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The Origins and Impacts of Swedish Filesharing: A Case Study image
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If it is possible to speak of a coherent file-sharing movement in Sweden, what are the principal societal factors shaping it? This paper contextualises the recent history of Swedish peer-to-peer-based file-sharing as forming part of a wider shift in politics towards a late-modern collective ethic. Everyday file-sharers operate as ‘occasional activists’, as pirate institutions not only speak for, but also run and build the networks. Such institutions - The Pirate Bay, Piratbyrån, and The Pirate Party - cannot be explained by invoking market logics, online communitarianism, or political motivation alone. The cyberliberties activism animating these hubs is connected to the larger framework of balancing utilitarianism, nationalism, individual autonomy and collectivism in Sweden. Further, the emergent Swedish file-sharing justificatory regime hinges on a general view of what the internet is, what it is good for, and how it should look in the future, as the file-sharer argumentation rests on the inevitability of unrestricted file exchange on the internet, while the industrialist concerns of the cultural industries emphasize instead how exchange should be regulated and sanctioned by accountable providers.

P2P, Peer­-to-­peer, file­sharing, The Pirate Bay, cyberliberties, individualization, post­materialism, Sweden

by Jonas Andersson, Södertörn University, Sweden


When compared to the traditionalist, national bias of the established polity, digital politics [1] are characterised by a transnational, globalized and highly technophiliac exchange. The popularity of file-sharing, and the prevalence of activist hubs like The Pirate Bay, can be seen as indicative of a wider shift in late-modern societies that is not unique to Sweden, although I will argue in this article that Sweden can be seen as a particularly acute exponent of this development. International surveys (cf. Inglehart-Welzel, 2005), Swedish scholars (Berggren & Trägårdh, 2006; Ilshammar, 2010) and American scholars (Zuckerman, 2008) have established that Swedish society is one of the most secular-rational and self-expressivity-directed in the world, characterized also by a typically social-democrat legacy of egalita-rianism and high degrees of civil trust in the state, where individual autonomy is generated by means of a relatively strong state apparatus (Berggren & Trägårdh, 2006). However, as in many developed countries, the older, more authoritarian, statist order seems to be gradually replaced by more individualized values, stressing voluntary self-regulation (i.e. protocol-like forms of regulation; cf. Galloway, 2004) over mandatory regulation by means of the centre surveying the periphery (i.e. panoptic regulation). [2]

To begin with, I define peer-to-peer-based file-sharing as the unrestricted duplication of digitized media content between autonomous end-nodes on the Internet. During the last decade, it has become an extremely popular pastime – largely involving music, film, games and other media, which is copied without the permission of the copyright holders. Due to its illegality, the popular understanding of the phenome-non tends to overstate its conflictual elements, framing it within a legalistic ‘copyfight’. This is most markedly manifested in the dichotomized image of file-sharers as ‘pirates’ allegedly opposed to the entertainment industry. However, I do not believe that file-sharing is a phenomenon which is a priori opposed to the current, neo-liberal, capitalist world order. Instead, it is borne out of it – not least, since it hinges upon the individual end-user’s desire to acquire entertainment, and to maximise both pleasure and efficiency. In allowing for this consumer agency to come about – in aggregated, not entirely foreseeable ways – it has dislodged certain established industries (such as the sales of audio CDs), while creating potentials for entirely new ones. At the same time, file-sharing is being harnessed in ways that act as opposition to various centres of established, institutional order, while potentially reinforcing other forms of power and domination. As Patrick Burkart (2010) has showed, the dynamic between self-regulation and regulation from above is not a priori given. Commercial, sequestered portals like iTunes and Facebook would supplant everyday fan behaviour, like sharing music and trading tasks, with a form of voluntary self-surveillance, where community members knowingly adhere to standards and cultivate their obedience in order to personally gain from it. Like the self-regulation in p2p environments, this self-surveillance is voluntary. Yet, different infrastructures allow for altogether different scopes for action, and the infrastructures for p2p-based fibrle-sharing clearly allows for a wider range of such normalized uses and behaviours than commercial, proprietary infra-structures.

I want to contextualise file-sharing in Sweden, in an attempt to merge insights about the technical logic of file-sharing networks with socio-cultural insights. File-sharing allows for great latitude when it comes to the end-user, however requiring both knowledge and directed action on the side of the user, and an overarching ubiquity and standardization in terms of infrastructure. Ultimately, the article can be read as a case study of how subjects in late modernity are increasingly governed by means of an odd marriage of standardization and voluntary self-regulation, where the relative freedom of consumption entails a constant, reflexive management of the self.

Notes on Swedish modernity

Why has file-sharing become so popular in Sweden, and how does this country make for an interesting case study? The idea of a truly flat, de-territorialized panacea of globalization is largely a myth (Hafez, 2007). In fact, an allegedly ‘global’ media system like the internet is both locally produced and sequestered, in terms of language and infrastructure. [3] By taking concrete examples, and making particular case studies, we can reveal the complexity of an otherwise idealized image of this global network. My own research has focused on Swedish file-sharing; how it takes place, as well as how it is invoked and justified by the actors involved. In this article, I will outline how p2p-based file-sharing has seen a particularly strong development in Sweden, while having been referred to in various forms of public debate, to varying results. To begin with, I would argue that p2p-based file-sharing has been particularly prolific in Sweden, due to a range of factors.

(a) Sweden has had a very early establishment of fibre-based broadband, where upload as well as download speeds are high, compared to for example ADSL (which is more common in Britain). Especially for the younger generations, access to computers, smart phones and broadband are part of the quotidian.

(b) Sweden has also seen a significantly lively debate around file-sharing, also in the mainstream media. Consequently, the debate has arguably been relatively sophisticated compared to other countries, not least given the wide popularity and controversy of sites like The Pirate Bay (TPB) and the relative success of the Swedish Pirate Party in recent years.

(c) Not only are high degrees of technical competence common among the general population. Typical modern values, such as secular belief in rationality and self-fulfilment, are more extreme in Sweden than in virtually any other country (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005, Zuckerman, 2009). Sweden ranks extremely high in surveys of so-called ‘postmaterialist values’ (e.g. public concern for issues such as political participation, freedom of speech, environmental pro-tection and beautiful cities) compared to older, materialist values reflecting greater existential insecurity (e.g. public concern for issues such as economic endurance, rising food prices, or crime rates). The more widespread postmaterialist values are in a society, as they are in Sweden, the more the citizenry values personal autonomy (relative to income) as a source of subjective well-being:

Largely driven by rising standards of living and the widespread sense that existential security can be taken for granted, a sea change in value priorities has been taking place, away from materialist scarcity values towards post-materialist self-expression values. (Delhey, 2009: 31)

The older scarcity values tend to be rooted in a generational, collective experience of poverty and war, with industry, wage work, nation state, and class affiliation as its constitutive elements. Inglehart’s original observation (1971) has later been moderated and amended (see Abramson, 2011 for an overview), as postmaterialism has for example been adjoined by wider recognition of domestic work and feminized consumption (see Giddens, 1998). [4] According to Beck, Giddens and Lash (Beck, 1994) there is an emerging model of citizenship which is gradually superseding older modes of sociality: active individua-lism. These newer, more active forms of individualism try to make up for the potentially egoistic or opportunist attitudes of an individualistic way of life by striving for a ‘reflexive autonomy,’ meaning ‘a behaviour that respects and even highly esteems the different opinions and interests of other citizens and that voluntarily searches for civil contract with others. In this way, an independent individual should take care of social integration’ (Braun & Giraud, 2004: 48). In this mode of citizenship, the role of the state is to moderate and supervise the autonomous interactions of citizens, argue Braun & Giraud. Empowerment, self-esteem and entrepreneurial attitudes become para-mount. Moreover, the egalitarianism, hierarchy, cen-tralisation, and high levels of associative discipline and loyalty that are associated with the older, statist social order (Braun & Giraud, 2004; see also Thullberg & Östberg, 1994) are increasingly challenged by the ongoing trend towards individua-lization; something which is confirmed by Patrick Burkart’s characterization of the recent cyberliberties activism in Sweden as being part of an anti-authori-tarian, anti-statist impulse, visible not only in the politics of the Pirate Party but in the identity politics of feminist and environmentalist parties and movements as well (Burkart, forthcoming).

Like other social movements, pirate politics is conflicted between communalism aspiring to the attainment of a creative commons such as the public domain, and individualism consistent with liberal and anarchistic ideals. The communitarian perspective valorizes the public goods characteristics of digital cultures and the natural (i.e., untampered) Internet as providing online agora. (Burkart, forthcoming)

Following the postmaterialism thesis, this conflict would be indicative of a wider shift in social relations as developed societies tend to foster modes of social order that theorists such as Ulrich Beck, Zygmunt Bauman, Manuel Castells, and Anthony Giddens have outlined: more complex everyday relations, seemingly characterized more and more by choice (for good and for bad), and arrangements of personal management of one’s own identity and social relations. Moreover, the notion of ‘institutionalized individualism’ (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2001; originally outlined by Talcott Parsons) means that collective belonging is often esta-blished by means of mute, de-personalized agglome-ration, akin to what sociologists label gesellschaft (a term that was introduced in 1887 by Ferdinand Tönnies in order to characterize forms of social organization with few close relationships and responsibilities, low degrees of group loyalty, and where individuals act mainly out of rational, instrumental self interest).

Swedish scholars Berggren and Trägårdh (2006) have observed what they label a particularly Scandinavian ideal of equality, originally inherited from the political science of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here, the state guarantees that individuals will not to risk confrontation with other individuals out of anything else than free will. It can be seen as directly premised on Rousseau’s definition of ‘autonomous individualism’ facilitated by an abstract, evenly distri-buted dependence on the state as a legal safeguard against all interpersonal dependence (Berggren & Trägårdh, 2006: 44-50; see also Karlsson & Rider, 2006). This ideal, which might seem paradoxical at first, is different from traditional continental liberalism which places emphasis on secondary instances of power, acting as intermediaries against overly dominating state interference or monopoly (either by way of local communities / churches / corporations or by constitutional safeguards). The constitutional structure of Sweden lacks those power intermediaries (‘estates’ of governmental power) which grant a legal security net for individuals in quandary with state authorities. Lawyers, priests, doctors, social workers are generally appointed by the state and it is not possible to take one’s case to the Supreme Court by appeal to any notion of “constitutionally protected,” fundamental human rights. Civil rights, as they are expressed in Swedish law, are generally defined as ‘social rights’ fit for the people in general, often declared as responsibilities of the state instead of acknowledging ‘rights’ as demandable by individuals. This structural deficiency in the Swedish system has led some commentators to define the Swedish government as a form of ‘parliamentary dictatorship’ (Berggren & Trägårdh, 2006: 373). This could for example be seen in the Pirate Bay trial, which was criticised for entailing a politicised legal process, regarding the question of ‘intent’ among the accused and the bias of judge and jurors.

My own research has consisted of a critical analysis of how Swedish file-sharers justify their habits, and primarily I have studied the mode of their argumentation; what they refer to, and how the arguments are constituted. Alongside my qualitative analysis of the file-sharer arguments presented in blogs, newspapers, debates and web comments, I interviewed a small sample of Swedish file-sharers, placing great emphasis on connecting their arguments to various sociological theories of representation, agency, justification and morality, as well as to technical, economic, historical, demographic and geographical conditions. My Ph.D. thesis (Andersson, 2010) entails a critique not only of the file-sharer discourse, but also of some of the arguments that are often taken for granted in the over-arching academic discourse on digital politics and the ‘copyfight’ that is said to have been acted out in the file-sharing world over the last decade. By doing so, I have addressed how the file-sharing ecology under study (dominated by BitTorrent, but also by networks such as FastTrack, Direct Connect and so-called ‘one-click hosting’) pre-suppose individual subjects who are highly knowledgeable and highly discerning – while simulta-neously being caught between a propulsion towards solidarity and public collectivism and a predisposition towards individual autonomy and personal freedom to maximise pleasure. Thus, I have found parallels between p2p-based file-sharing and the modes of sociality outlined above, which can be outlined in a similarly ground-up, schematic fashion. Let me briefly introduce some tropes:

(I) Sweden is characterized by strong secularism, and a reflexive self-image of efficiency, engineering and optimization of societal functionality. Of course it shares these features with many late-modern economies, but given the importance of export, R&D and engineering to the Swedish GDP, technical competence and modernization are central concepts (the national self-image is in this sense probably more similar to, for example, Germany than to Greece). Educational levels are high, as is the general grasp of the English language, and the country has a developed online culture, with large groups of people partaking in file-sharing. For many people, technical competence is conditional to everyday life. This helps to explain the currency that the argument of technological inevitability had among my respondents, as well as in the publicly mediated Swedish file-sharing debate. Of all the modes of justification that file-sharers use to defend the phenomenon, the notion that it is (at least on a global level) ‘unstoppable’ appears as having been the most principal one in Sweden.

(II) The Swedish welfare model is not oriented towards the family unit (as a recipient of social benefits) to the same extent as Germany or USA. Neither are semi-private institutions (like charities) as important as they are in Anglo-American societies, nor is there any particularly strong emphasis on local commu­nities, as in for example the UK (Berggren & Trägårdh, 2006; Economist, 2007). Rather, individual freedom is made possible by a strong, efficient univer-salizing collectivity on the state level, where individuals are determined to maximise personal grati-fication / convenience as well as societal and personal efficiency, without doing so at anyone else’s expense. Interestingly, these tendencies are not only found in Swedish sociality and political organization, but also in the technically mediated collectivity of p2p. In a typical p2p system, the scope of choice for the individual node is reliant on the size of the aggregated totality; in a file-sharing network, the more nodes connected, the wider the availability, durability and reliance for everyone involved. It strikes a uniquely neat balance between the smallest unit and the largest collectivity; the individual and the state.

(III) Further, as the legal system lays claims to be as totalizing as possible, instilling social control into its citizens, there is also a rich tradition of evading the system among cunning individuals; private imports of goods, home-brewing, and tax evasion are all common pastimes (cf. Andersson, 2011). The concept of ‘people’s movements’ (or, as was also noted among my interviewees, ‘folk sports’) appeared to me as a way of establishing the notion of an intermediary against both anarchy and the potential totalitarianism of a strong state apparatus (cf. Berggren & Trägårdh, 2006: 104). However, in Sweden, the latter role of such intermediaries has been obscured and subsumed by the strong historical impetus of national progress and the state as a benevolent entity, prompting a politicization of ‘movements’ to act in the utilitarian interest of benefitting national society at large, rather than acting as interest groups in their own right. According to Berggren & Trägårdh, the Swedish labour movement bred a romanticised image of its ‘people’s movements,’ as such images also tend to play on the patriotic notion of “a small country performing well” in sports, industry, technology and the like. Hence, underpinning phenomena like TPB is a dimension of nationalist sovereignty; something that helps explaining the die-hard approach that the owners of this site projected against the demands of the U.S. copyright lobby.

File-sharing – as an ongoing, never-fully-overseeable mass exchange, a superabundance that is acted out, taking place out there – is hard to bequest with political agency, or even to invoke as a subject around which politics can be formed. Hence, defining it in terms of constituting a ‘people’s movement’ or ‘folk sport’ is also to formulate it as a valid collective, and to give it a rhetorically powerful, organised form (albeit perhaps only appropriated in the abstract). It allows the phenomenon to be invoked alongside the already formulated macro entities or established institutional actors of the copyright lobby, thus serving a justificatory purpose. It lends an otherwise invisible, nebulous phenomenon a legitimizing thrust; in some way sanctioning it, for example by pointing to its documented popularity and adoption among wider layers of the population, something which further asserts its supposedly ‘unstoppable’ nature. It is also a way of branding one’s own movement in market terms. This serves as another explanation for the momentous public interest that TPB has garnered. As Lindgren & Linde (2007) argue, actors such as TPB shed light on what would otherwise remain in the underworld of the ‘subpolitical’ (Beck, 1992). Drawing on the work of Peter Dahlgren, Nick Couldry and others, Maria Bakardjieva (2009) acknowledges how everyday life is politicized by means of what she terms ‘subactivism’:

[A] kind of politics that unfolds at the level of subjective experience and is submerged in the flow of everyday life. It is constituted by small-scale, often individual, decisions and actions that have either a political or ethical frame of reference (or both) and are difficult to capture using the traditional tools with which political participation is measured. (Bakardjieva, 2009: 92)

When a critical mass of such actions are harnessed and/or recognized, out of this substrate something arises that can be named and recognized; a ‘movement’ can be generated (Melucci, 1989) and ‘strategic sovereigns’ (Andersson, 2009b) are nominated; through which cyberliberties activists speak for the otherwise more nebulous collective underworld.

Consequently, in Sweden, the topic has not only been discussed on web-based forums affiliated to TPB, and supporting clusters like the Pirate Party and Piratbyrån (trans. ‘The Pirate Bureau’). Many blog-based commentators have commented on the controversies, where bloggers like for example Rasmus Fleischer (Copyriot) have proved helpful also for my own coverage of the argumentation regarding the topic of p2p, file-sharing and ‘piracy’. [5] At least since, 2005 (when my research began), national newspapers and public service broadcasters have covered the topic rather extensively. Alongside the 2009 Pirate Bay trial, two different books on file-sharing were published in Sweden: Rydell & Sundberg (2009) is the journalistic, dramatised story of TPB, while Ernst (2009) contains a series of interviews of various members of the Swedish political and cultural establishment, on unauthorised file-sharing and digiti-zation. These were preceded by Söderberg’s critique of the Swedish file-sharing debate (2008), and succeeded by the Efter The Pirate Bay reader, edited by myself and Pelle Snickars (2010).

On Sweden and file-sharing

The file-sharing demographic [6] is one characterized by an already widespread access to internet technologies, both in terms of knowledge/skill and wealth. Sweden is a rich country characterised by relatively small gaps in income distribution, making access to technologies like broadband very commonplace. A consequence is that whilst gender, age, and class remain key social determinants, the role which is taken, the actant position of being ‘a file-sharer,’ takes precedence over those parameters. The defining feature seems to be one of inclination and reflexive choice; a typically post-Fordist, ‘late modern’ attitude, made possible by reliance on those greater collectives and infrastructures facilitating that choice – something which is not unique to Sweden but to the increasingly reflexive individualization of Western societies, a tendency outlined by many contemporary sociologists (see below). Ilshammar (2010; Ilshammar & Larsmo, 2005) has noted Sweden’s rapid broadband development and generally high infrastructural standards, something that Strandh (2009) connects with Sweden’s uniquely strong secularism. This secularism has fostered strong individualism and a reflexive questioning of normative ideologies, Strandh argues. He also adds the particularly strong libertarian ethos among the ‘geeks’ who have had a key role in establishing online companies and services. This libertarian ethos has been observed in the U.S. American context, and Burkart (2010) succinctly points to the conflicted nature of this ethos which is

caught between political anarchism and communitarianism. It is also caught between antisystemic and anticapitalist tendencies on the one hand, and merely anti-establishmentarian and reformist approaches on the other hand. Commit-ments oscillate between auto-nomy and solidarity as foundational norms. (Burkart, 2010: 82)

This can be illustrated by Eric S. Raymond’s argument (2000) that hacker culture is implicitly libertarian but channels this antiestablishmentarian impulse through ‘radical sharing’ and ‘worldwide cooperation’ (ibid.), in order to maximise operational efficiency. File-sharing, and similar knowledge-demanding activities on the internet that aim to open up the ‘black box’ of technology (Winner, 1977) could be said to share with the hacker discourse on FLOSS a ‘transposable model for new legal possibilities composed of an aggregate of practices, licenses, social relationships, artifacts, and moral economies’ (Coleman, 2004, italics by author). Thus, these practices and economies enter ‘a wider public debate on the limits of intellectual property primarily though visible cultural praxis’ (ibid.). As laws and norms become ossified in code (Lessig, 1999; Galloway, 2004), when the ‘black box’ of technology is opened, ‘what is purported to be a “singular” field of intellectual property law’ (Coleman, 2004) is opened up into multiple possible areas of re-negotiation, each demanding new modes of justification.

As noted above, my own fieldwork consisted of interviews with Swedish file-sharers by way of continual email exchange, with the intention of assessing the discursive tropes. This fieldwork was conducted in 2006, prefigured by a pilot study. In the main study, both interviewer and interviewees were practically anonymous to one another, as I was mainly interested in the modes and invocations through which experiences, interpretations and justifications were expressed. One of the things noted was that active file-sharers seem to share a propensity for exploration – not exclusive to youth or gender but, rather, personal inclination. Despite a language of ‘sharing,’ various internet-activist commentators, as well as my own interviewees, have tended to use decidedly individualist explanation models, emphasi-zing individual ability above any particular other demographic factor. This ability is facilitated by high levels of computer literacy and access to broadband. In addition, what is required is a strong personal inclination to govern one’s own media consumption, to discover new media texts and explore new techno-logies – in short, to manage a media consumption which is personally experienced as autonomous.

The paradox is that this autonomy relies on aggregated, technical infrastructures which ultimately come to constitute collective formations or even institutions in their own right (albeit in novel forms). This dependence appears to be an intrinsic feature of autonomy. Collective (or structural) macro-agency begets individual agency. What is particular to Swe-dish reflexive modernity is the degree to which the nation state has come to serve as a principal structure of such kind. The aggregated character of these huge collectives seems to be instrumental for individual autonomy, in that the agglomerates become large enough to drastically lessen the dependence on personal (friendly or familial) bonds. The collectivity becomes impersonal, semi-anonymous, bureaucratic, ultimately gesellschaft-like.

The p2p networks that enable sharing of large files over the internet are similarly non-familial; they are essentially stranger-to-stranger, non-overseeable (at least beyond a set horizon; see also Lundemo, 2009) and strictly governed by protocol (Galloway, 2004). Hence, the parallel between an autonomy facilitated by (national and increasingly transnational) collective institutions and a technologically facilitated autonomy (like the one inherent in p2p networking) is an analytically useful one.

Systems that allow for strong personal autonomy paradoxically do so by relying on set standards and protocols. Rigid standards allow for infrastructure, which in turn beget collective formations. The aggregated, de-personalized collec-tives become rational and effective, characterised by stranger-to-stranger exchange. They are governed by a protocol logic, which makes them predictable – but only in the short term, to a limited extent, as they involve a high degree of non-overseeability, especially beyond the set horizon of the local network or infrastructure. According to Beck (1992; 1994), contemporary societies are increasingly being affected by prescriptive structures of this kind, having global reach. Often these defining, universalizing structures are products of phenomena that are emergent in their own right, and have no single point of causal agency. This transgresses the ‘copyfight’ dichotomy, as these prescriptive structures emerge despite the conflictual opinions of the actors involved. The principles of material accumulation and maximization of both personal gratification and of functional efficacy are, for example, shared by both sides of this alleged dichotomy.

Many of these formations take on a strongly universalizing, globalized character. This often acts as a normative, prescriptive force for society at large, in that its effects appear unavoidable and ubiquitous. There is a peculiar standardization that goes hand in hand with individualization. Many of the defining structures of our era appear to have this emergent, aggregated, ubiquitous and prescriptive character at their roots: transnational communication and global media; the global financial economy; the global environment; and so on. Similarly, the internet can be understood as a heterogeneous, global, ‘network of networks’ which is based on unrestricted file-sharing – yet hugely standardizing in that it begets the common use of certain protocols and techniques.

The singular most helpful book that this argument rests upon would be the abovementioned exposé of Swedish sociality; Berggren & Trägårdh (2006). This book examines the historical continuity of what is defined as a typically Swedish notion of personal independence; that true love can only flourish between people who are economically independent of each other, and that this personal autonomy is – seemingly paradoxically – granted by means of a uniform, all-encompassing state-dependence. This insight ties back to the never-ending sociological conundrum of individual agency vis-à-vis structural/collective agency, something that should be expected to apply also within our contemporary techno-cultural spheres, extending not only to the politics of the welfare state but to digitally mediated, networked formations as well. This article can be seen as a starting point of such an elaboration, and the case study approach will constitute a lens through which we can read the file-sharers’ own arguments and the material references that these arguments invoke.

Regarding p2p-based file-sharing per se, an extensive quantitative study of p2p-based file-sharing in Sweden, MusicLessons, ran chronologically parallel to my own research. The explicit focus of this research program was ‘to deepen the understanding of how p2p technology will support new business models and to evaluate and compare threats and opportunities, providing a better basis for policy-making’ (Findahl & Selg, 2005); an approach somewhat different to mine. However, the insights gained from my own approach (which focused more on end-users and their everyday reflections on the phenomenon) are intended to complement quantitative data such as that generated by Findahl et al. Similarly, my research has gained from some of the insights provided both from MusicLessons, and from the more recent Lund University research program Cybernormer. Further, Lindgren & Linde (2007) confirm my findings in that they argue that Swedish cyberliberties activism turns upon the individual rather than the collective. The invocation to collectivism among the activists only takes place through second-order reasoning, where the benefit of the individual is thought to by extension also benefit the collective. Moreover, the users interviewed emphasize how important it is to experience control of one’s own media distribution (ibid.), something that resonates with my own study, and the notion of great personal latitude by means of harnessing network effects as an economy of scale.

In surveys, it has been noted that the tougher legislative framework that was implemented on the 1st of April 2009 (named IPRED), alongside the Pirate Bay ruling the same month ‘generally did not affect the Swedes’ attitudes about illegal downloading of motion pictures’ (MMS, 2009). The percentage who equalled downloading copyrighted material from the internet with ‘theft’ had even decreased in that particular study. Similar findings have been made within the Cybernormer project, which suggests that the IPRED law has not significantly changed the fact of illegal file-sharing – and certainly not the social norms that it rests upon (de Kaminski, 2010). Another report (Findahl, 2009) showed that file-sharing only marginally declined in 2009 (with just a single percentage point, later to be continually resumed to levels higher than previous years). The hopes raised by the copyright lobby – that file-sharing is declining, and that the creation of a ‘legal internet’ is imminent – thus appear rather unfounded, at least in Sweden. The popularity of commercial services like Spotify have created the appearance that file-sharing has waned, as some data indicate that file-sharing of music has decreased (in favour of streaming) in some countries (Moya, 2010). BitTorrent traffic is still vast, and has continued increasing – however, not as fast as the increase of on-demand, streamed video data, as p2p-based file-sharing is growing in volume, but declining as a percentage of overall IP traffic (Cisco, 2010). [7] However, much of this streamed data is also of an illegal kind. Hence, the standpoints regarding internet regulation and copyright appear to be as oppositional as ever, although the vectors of illegal data exchange are constantly changing, as pirated content is increasingly shared through ‘one-click hosting’ sites and unlicensed video-streaming sites.

Nevertheless, my interpretation of Swedish news media and blog debates during the period indicates that there has been a growing cultural acceptance of unregulated file-sharing in the mainstream press. Between 2005 and 2008, a general acknowledgement also began to emerge in the British press: the entertainment industry was thought to have weathered the economic crisis purportedly instigated by unauthorized file-sharing, and certain sectors of this industry were in fact doing well (Gibson, 2005; 2008; Keegan, 2008; Wallis, 2008). More importantly, a realization about the commonness of unregulated file-sharing (especially among younger people) seems to have led many cultural commentators to have accepted unauthorized file-sharing as a part of the contemporary cultural landscape. Arguably, this was realized sooner in Swedish newspapers like Svenska Dagbladet, compared to British and US American ones. Already in 2005, British consumer research agency The Leading Question [8] found that those who admittedly downloaded or shared unlicensed music on a regular basis also spent significantly more money on legal services. [9] Paul Brindley, the agency’s director, commented:

There’s a myth that all illegal downloaders are mercenaries hell-bent on breaking the law in pursuit of free music. In reality they are often hardcore fans who are extremely enthusiastic about adopting paid-for services as long as they are suitably compelling. (Gibson, 2005)

During this period it became more common even among representatives of the music industry to acknowledge this. Glen Merrill (formerly Google’s chief information officer, later digital strategist for EMI) said: ‘There is academic research that shows file sharing is a good thing for artists and not necessarily bad. […] We should do a bunch of experiments to find out what the business model is’ (Gibson, 2008). Similarly, the ubiquity of unregulated copying led Disney co-chair Anne Sweeney to state that piracy ‘is just a business model’ to be competed with (Wistreich, 2006), signalling a different attitude towards unregu-lated file-sharing where Disney regards itself as the mainstay for putting out content in the first place, lending them primacy in the life-cycle of products.

It appears that a generational divide runs through the file-sharing debate. Söderberg (2008: 208) notes how Swedish centre-right politicians who defend ‘intellectual property’ argue that a whole generation has become fostered to disregard the principle of property rights and how this is problematic for a rights-based liberal market economy. The argument that this normative acceptance for certain forms of property becomes undermined is hardly diminished by the new business models that prosper from the file-sharing services, nor by the potential profits that the entertainment industry makes thanks to illegal distribution channels, Söderberg holds. Moreover, when a Swedish 31-year old was sentenced in May 2008 for making available music and films, he recounted his experiences on a personal blog, and soon sympathisers voluntarily donated money to him in order to cover fines and legal expenses. Söderberg (p. 35) notes that this reflects a public attitude to perpetrators that differs significantly from other types of crimes. Majid Yar (2008: 609) mentions ‘the apparent inverse relationship between age and propensity to commit copyright offences […] Historically, youth have been the subject of successive waves of social anxiety or moral panics, which focus upon the threat that young people supposedly represent to morality, body and property’. Cultural studies have a long history of accounting for this generational dilemma (Cohen, 1972; Pearson, 1983; Wimsatt, 1994; Springhall, 1998), and the often hectic debates in the ‘comments’ sections of online editions of Swedish newspapers (such as Svenska Dagbladet) during the period when TPB figured in these papers attest to a large congregation of people expressing concerns over the ongoing, widespread file-sharing. However, it would be hard to argue that these scattered expressions would constitute a ‘moral panic’ or a false appearance of the same thing – as unregulated file-sharing appears to enjoy a similarly strong support on the same forums. Simon Lindgren (2010) has conducted an analysis of how newspapers reported on issues of file-sharing and online piracy during 2005-2010, compared to how blogs reported on the same issues. According to his analysis, the core concerns of the news discourse were business models, copyright law and the policing of copyright violations, whereas the core concerns in the blog discourse tended to focus less on such clear-cut issues and more on morality in general. What appears to be different is the mode of framing the issue, not necessarily the incidence of disapproving views upon it.

As with my own approach, Yar turns to Boltanski’s & Thevenot’s concept (2006) of discursive resources and strategies that actors mobilize to justify their normative claims, where rhetorical performances are seen as attempts to establish the legitimacy of a given point of view and its affiliated arguments. ‘However, given the inherent plurality of such repertoires, there are always alternative justifications available which favour alternative norms and claims’ (Yar, 2008: 610). If the propensity for file-sharing is not to be primarily attributed to age, rather it could be attributed to ability and a general identification with the respective roles that the technological assemblage of p2p-based file-sharing assigns to the actors involved.

The copyright industry seeks to benefit from a media image that portrays unregulated file-sharing as being on the decline, and the introduction of IPRED (which happened almost at the same time as the convi-ction of the men behind TPB) was put in such a narrative in the national media, along with the projection that traffic would be anonymized (cf. Olsson, 2009; Gustafsson, 2009). However, some figures indicated that file-sharing regained popularity in the year after the IPRED implementation, which was also reported in the media (Olsson, 2009). Like with previous lawsuits against file-sharers in Sweden (Gustafsson, 2008), the implementation of the IPRED law has led to few legal cases being instigated – yet some changes in norms appear to have ensued, as research indicates greater caution among active file-sharers (de Kaminski, 2010).

Copyright has for the last decade become a politicized and highly contentious issue; something which the Pirate Bay trial made even more obvious, despite the wish from trade organizations like Anti-piratbyrån to see it as a mere police case. The Swedish Pirate Party has tried to push the issue in the other direction, pitching themselves as a kind of citizens’ movement of the information society, heralding file-sharing as an essentially voluntary phenomenon with little or no profit motive.
Still, to depict p2p-based file-sharing in such a blue-eyed way might be equally misleading, as I would argue that file-sharing has economic repercu-ssions, and that the operation of hubs, indexes and websites which facilitate the sharing can be made economically profitable. However, the Swedish court rulings found that the Pirate Bay had in fact not been a profitable operation (Fleischer, 2009; Andersson & Snickars, 2010). Nevertheless, money (equiv. €120.000) had to be generated from advertisements in order to run the site. The Pirate Bay trial illustrates how agency always “spills over”; that it is hard to maintain a pure identity in a phenomenon that is as agentially complex as file-sharing. As Palmås (2010) notes, when running a torrent index one is simulta-neously an activist and an entrepreneur (see Andersson, 2011, for a further explication of this).

Pirate institutions

Many of the institutions that oppose copyright have been rhetorically united under the provocative ‘pirate’ heading, although some Swedish activists seem to have shunned the ‘pirate’ heading in later years, in web campaigns like the deliberately faceless ‘Kopimi’ movement, and grassroots campaigns against increased governmental supervision and data retention (Kullen-berg, 2010). As the situation at hand is characterised by conflict, one way of seeing these formations would be to define them as partisan and countercultural. However, as they come to represent such large populations of internet users, they can equally be seen as expressions of popular opinion – hence the tendency to label file-sharing a ‘people’s movement’ or ‘consumer rebellion’. In Sweden, the interest has been big enough to see the foundation of a national Pirate Party, in January 2006. Consequently, European organisations representing the entertainment industry have warned of ‘the danger that Sweden, normally considered to be a strong upholder of EU standards and a promoter of culture, should instead be seen as the haven for a cult of copyright infringement that has achieved global reach’ (IFPI, 2008: 22).

Piratbyrån and TPB have been characterised by a countercultural, yet highly decentralised and spon-taneous ‘hacktivist’ agenda – arguably so informal that it is hard to consider an agenda, or movement, at all. This is exemplified by the hazy, provocative stance of their publication Powr, Broccoli and Kopimi [sic] (2009). Merely by existing, TPB can be argued to perform a rhetorical function of asserting the justification for p2p-based file-sharing and the obsolescence of copyright in its current form – as their mere existence is, according to some critics, contro-versial. What is more, their impact confirms that despite being demographically more established in Sweden than in most other parts of the world, here p2p-based file-sharing also remains a discursively contested activity. Some of my respondents disagreed with what they perceived as hell-bent activists and data hoarders, and portrayed themselves as not very politically inclined.

The strong presence of these semi-institutional actors has also entailed a practical dimension, regarding increased ease of access. The web forums of TPB and, more notably, Piratbyrån simplified the process not only of gathering initial, rudimentary data, but of approaching the respondents in the main, interview-based study. One of my interviewees noted that it was precisely because of Piratbyrån that I had interviewed him:

They stirred up the interest and started getting people to call stuff into question. Before Piratbyrån was founded, in 2002, no-one spoke of file-sharing in the open; it was something you did secretly.

The significance of these entities cannot be explained by market logics or the communitarianism of the hacker ethos alone. As is shown below, it falls within a pattern that can be said to be specific to Sweden, but indicative of Western welfare states in general, as individual compulsion towards self-fulfilment and self-expression has been effectively harnessed by a historical continuity of ‘people’s movements’ ultima-tely seen to be serving not only the individual but the public good. The tendency to formulate cyberliberties activism in such utilitarian terms could be attributable either to technical efficiency (‘what is best for the network?’) or nationalism (‘what is best for Sweden?’). These modes of reasoning are crucial to the Swedish argumentation in favour of file-sharing, but are of course not exclusive to the Scandinavian context. The potential of forming separate, closed, perhaps even semi-private communes (vital to civil society in the continental and Anglo-American sense) has in Scandinavia been subsumed by an ethos of transforming such associations to become more gesellschaft-like, more open to public access and scrutiny. This transubstantiating drive has had wide appeal in Scandi­navian countries since, when resulting in accountable, de-personalized institutions, it serves to minimise corruption, capricious­ness as well as personal commitment and liability (Berggren & Trägårdh, 2006: 333—364). The modest size of the Nordic countries also means that such formations tend to enter into a more typically national debate more easily – where tropes are not only debated in mass media that have national reach (such as debates on public service television) but are invoked by reference to the good of national society as well. One case in point is the appearance of Peter Sunde (TPB spokesperson) on national Swedish TV (SVT Debatt, 12 September 2008).

This drive towards more all-encompassing formations can be thought of as (molecular) grassroots formations clustering towards more coherent (molar) forms (cf. Andersson, 2009a). Individual differences would have to be sacrificed in order for the distributed voices in the faceless multitude to speak with one tongue, as a molar actor. The formation of coherent argumentation among such partisan actors (cf. Dahl-berg, 2011) entails a removal of discordant voices. As a consequence, many of the arguments (or even whole groups of reciprocally related arguments) used by actors in these types of public controversies become incommensurable when compared to those of the opponent, simply since they derive from analytical standpoints that are poles apart (cf. Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006).

For example, as cyberliberties activists lay claims to safeguarding the global structure of a ‘healthy’ (carrier-neutral, scalable, flexible, open) internet at large, they do so by arguing that high degrees of molecular freedom must be retained on the level of the individual machine or user. This was seen also in my respondents’ argumentation; both in the sometimes sardonic individualism (‘Some make use of today’s technology, others don’t understand it’) and in their remarks that the punitive means of policing would surpass the actual crime (‘Since file-sharing is so extremely decentralised, it is a bit like shooting a mosquito swarm with a bazooka’). By contrast, the industrialist (or unionist) position of the copyright lobby would claim to be safeguarding the much more local, molar structures of various trade associations or business interests. While the former position adheres to a normative ontology of the internet that accentuates the inevitability of unrestricted file exchange, the latter can be said to argue for a normative ontology of the internet where exchange is regulated, safe and sanctioned by institutionalized, accountable providers.

Both of these positions can be seen to give rise to internal discourses which might be internally cohesive and sensible, when assessed on their own. When reciprocally compared, however, they become incommensurable. Hence the seemingly endless lack of consensus.

Brief review of the Swedish piratical organisations and the Pirate Bay trial

The Pirate Bay (TPB) labels itself ‘the world’s largest BitTorrent tracker’ – and its primary function, as this label indicates, is to track and index torrent files. Due to the ability of the BitTorrent protocol to handle extremely large files, torrent files are widely used for sharing films, software packages and large music sets (often entire discographies). The site was started in November 2003 by Gottfrid Svartholm Warg and Fredrik Neij; later, Peter Sunde also joined. They all had links to Piratbyrån (see below), and it is a helpful reminder that TPB was originally branded as Piratbyrån’s own torrent tracker. Nevertheless, in October 2004 it became a separate organization.

Piratbyrån (literal translation: ‘The Pirate Bureau’) was a loose collective which served as a propaganda institute, think-tank and alternative news agency for the pro-file-sharing movement in Sweden. Its website served both as a practical ‘how to’-guide and web reference to file-sharing, and as a portal (similar to Zeropaid in the US). The Piratbyrån activities were however somewhat unique in that they tended to formulate a more academically informed critique, not least thanks to its leading spokesmen Rasmus Fleischer and Magnus Eriksson. For example, in April 2007, Piratbyrån organised alternative Walpurgis festivities on a hilltop in Stockholm, burning their own book (Kaarto & Fleischer, 2005) as a symbolic event marking a new, non-dualistic conception of the issues pertaining to file-sharing, conceptually erasing old dichotomies that they held as no longer applicable to file-sharing: legal—illegal; private—public; free—pay; art—technology—life [sic] (Piratbyrån, 2007).

Piratbyrån was small in terms of active membership (its operation was restricted to the Swedish language, and they had no offices or money). It was led by a handful of spokespersons, formulating an intellectual critique of issues per­taining to copyright and file-sharing, drawing strongly on concepts of media materialism and contemporary critical philoso-phy. In an interview, they defined themselves thus:

Piratbyran […] is best described as an ad hoc pro-piracy think tank, but Fleischer’s partner in the effort, Marcus Kaarto, won’t even go that far. ‘We’re like a gas,’ Kaarto says, laughing. ‘You can’t get a hold of us.’
(Quinn, 2006b)

The organization was founded in 2003 as a reaction to Antipiratbyrån (‘The Anti-Piracy Bureau’), a similarly ad hoc, non-governmental anti-piracy organization that still exists and is sponsored by the entertainment industry.

Linde (2005) observes how Piratbyrån deliberately chose not to be anti anything, but emphasised instead how the file-sharing movement was for all forms of digital copying. This was a strategic decision. Despite being founded in opposition to an alleged ‘Other,’ Piratbyrån was based on positive affirmation; they intended to anticipate rather than react to the copyright industry, avoiding a defensive position. They continuously had to prove their seriousness in order not to appear as a consumer revolt by teenagers wanting everything for free (Linde, 2005; see also Linde & Lindgren, 2007). By forestalling the copyright-industry representatives by forceful strategy, one can focus on building a strong, autonomous image for oneself, focusing on issues of one’s own choosing. They sought to avoid a reactive tendency where the enemy is construed as a monolithic, catch-all nemesis (as in the leftist movements of the past, invoking ‘the man’ or ‘the system’). This, however, meant that Piratbyrån were perhaps seen as more ambivalent in their standing than traditional political movements: They would have been seen as leftist in their anti-corporate mode, yet more right-leaning in their libertarian one (Linde, 2005: 29). Piratbyrån ceased operations in 2010.

Piratpartiet (the Pirate Party) is a Swedish political party, founded in 2006, claiming to stand outside of the left-right scale, focusing exclusively on issues of internet privacy and reform of Swedish intellectual property laws. Early on, the party garnered a lot of publicity, but only managed to assemble 0.63 % of the overall votes in the September 2006 election for parliament. In the 2009 European Parlia-ment elections, however, they attracted 7.13 % of the votes, and gained two seats in the European Parliament. The 2010 General election saw a relatively weak turnout for the party, with only 0,65% of the votes.

The commonness of broadband and file-sharing in Sweden, and the presence of the above strategic, politicised entities has meant that the file-sharing debate has been particularly lively in Sweden. The leading exponent of the Piratbyrån line is Fleischer, whose blog Copyriot presents an erudite critique of copyright and digitization. Several other bloggers contribute with variably politicised and often well-informed writings. Some of the anonymous bloggers and online commentators tend to formulate rather libertarian, acerbic critiques, while TPB’s Peter Sunde, as well as many Pirate Party representatives, activists and journalists tend to formulate critiques that are more socially acute than many of their US American counterparts. This all contributes to a relatively sophisticated discussion, where derogatory tropes such as likening record company executives to robber barons or, conversely, likening ‘pirates’ to terrorists have been relatively absent from the debate. As noted above for example, the notion that frequent file-sharers tend to be frequent media consumers as well was picked up on in Sweden before it started to become widely noted also by key representatives of the European copyright industry; Findahl’s report (2006) preceding the EMI representatives’ arguments in early 2008 (Gibson, 2008).

As TPB was based on BitTorrent technology, it quickly became a popular index that hosted links to the copyrighted material that millions of users exchanged between one another. A few years into the new millennium, file-sharing stood for around eighty percent of the total Swedish network traffic. With 25 million regular users, and more than a million listed torrents, TPB was one of the main exponents of a development, where Napster and Gnutella can be seen as a “first wave,” eMule and FastTrack (Kazaa) a “second one,” and BitTorrent a “third wave” of p2p-based file-sharing. The site was also made infamous by publishing the so-called ‘legal correspondence’ submitted to it from various media companies and collecting societies which threatened TPB with legal action, only to be met by a deliberately provocative stance from the site’s administrators. TPB became known for prankster-like exploits and die-hard dedication to hosting all sorts of material, even in the face of controversy. However, international legal pressure (Rapport, 2006) led to the famous raid against the service in May 2006, when fifty police officers confiscated not only TPB’s and Piratbyrån’s computer servers, but also a hundred other servers belonging to the hosting company PRQ’s customers, leading some commentators to label the operation politically charged and arguably constitutionally illegal. Three days later, TPB was back up while the legal machinery had begun to grind, alongside rising interest in the mainstream media. Paradoxically, the clampdown had generated even more publicity and traffic to the site.

Throughout the last decade, mainstream media has tended to portray file-sharing in reference to similar legal cases in various countries, alongside brief explanations of the phenomenon that often relied on assumptions and a polarised framing of the debate in terms of ‘industry versus pirates’. Arguably, this added to a high media visibility of politicised agents rather than everyday, less politicised users without explicit alignment to either of these sides. The presence of entities like TPB and Piratbyrån was vital to how mainstream media framed the phenomenon. In the months following the highly publicised police raid on TPB and its affiliated hosting servers, not only did Swedish media interview the representatives of TPB, but overseas publications like Vanity Fair and Wired gave coverage to what was rendered a phenomenon of global interest (Daly, 2007; Quinn, 2006a; 2006b). Swedish public service television covered the pheno-menon in several news reports, alleging that the raid was executed due to US American coercion, while the largest national newspaper Aftonbladet interviewed key managers of TPB, alleging that ‘the [Swedish] people stood behind them’ (Nilsson, 2006). Various national newspaper ran mini-sites entirely dedicated to the topic.

In May 2007, prosecutor Håkan Roswall announced the prosecution of the founders of TPB, also including web entrepreneur Carl Lundström. In January 2008 they were charged for preparing and abetting copyright infringement. The trial against TPB in February 2009 was extensively covered by Swedish and international media. It is noteworthy that similar cases of abetting copyright infringement had never previously been tried by Swedish courts (Ebadi & Johansson, 2009). TPB’s representatives repeatedly asserted that they had not breached any Swedish law, as they merely provided access to works on their website and were not hosting any of the actual works on their servers. The prosecutors argued that the database of torrent links that they provided – placed in categories and directly searchable – thus constituted a more dedicated service than the general ones that companies like Google provide. More interestingly for this article, the founders of TPB were not only accused of financing and maintaining the website (thereby abetting copyright infringements) but of actively supporting and encouraging a dismissal of copyright and, in effect, a boycott against the entertainment industry. This arguably made the trial a political one, as it transpired in its aftermath that the judge and several of the prosecutors were members of pro-copyright organisations.

After several weeks of trial at the Stockholm district court, all four defendants were convicted for aiding copyright infringement. They were each sentenced to one year in prison, and a total of €3 million in damages. The verdict was however instantly appealed to the Swedish crown court, leading the case to be revisited in the autumn of 2010, where the sentence was partially sustained. At the moment, it is unclear as to whether the Swedish supreme court will revise the case.

The trial was depicted by internet activists as a kind of spectacle – a ‘spectrial’ – but an even weirder turn of events followed. During the summer of 2009 it was suddenly announced that TPB would be sold. By being purchased by software company Global Gaming Factory X, TPB would become a subscription service. The price was set to €6 million, of which half would be paid in shares and the remaining €3 million in cash – that is, the same amount as the damages incurred in court. However, what was sold was in fact only the TPB brand, and the deal was seen as suspect by many commentators: ‘There is something fishy about the Pirate Bay affair from the beginning […] The fog of lies, empty words, debt, questionable business ethics, and defecting companions lies thick.’ (Sundberg, 2009). The owner of Global Gaming Factory X, Hans Pandeya, turned out to have high levels of tax debt – and soon the deal failed. Still, this affair had cast a shadow of a doubt on TPB as a ‘non-commercial’ social networking site, and on the possible intentions of its founders. Intensive discussions took place in the blogosphere, as the potential business deal seemed to greatly undermine the devoted support the site had long enjoyed.

Moreover, in the following year, as part of the national election campaign in Sweden, another institutional actor made a bid to take over another element of the complex Pirate Bay assemblage – namely, the servers. As the abovementioned founders were banned, by court order, from running the site in any way whatsoever, the Swedish Pirate Party took on themselves to give bandwidth to the site. Soon, the Pirate Bay front page was plastered with Pirate Party campaign material; something that would have been alien to the originators of the service, as they have never affiliated themselves with said party.

This shows that a service like TPB is “sticky”; the abundance of connections and interrelating actions acts like glue, and ties both venture capitalism, party politics, partisanship and even the idea of stewardship of a sensible cultural ecology into its vortex. TPB was never simply one thing; it can be seen as a conservator of a mainstream cultural supply, as well as a radical opponent to the big media corporations, as a harbinger of free media distribution or, conversely, as a hedonist absorption of mere self-gratification – and much more.

Conclusion: File-sharing between collectivist concern and individualistic opportunism

They just want stuff for free.
(sign. ‘Mark,’ commenting Bode, 2009)

If the mainstream ‘copyleft’ literature (Lessig, 2004; Liang, 2004; Vaidhyanathan, 2001) sees online gift economies as primarily beneficial, and instrumental for a ‘digital commons,’ there is a post-Marxist strand of critique which attempts to problematize this notion and reconnect it to labour relations, as signifi­cant work is being done by the active media consumer every time he or she acquires, decodes and appropriates a media text. Here, the notion of ‘socialization of labour’ needs to be considered, as the economically productive and inherently reflexive forces of individual consumption are vital to the concept of file-sharing. I will conclude this article by readdressing some of the theory outlined above, in connection to some of my own empirical findings.

Scott Lash (2002: 32-33) argues that culture itself is increasingly consigned to the instrumental rationale of enframing (gestell). Further, the principle of accumulation is seeping into every sphere of human life, including the cultural. Earlier meaningful, symbolically loaded forms of life become ‘mere “lifestyles” and strategies for accumulating the various forms of [symbolic, cultural, social, bodily] capital, themselves all valorizable external goods’ (p. 33). Robins & Webster (1999: 234-236) similarly describe a conquering of the life-world by order and rationa-lization, exacerbated by technocultural developments in the 1990s; a surrender to the 19th century concept of ‘the factory-like mind’; a concept which can be related to Mario Tronti’s notion of ‘the social factory,’ where ‘the whole society becomes an articulation of production. In short, all of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over all of society’ (Bonefeld et al., 1992: 137). This view of the life-world as being increasingly appropriated by forces of accumulation is common to critical theories of contemporary society and culture, echoing some of the elements in Italian autonomist thinking, without necessarily taking on board the arguments for social revolution and the dichotomy of ‘multitude’ versus ‘empire’ (see Dyer-Witheford, 1999; Terranova, 2000; May, 2002; Galloway, 2004; and Söderberg, 2004). Paolo Virno (2004) has recently written about capitalism’s reliance on individual opportunism, while the early versions of the postmaterialism thesis appear as a response to student activism in 1968, and American sociologist Daniel Bell’s (1960) thesis that affluence was eroding the importance of ideology. Bell (1976b) has noted the centrality of hedonism and egoism to post-Fordist modes of labour organisation. The concept of ‘post-industrial society’ (Bell, 1976a) is a technocratic society where techno-scientific logic precedes politics. Post-industrial society can be defined as a society where the majority of those employed are not involved in the production of tangible goods, and where know-ledge (in addition to property, and political criteria) is increasingly becoming the base of power. This can be paralleled by Scott Lash’s argument (in Beck, 1994: 119) that contemporary Western societies are facilita-ted by ‘flexible specialization’ of industrial production and – more centrally to my argument – increasingly specialized, individualised consumption patterns.

Considering the observations of Swedish late modernity established above, one could define this country as one where the tendencies of individuali­zation and reflexive modernity have excelled, despite – or, following the ‘individual latitude by means of strong collectivism’ thesis, thanks to – the country’s documented historical concerns with solidarity and collectivism (noted, for example, in the centrality of ‘people’s movements’). These tendencies, typical for ‘late modernity,’ are of course notable throughout the Western world, but tellingly, the societal patterns and individual attitudes that I have observed in Sweden illustrate several of them.

An early observation in my fieldwork was that on behalf of the end-user, file-sharing hinges on both knowledge and directed action. Due to the barriers of access involved (in terms of skills as well as material setup) it is an arguably even more active medium than television, radio or newspapers. This added layer of directed, purposeful action resonates with the notion of the management of the individual self, as an increasingly reflexive project (Rose, 1999; Bauman, in Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2001) while older, more rigid, pre-given categories such as class, profession, or gender are thought of as becoming less determining for what identities individuals form. Dean (1994) speaks of ‘a culture of the self and self-improvement,’ while Rose (1999) elaborates how the ‘entrepreneurial self’ in fact partly grew out of a corporatist, humanist Scandinavian rationale where work was increasingly seen as an essential component of self-fulfilment, prompting people to scrutinize their own life-world and aim to maximize both pleasure and efficiency, treating all areas of life as ‘projects’ to be managed. Individual specialization thus involves a plethora of categories; some of them miniscule, perhaps even banal (especially in a chronological sense, as subjects might often only adhere to them at very short intervals); others more long-lasting, even comprising entire life-projects. Some are more fundamental to one’s personal identity than others. Thus, my own heuristic is to avoid the assumption that certain categories would define identity in an a priori way. A person may be a computer user, a sci-fi fan, a girlfriend, a tourist, a car driver, a parent, a file-sharer or ‘pirate’ (the list can be virtually endless) but it would be methodologically unsound to decide in advance which category would have more bearing than others in determining this person’s identity in relation to certain contexts. We all jump in and out of such roles continually. [10] The various subjective valuations people make of such constitutive roles can be accessed by way of empirical analysis. A similar study to mine has been conducted by Simon Lindgren (2009), and he reaches the conclusion that in the file-sharing world, moral issues tend to be given ad hoc solutions, as no prior benchmark exist for many of the new behaviours enabled online. However, to assess this is not necessarily only done by means of ethnography. The example of file-sharing shows how vital material settings and discursive framing are to even begin to define the abovementioned categories.

One example, that some of my respondents referred to, would be the ratio systems that were employed in a lot of early file-sharing (e.g. Bulletin Boards, Direct Connect, FTP sites, and other ‘members only’ communities) where huge quantities of data have to be uploaded in exchange for download allowances. Such infrastructural setups, some respon-dents argued, helped establishing a ‘data hoarder’ mentality, which they saw as outmoded, as ratio systems were perceived as having been more common and more pervasive in the past. Moreover, they saw it as less morally justifiable than their own, less calculating behaviour. Some respondents differentiated between ‘pirate copying’ (for monetary gain) and ‘private copying’ (without such gain), [11] and they connected ‘data hoarding’ to the former of these categories, as it imposes a calculating, monetary logic into the file exchange. [12] Ratio systems would in effect prescribe certain behaviours, and assign certain functional roles to the user, in order to participate. File-sharing entails several such roles, or functional positions: One can simultaneously be, for example, a ‘seeder,’ a ‘leecher,’ a ‘data hoarder,’ a deviant, a commoner, an IP number, a numeric entry in a website’s statistics, an unwitting redistributor, or a highly intentional ‘evangelist’. But how such roles are thought of differs, depending on the mode of reasoning. Like in Lindgren’s study (2009), several of my respondents expressed great concern for collecti-vism, and shared a utopian notion of sharing as an actual positive force in society. However, one of his respondents also connected ratio systems to solidarity, in that they require dedication and closer, more gemeinschaft-like ties where the level of risk is mutual and more equally shared (ibid., p. 126).

The moral context of file-sharing thus appears to prompt a high degree of reflexivity among the file-sharers. As most of the file-sharing in question is illegal, individual actors are forced to invoke principles of justification, either by way of outspoken demands for justice or of underlying rationalizations for their habits, given the present controversy. This discursive invocation appears to be charged with attempts to objectify it, to bequeath it with validity, by way of referring to other factors: not only the ontological stability and the normativity offered by the evident popularity and ubiquity of the infrastructures. By invoking the history and perceived ‘nature’ of the internet, a generality is offered which lends weight, and provides stable and coherent coordinates for the justification, ‘subject to general assessment’ (Boltan-ski & Thévenot, 2006: 12). But the prescriptive mate-rial framework alone does not fully justify the sharing. More universalizing regimes of justification were invoked, like the idea of progressive adoption of the functionally most ‘optimal’ technologies, and the primacy of individual latitude over authoritarian order. My respondents primarily justified their sharing by holding that it would have, on the whole, a positive impact on society, and some even doubted that file-sharing would have any detrimental impact on society at all, as the link between falling sales of audio CDs and file-sharing is hard to establish. Some seemed to think that the impact of file-sharing was only negative for certain industries. This echoes the findings by Sameer Hinduja (2003) among users of unlicensed, illegally copied software, who denied that fiscal harm was exacted upon manufacturers due to their illicit copying of software.

If there is one thing to be learned by the Swedish file-sharing movement, it is that the general devotion shared by file-sharers – despite how inclined one would be towards activism – is for the functioning of the overall technical system. File-sharers seem to value technical feasibility and operability more than what is shared on the network, or who speaks for the network. In a 2004 study (Svensson & Bannister, 2004) it emerged that the file-sharers were more outraged by issues of network integrity (i.e. spamming and viruses) than by the unregulated dispersal of music, video and software. [13] As Lindgren & Linde (2007: 122) observe, the overall concern appears to be for how technology can improve the world; a user interest that Piratbyrån creatively tried to harness into a more politicized stance. This is similar to the U.S. American context, outlined by Burkart:

What cyberlibertarians share […] is a psychological, social, and, especially, political orientation to the Internet: as an aspect of their lifeworld, it is basic to their sense of personal identity, culture, and society. […] They share a commitment to preserving aspects of the Internet that they see as critical to the autonomous development of people and communities, free of unwanted intrusion and legal interference by the state, and free of state-sanctioned eco-nomic monopolies. (Burkart, 2010: 82)

As Palmås (2010) has noted, ‘pirate’ activism is therefore not like a party or organisation that one ‘joins’; rather, it is a vector along which one can project the possibilities of technology. I would argue that one such vector is the possibility of becoming an occasional activist; the roles, assigned by the system, that become politicized by association. When acqui-ring a movie via TPB, the default setup of the system automatically makes you upload too, while downloading, and the default setup of the system turns this act into yet another addition to the statistics which attest to the popularity, and in effect, gravitas of TPB as an actor in the file-sharing ecology.

Lindgren (2009) makes similar conclusions to mine, in that the file-sharers see the activity as mundane, convenient, self-evident, and – at first thought – not particularly political. [14] Overt politici-sation appears to be something that only a minority is engaged in. But when this minority is part of managing the actual platforms and orchestrating the sharing, like with TPB and Piratbyrån, they can engage also the less politically inclined users to fall in and out of roles that perform a political function, such as for example voting online in favour of issues framed by the cyberliberties activists. Both Lindgren (2009) and Burkart (forthcoming) compare the politicization of file-sharing with the environmental movement, as everyday behaviour is harnessed for ends that can benefit both the overall ecology at large (as file-sharing would benefit open access, wider range of content, greater functionality and allowance for tinkering and hacking), and that can serve to benefit the political weight of the movement as well, as the incidence of such behaviours would attest to popular relevance.

The increased positive liberties of the individual in late modernity can be seen to be centred on hedonism, self-fulfilment, convenience, gratification – but they simultaneously entail a reflexive sensibility. Without taking the route that many online activists take, defending personal liberty against authoritarian measures and regulations of communication, one can take the route outlined in the above, recognizing that there is a need – even perhaps inevitability – that leads us to consider voluntary self-regulation as the primary mode of regulation in the context of digital media. The inevitability could either be attributed to what many of my interviewees referred to, the ‘unstoppable’ nature of file-sharing in technical terms, [15] or it could be attributed to the inherent individual freedom of citizens and consumers to engage with the techno-logies and media we have at our disposal. Effective and complete curbing of file-sharing would entail an effective and complete curbing of private communication over the internet. At the same time, in the management of our own cultural consumption we are given enormous possibilities to act in highly opportunistic ways. Thus, the crucible for a responsible media use lies in our own hands, as yet another area lending itself to discretionary morality. However, it is a political choice whether social utility is best imposed by collective intermediaries, or as an entirely private means of personal discretion. There is a wider need to investigate the political character of the Swedish file-sharing movement as it relates to the new modes of voluntary self-regulation that I have outlined in this article.

On the surface, it might appear as if institutions like The Pirate Party, or the now-defunct, less conventional Piratbyrån assemblage (out of which TPB later grew) both contain more individualistic-libertarian as well as more socially attuned strands. It is still an unresolved question whether these new modes of voluntary self-regulation that are partially realized by the file-sharing movement are about efficient markets (the libertarian anti-copyright argument), or about new forms of solidarity (shared experiences and ecological concerns for the digital realm). What is clear is that the Swedish move-ment outlined above has taken place within a wider, pan-societal shift from social democracy to a more neo-liberal agenda; an enormous issue that is only briefly reflected here but can be tracked in various sociological investigations, for example in the growth of individualism (Braun & Giraud, 2004; Delhey, 2009) and in contemporary discussions on ‘moral dirigisme’ (Rizzo, 2005) and/or ‘new paternalism,’ which ‘seeks to help individuals maximize their own welfare as they see it themselves’ (Rizzo & Whitman, 2008a). It is important to note that although statism is arguably decreasing, the new, increasingly privatized welfare state involves significant degrees of paternalism, albeit of a ‘softer’ kind (Saint-Paul, 2009).[16] The crisis between self-imposed, voluntary regulation and authoritarian, statist regulation is also seen in the current, EU-wide crisis of social democracy, and in the current EU regulatory regime of ‘de-regulating’ the economy by means of further regulatory frameworks advocating, for example, a ‘market model’ of broadcasting regulation[17]; see Marsden (2010) for an exposition of ‘net neutrality’ where the uneasy balance between various regulatory frameworks (co-regulation, industry self-regulation, or even ‘regulated self-regulation’) is outlined. Further, exposure to globalized markets is often said to exert de-regulatory pressures, but the penetration of globalization is however neither equally distributed nor in any way an a priori ‘force’ that should be pre-supposed (cf. Hafez, 2007).

Ultimately, if we take a view that is more globally critical of the digital ecology, an even larger question remains: Do these apparent differences fade away in the light of a much more holistic critique of the entire fundamentals of late modern capitalism? The present, rather cosy embeddedness that facilitates com-puter usage, its re-generation of intellectual labour, and subsequent circulation of products, is only made possible by a global general economy of organic combustion. In a longer historical context, we can ask ourselves whether the partiality to self-regulation outlined above is but one small part of a much larger, shared mentality, based on abundance – to which political disagreements over the formal modes of its organizational management (such as the FLOSS debates) might in fact become secondary. The entire postmaterialism thesis presupposes relative abundance; historically, this has not been constant, but fluctuates in accord with overall ecological conditions. Ultimately, the current abundance of cheaply available audiovisual content, and the infrastructures enabling this excess are the products of an oil-based general economy, where subsidized energy sources (electricity powering the data centres, and powering the produc-tion-consumption cycles of the hardware involved) and subsidized labour (low-wage workers assembling the parts) are required. These are, for the most part, hidden from the consumer, and should by no means be regarded as static, endlessly abundant resources in themselves.


[1] The term ‘digital politics’ is intended to refer to movements that strive to safeguard civil liberties on the internet by addressing the actual regulation of the internet (e.g. EFF, Telecomix, La Quadrature du Net). Terms like ‘cyberliberties’ (cf. Burkart, 2010) and ‘net activism’ (likewise, ‘netzpolitik’ in German and ‘nätpolitik’ in Swedish) are synonymous to this. These terms should not be conflated with the concept of ‘cyber-activism’ (Bennett, 2003; Bennett, 2008) where the internet is used as a medium through which activism is performed.

[2] Majid Yar (2003) elaborates on the Foucauldian panopticon thesis.

[3] The internet can be said to be sequestered vertically, in terms of access to its various applications: Think of the internet as layered according to the ‘network stack,’ with the physical layer at the bottom, followed by various protocol layers, some of which literally comprising applica-tions, requiring specific means of access. Without access to the Skype software, one cannot for example use that particular voice-over-IP application. It can also be seen to be sequestered horizontally, in terms of linguistic and geographical borders.

[4] Ironically, these values are making a return with neo-nationalist parties such as Sverigedemokraterna (who entered the Swedish parliament in the election of 2010, notably ranking far higher than the Swedish Pirate Party). However, according to the individua-lization thesis, such parties would be more indicative of a nostalgic, retrograde, peripheral reaction to the late-modern development observed by Beck et al., rather than representing any new sets of values with widespread appeal.

[5] Some of these blog accounts were taken up in my research, not in any systematic way, but as qualitative arguments in their own right, which were critically expounded upon.

[6] There are varying statistical figures, but a general assessment would look like this: Approximately 1 to 1,3 million Swedes (national population: 9 million) have been estimated to be regular users of p2p-based file-sharing networks; approximately 20 % of the adult population. Blomqvist et al. (2005) point to a Euro-pean survey indicating that digitization has practically made the computer the main storage of music for every two out of three Internet users. Based on statistical surveys in 2007 from the SOM Institute (Göteborg University), 75 % of all Swedish 15-19 year-olds had ‘downloaded’ music, and 50 % had ‘downloaded’ films. The figures for 20-29 year-olds was 63 % and 45 %. Approximately 70 % of all men and 32 % of all women aged 15-29 had ‘downloaded’ films (Antoni, 2007). In the age span 15-29, only 25 percent said that they did not download, and among students – usually being within the same age span – only one in five (21 percent) did not download (Ghersetti, 2009). The validity of these reports can however be questioned, since they use the imprecise term ‘downloading’. Antoni (2007) concludes that such ‘downloaders’ of film and music are active music consumers and cinemagoers as well.

[7] While p2p-based file-sharing is expected to grow by 16 percent from 2009 to 2014, other means of file-sharing, such as one-click file hosting, are expected to grow by 47 percent. Despite this growth, p2p as a percentage of consumer Internet traffic is expected to drop to 17 percent of consumer Internet traffic by 2014, down from 39 percent at the end of 2009 (Cisco 2010).


[9] The average spending on legal downloads among these was £5.52 a month, compared to the average monthly expenditure on digital music among those who were not illegally file-sharing, which was only £1.27 (Gibson, 2005).
[10] This is central to A.J. Greimas’s concept of ‘actant’ (1966) later taken up by Bruno Latour. An actant is a structural role or, rather, a functional operator that various actors – human and non-human – can embody. Any such actor relies on a range of associations to other human and non-human actors in order to function.

[11] It later came to my knowledge that Ahnegård et al. (2001) make the same distinction. It is unknown to me whether the respondents echoing this notion had in fact read or heard about this reference.

[12] This can also be said to be a typical example of ‘Othering’: negative characteristics of a phenomenon are attributed to other people.

[13] Regarding pornography, the answers were mixed, but regarding child pornography the antipathy was as strong as that for computer viruses.

[14] However, I would not primarily attribute this to the ‘distancing’ effect of computer use that Lindgren observes, but rather to different forms of visibility and habit. However, this discussion lies outside of the scope of this article.

[15] That is, when approaching it on a general level – not in the local instantiations, which are often, as we have seen, subject to regulation and censorship.

[16] In another article, Rizzo & Whitman (2008b) outline another problem with ‘new paternalism’ – namely, that it reinstates the knowledge problem that Friedrich Hayek pointed to in his critique of central planning. As policymakers cannot hold all the relevant information about individuals’ true preferences, cognitive biases, and/or choice contexts, paternalism will never be optimal, Rizzo & Whitman argue. It is not only a problem of acquiring all the information, one might add; real-world biases are local in character, they depend on time and place, as well as on what viewpoint and mode of justification one would take into account.

[17] The European Commission competition authorities for example demand pre-assess public service broadcasters’ new inventions in order to consider whether they distort markets or not (European Commission, 2009: §88). See f.ex. Humphreys (2008) or Turner & Lourenço (2010) for further discussions.

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How to cite this article:
Andersson, J. (2011) CSPP, RS 1-1: 1-18.

I would like to thank my Goldsmiths supervisors Sarah Kember and David Morley, as well as all the personal friends and colleagues who have been marvelously patient with me.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.