the problem. Done right, capitalism is by-and-large how a truly free society prospers.  And I believe that in my country—which is both free and capitalist—we have unfortunately regressed since the late-20th century in striking the right balance between the free market and necessary boundaries imposed upon that market. As a result, we have fostered a dangerous state of wealth consolidation and a corporate influence on public policy almost matching that of the Robber Barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These forces are fueling a reactionary and populist trend in my country’s politics that you have stated you hope gets worse quickly so the whole capitalist system fails fast, so that people like you still have time to “fix” the world.  You say that you have failed, Peter, and you have. But you don’t understand why.

You do not recognize that you and your friends already ran a computer model on the world you envision and watched it fail.  Yet, you have learned nothing from your experiment.  You say, “I know Marx and communism did not work before, but I think in the future you have the possibility of having total communism and equal access to everything for everybody.”  This may be one of the most revealing statements that an evangelist of the “pirate ethos” has ever made.  Because, Peter, you have already personified—even dabbled in—the worst ills of capitalism that Marx accurately identified, but you are also mucking about in the absurdity of communism to which Marx was entirely blind.

As founder/operator of The Pirate Bay, you became a rapacious capitalist, exploiting human labor and rejecting certain legal boundaries designed to protect the rights of that labor.  Marx warned against this kind of exploitation, and he was right.  But in your persistent belief that technology alone—like Marx’s abolition of private property—will naturally create “equal access to everything for everybody,” you are as naive as Marx in that you forget to do the rest of the math. You fail to ask the question, “Who is going to produce the everything to which everyone is entitled equal access?”

Perhaps you forget that Karl Marx lived a great deal of his life sponging off the generosity of his pal Friedrich Engels, much as you perhaps still don’t seem to understand that The Pirate Bay only existed by sponging off the works of filmmakers, musicians, etc.  And even as you admit defeat in what you believe was a fight for the soul of the Internet, it’s interesting that you do not see a parallel between the collapsed Soviet Union and your failed experiment in media piracy. Both quite expectedly transitioned from a centralized—perhaps even idealized—form of labor exploitation to what is now a broadly distributed network of corruption and organized criminal activity.

I realize that your native Sweden is among the most socialist nations in Europe, that it enjoys a very high standard of living due to its unique fortune to maintain a golden balance between socialist and capitalist policy. I also recognize that a belief that “communism could still work” is a popular notion among many millennials, including some number in the United States.  But I strongly believe this sentiment is partly due to pure naiveté; it is partly a reaction to our failure to reign in the worst abuses of capitalism; and it is partly the result of your generation growing up spoiled by all the free stuff available via your digital toys.  (And that last part is your fault, Peter.)  While I do believe my country might learn a few things (e.g. in areas like education and healthcare) from our more socialist cousins in Europe, there is always a danger in failing to at least understand whence things come, whether we’re talking about a habitable planet or a work of fiction or even those digital toys themselves.

In fact, the computer or smart phone in your hand, which has so profoundly shaped the world view of your contemporaries, would not exist without the very systems you hope come crashing to a halt so that you can presume to “fix” them. I know I cited these details in another post, but do you even know what’s in an iPhone, Peter?  Five metals that have to be mined in places like Chile, Peru, South Africa, and Australia; eight rare earth minerals, nearly all of which are mined in China; human labor performed in conditions of varying degrees of decency and depravity around the world; global shipping protected by international navies; stevedore and trucking and other labor regulated by various local unions or other systems of commerce; and a staggering array of international trade agreements and treaties, all so you can have a device on which you may tweet that you hope we have a “total system collapse.” Really?

Like so many people in your generation, Peter, you have passion and you have talent.  But if you want to change the world, you first have to grow up and get real about how it actually works.

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)