Yet it’s worth paying attention to the currently unfolding New Zealand election. Beyond the center-right National Party and the center-left Labour Party, beyond the Greens and the Conservatives, a new party is emerging -- the Internet Party -- and it may herald a fundamental shift in politics as we know it.
On the surface, the Internet Party sounds like it’s come straight off an episode of Punk’d. For one thing, it was created by the German tech entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload, currently under threat of extradition to the U.S. to face charges of criminal copyright infringement, money laundering and conspiracy to commit racketeering.
To make matters even more Kardashian, in 2012 Dotcom was arrested following a dawn raid on his mansion by armed police -- a raid that was subsequently determined to be illegal and for which he is now suing the New Zealand government. At the time, Hollywood Reporter said of Dotcom, “He wanted to be the next Steve Jobs… But the outrageous ex-hacker and self proclaimed Dr. Evil, who collected yachts and $400,000 supercars as his file=sharing website amassed 180 million users, faces 50 years in prison as showbiz braces for the nastiest piracy fight ever.”
So it would be easy to dismiss the political party he founded as a shallow ploy to garner even more attention. Easy -- but not smart, for a few reasons. One is that Dotcom is a master marketer, and the Internet Party is perfectly pitched to appeal to rebellious youth fighting against the system. Case in point: its electronic anthem, “Reboot,” which comes with the tagline: “They mess with our Internet. We will take them down.”
But this is about far more than the party’s brand persona, as Carole Cadwalladr reported in The Guardian last week. It’s about the kind of platform that is actually resonating with young people across the country: “The Internet party wants to make the country networked, to invest in education and new infrastructure – at the moment it only has one submarine cable through which all internet traffic travels (via the US) – and to diversify the economy from its current reliance on agriculture. Tertiary education would be free, [Dotcom] tells the crowd, Wi-Fi would be everywhere – even mobile reception is patchy in rural areas – and social justice would be served by increased opportunity for all… The internet, and the possibilities created by it, is where future growth lies...”
Dotcom seems to be ahead of the curve on placing digital access at the heart of his party platform. Two years ago in this column, I wrote about Kaspersky Labs’ Evgeny Kaspersky and his assessment of what the growing digital gap between generations is going to mean for elections: “Digital Natives, never having known a world without the Internet, expect immediacy and mobility. If there is a task that this ultraconnected cohort feels they should be able to accomplish online, they won’t put in the effort to get it done any other way… [and] one task that we really should be able to accomplish online is voting. But the security specifications for voting are significantly higher than those for Twitter, and if we can’t meet those specs -- and, as of now, we can’t -- there's not much point in allowing it to happen online. If you think elections can be bought now, just wait until they can be hacked; a vulnerable e-democracy is not far removed from no democracy at all. The alternative, that we stick with an analog voting system (or at least an in-person one), produces an equally volatile scenario: that “official” elections engage only the dinosaurs, and that everyone born after the year 2000 unhooks from the framework.”
Whether the Internet Party receives enough of the vote to earn seats in the New Zealand Parliament -- where it could potentially hold the balance of power -- remains to be seen. But for Digital Natives, the Internet is as much a basic right as food or shelter. And politicians worldwide should be paying attention to whether, if you mess with their Internet, they will take you down.