The political iconoclast at the center of Europe's tech policy debate
The sole member of the Pirate Party in the European Union Parliament, Julia Reda has emerged as influential voice as digital issues take center stage.
She's an outsider and an agitator. Even the name of her political party – the Pirate Party – conveys an intention to disrupt traditional politics and policies.
But Julia Reda is having a moment as tech policy takes center stage in the European Union. She's moved from the political fringe as the only EU parliamentarian from the Pirate Party, a movement championed by internet activists and copyright reformers, to become an important voice in Europe's debate over matters of technology.
“In the EU Parliament, you can be very influential as a single person if your topics are good," says Markus Beckedahl, cofounder of the European tech conference re.publica and watchdog NetzPolitik.org. “Julia Reda has the talent and the knowledge and the network.”
Over the past year, the EU has sought to strengthen online privacy protections for its citizens and inked a digital trade deal with the US to give Europeans legal redress against American government surveillance practices.
While most of Ms. Reda's political energy is directed at reforming EU copyright laws – a focus that earned her a spot on Politico Europe's list of "40 MEPs who actually matter" – she also founded the Digital Agenda Group, an unofficial group for parliamentarians to learn more about tech issues.
"Public policy needs to be much more proactive in promoting and using technology,” Reda said recently in her Brussels office, wearing a simple T-shirt and an Apple Watch. “We don't even have possibility to encrypt emails in Parliament."
The Pirates’ platform is ferociously independent, bordering on anarchistic. The party was born in Sweden in 2006, and, while the various national parties' platforms vary, they all center on direct democracy, open access to information, and freedom of expression. As Reda says, the Pirate Party "is trying to use tech to empower people."
Originally from Bonn, Germany, Reda started in politics when she was 16, joining the center-left Social Democrats. She decamped to the Pirates in 2009 after becoming disillusioned with the Social Democrats web policy. "It was older men over 50 deciding how a medium that they weren’t even using was going to be regulated."
In the early days of the internet, Reda spent a lot of time playing an online political simulation game, meeting friends who also later went into politics in real life. "I’ve always looked at the internet as a space where I can find likeminded people and explore my interests, and that’s always been hugely important to me."
In the Pirates she found a new generation of tech-savvy Europeans who believed in the power of the internet to foster political change.
"There is a political system in development there that presents a one-time chance to overcome national egotism for once and for all," she said in 2014 during a rally for her campaign for Parliament.
"We Pirates have the opportunity to help shape it. And what do Pirates do when we get a beta version? We’re excited about it, we try things out, and we work together to make it better.”