The Pirate Bay's Peter Sunde: 'They can't take my soul'
Peter Sunde was the poster boy for the file sharing movement, then he was sentenced to eight months prison and fined millions of dollars
Image credit: REUTERS/Anders Wiklund/Scanpix
We are standing in a parking lot in the city of Malmö, southern Sweden, one of the many places Peter Sunde now calls home. The sky above us is grey, as usual at this time of year. Just as the parking meter spits out our ticket, a young man driving much too fast on a motorcycle roars up behind us. He is followed by a police car, sirens blaring and blue lights flashing.
The motorcycle driver brakes to a stop next to our car, a silver-colored BMW. The policeman steps out with a grim look on his face. A speeding ticket is issued.
We start walking back toward our car. Sunde hesitates. "I'll just stay here," he says. "I'm not sure, but I think there may be a warrant for my arrest."
The BMW belongs to his mother. Sunde, who once ran the world's largest bittorrent site, doesn't own a car, or a house for that matter. Anything of value that he owns can be seized by the Swedish government, to pay off the damages that a court ruled he owed to the music and film industries. He's spent the past few years getting used to a life without belongings.
Sunde doesn't actually know if he is wanted by the police. A room at the Västervik prison awaits his arrival, but he hasn't bothered to show up. In fact, he is trying his best not to make himself available to the authorities. It's not that he stays in hiding, but he doesn't make himself easy to get in touch with either. He doesn't check his mail, and he doesn't call the police asking for instructions. If they want him, he says, then they know where to find him. "They haven't exactly been fair to me this far. If it happens, it happens, but I won't make things worse for myself," Sunde says.
We walk the other way, away from the police car.
This year, The Pirate Bay celebrates its 10th anniversary. Many of us have used the site at one time or other. Sunde has spent nearly a third of his life keeping it alive. He's developed the reputation of a provocateur. For nearly a decade he's been arguing against what he perceives as Hollywood's unjust monopoly on entertainment distribution, and for freeing the Internet from the shackles of the copyright industry. Two years ago, he lost. The Swedish royal court sentenced him and his three accomplices to jail and fined them 46 million Swedish kronor, roughly $7 million, in damages.
We are in Malmö to ask Sunde a very simple question: how does that make him feel? He has promised to give us an answer.
But first: Lunch. Our next stop is the all-vegan Chinese restaurant around the corner. "The owner runs a religious cult. They're insane, but the food is really good," Sunde tells us. A few minutes later he's tucking into a plate of Sichuan tofu and vegetable spring rolls. Between mouthfuls, we talk about Gottfrid "Anakata" Svartholm Warg and Fredrik "Tiamo" Neij, two of his co-defendants in the case.
The verdict handed down in November 2010 marked the end of one of the most talked-about court cases in the history of the Internet. The story of the Swedish pirates who gave Hollywood the finger transformed Sunde, Svartholm Warg and Neij into superstars. They travelled the world, and were photographed for glossy magazines. ("Pirates of the Multiplex" was the headline on a 2007 feature in Vanity Fair, that included pictures of Gottfrid and Fredrik, posing like rock stars next to the Pirate Bay servers.) The group enraged the film industry with cocky and profane retorts to a constant barrage of cease-and-desist-letters.
Sometimes, the three men were made out as villains and crooks; other times as heroes. But they were always seen as a tight-knit group of close friends, firmly set on changing the world. Nothing, Sunde says, could be farther from the truth. In reality, they hated each other: "We could hardly be in the same room together. Except when we worked on The Pirate Bay. Then everything sort of clicked into place," he says.
Peter Sunde Kolmisoppi was born in 1978 in the small Swedish town of Uddevalla. His mother worked as a staff consultant for a large company, his father as a travelling mechanic. His brother, Mats Kolmisoppi, is today an award-winning poet and author. His parents divorced when he was eight years old, and he moved to Norway with his mother and brother.
Shortly thereafter, his mother fell ill. She was diagnosed with psychosis and began suffering from delusions. "We moved house all the time. It was her way of handling it. She thought that everything would get better if we just found a new place to live."
His mother's illness, and his dealings with the Swedish health care system, had a profound effect on him, he says. "She was given the wrong medication and treated with a lot of suspicion. People didn't seem to care that much about her. Maybe because she was a single woman with two kids to take care of."
Sunde is an outspoken socialist, perhaps a less controversial label in Sweden than in many other countries. He enjoys discussing climate change, vegetarianism and issues of equality. Can he trace his political views back to childhood? He says the frustration born from seeing his mother go without help led him to one fundamental conclusion: "If you're not the right kind of person, society won't give you the help you need."
Sunde dropped out of school in his teens and started working as an IT consultant. He spent his evenings online and soon became involved in piracy, swapping music and films with others on invitation-only servers. Eventually, he was offered a job with the German technology company Siemens which, among many other things, develops IT systems for use in hospitals. A friend had convinced him to say yes: "If you do a good job, that could mean one or two people live longer than they would have otherwise."
Reality proved less glamorous. In 2003, based in Norway, Sunde helped program a system used for registering patients at hospitals. Older systems used fingerprints, and the new one would be compatible with retinal scanners. That got Sunde thinking. He had heard rumors of illegal immigrants burning their fingerprints away on kitchen stoves before visiting a hospital, so they wouldn't be caught and deported. Whether or not this ever happened is up for debate -- none of the experts on Norwegian asylum law we spoke to knew of any such cases -- but the rumor stuck with Sunde. While toiling away on the retinal scanner, all he could think of was asylum seekers poking their eyes out with knives.
He protested to his manager. "There was a lot of complaining after that. I was labeled as negative and difficult to work with," he says.
That same year, Sunde got in touch with Fredrik Neij through mutual acquaintances online. Fredrik needed help with a new project he was working on, a bittorrent-tracker that would eventually grow into The Pirate Bay. Sunde offered to help, started reading up on the file sharing movement, and realized he'd found a new home.
The Pirate Bay was born out of the Pirate Bureau, a loosely affiliated group of Scandinavian activists arguing for the free sharing of information and culture over the Internet. The ideas were far from new, but the group managed to orchestrate somewhat of a tectonic shift in Swedish public debate. Their rhetoric painted software piracy as a point of pride, rather than something shameful. Piracy, they argued, was an act of defiance, something to flaunt in the eyes of copyright holders, whose increasingly aggressive legal teams were putting basic Internet liberties at risk. The group regarded The Pirate Bay, their very own bittorrent tracker, as a physical manifestation of those ideas. The goals were lofty: The Pirate Bay was to become a limitless database of information, free from censorship and regulation, and an ever-present thorn in the side of the copyright industry. The rhetoric, always dressed in black-and-white pirate garb, struck a chord with many, not least with Sunde.
"It felt sort of like backpacking in Asia and then suddenly meeting a bunch of people from your home town. These were people who shared my views and were capable of debate," he says.
Sunde was soon the official spokesperson for The Pirate Bay, mostly because nobody else could be bothered. "Fredrik is a dyslectic and Gottfrid isn't really compatible with other people. So I started replying to e-mails and telling people what I thought," he says.
Three years later, on May 31, 2006, a group of police officers marched into the data center in southern Stockholm that housed the Pirate Bay servers and promptly pulled the plug. Svartholm Warg and Neij were both brought in for questioning. The raid marked the beginning of six years of legal wrangling. Sunde, Svartholm Warg, Neij and their one-time financier Carl Lundström were all charged with copyright crimes. In February 2012, six years later, the case came to an end as the Swedish High Court declined to hear an appeal.
In retrospect, is there anything Sunde regrets? Yes, he says, just one little thing. "I should have told Gottfrid to encrypt his hard drive. That's where the evidence came from. Even though he works professionally with security, I should have told him," he says.
Nowadays, Sunde spends a lot of time travelling. He's a popular speaker -- a few weeks before our interview he spoke at a conference in Beirut, before that in Malaysia. He regularly moves between Berlin, Malmö and Gdansk in Poland, where his girlfriend lives. Flattr, the startup he founded a few years ago but in which he now has no formal ownership, also takes up a lot of his time. He hasn't had anything to do with The Pirate Bay for years, he says. "Travelling has turned into a sort of lifestyle, I suppose. The world keeps getting smaller," he says.
Perhaps there are other explanations, too. The damages that Sunde owes the music and film industries make it difficult for him to settle down. He can't buy an apartment or a car, as they would immediately be seized by the authorities to pay off his debt. "Only in Sweden though," Sunde says, but doesn't elaborate.
With interest, Sunde and his co-defendants today owe more than 75 million Swedish kronor, roughly $11 million. The debt is shared "in solidarity" -- yes, that's the actual legal term -- between them. That means the authorities will take the money wherever they can, even if all of it is from one person.
Sunde shrugs when our conversation moves to his debt. "I don't believe in the American dream anyway, becoming a billionaire and buying expensive cars. Most people in my world are still paying off their tuition fees. In a way, owing a hundred million is easier than a hundred thousand, because you stop imagining that you will ever be able to pay the money back," he says. "I actually feel kind of liberated. I can never become a wage slave."
During the trial, e-mail correspondence that was brought forward by the prosecution indicate that The Pirate Bay could have taken in millions of dollars in advertising revenue each year. But Sunde, Svartholm Warg and Neij all insist they hardly made a dollar. Whatever money came in was immediately spent on server maintenance and bandwith, they say.
It's a difficult claim to swallow. The Pirate Bay was, and still is, one of the most visited websites in the world. It's also plastered with ads, which someone presumably is paying good money for. But the fact is that nobody has been able to find any money to speak of. Even the prosecutor, Håkan Roswall, only claimed a total of 1.2 million Swedish kronor, about $190,000, in court. That's peanuts, considering the traffic volumes that pour through The Pirate Bay each day.
The defendants haven't exactly been forthcoming either. Lundström declared himself bankrupt in summer 2012. Svartholm Warg left Sweden for Cambodia and Neij moved to Laos, both hoping to escape the Swedish authorities. Is Sunde too planning a sudden move abroad? He won't give a straight answer. "I have no intention of changing my life for this," he says.
What he will talk about however, at great length, are the injustices he says have plagued the Pirate Bay trial from the start. He speaks of judges who spend time with copyright lobbyists, and the policeman who investigated The Pirate Bay and was then given a job with Warner Brothers. He points to the damages claimed by the prosecution that were based on calculations seemingly plucked from thin air. "In a perfect world, the European court of Justice would put them all in jail," he says.
Two weeks before our interview, Sunde was heading out the revolving doors at Malmö Airport. Passing him, heading in, was Tomas Norström, the judge in the first instance court who sentenced him to jail three years earlier. Sunde turned around and confronted him.
Norström remembers their meeting well. "He asked if I had been bribed and if they'd given me a raise after the sentencing. I said no," Norström says. He was in a hurry at the time, searching his pockets for the airline ticket while trying to answer the accusations.
Sunde stands by his words. Most of his answers to our questions amount to the same thing. He's agitated, angry and offended. The only thing he never admits to is finding the whole thing kind of difficult. Most people in his situation would have a hard time sleeping at night. But Sunde refuses to admit he's ever felt sad, lonely or vulnerable. Not yet. "Maybe that'll come later. Tomorrow or in a few years. But right now I'm just pissed off," he says.
Perhaps the explanation is that he won't give his opponents -- which at this point would include the Swedish judicial system, the police and Hollywood as a whole -- the satisfaction. Feeling sad would mean admitting defeat.
"The thing is, they can't take my soul. Even if I get locked up somewhere, I know that I'm not the one who did wrong. I deserve no punishment, and that gives me the right to be angry. I'm not the one who should feel sorry," Sunde says.
In late 2008, things nearly boiled over. Sunde was on holiday in Iceland when a reporter from Swedish television called up and started asking questions about dead children. Somehow, details from a police investigation into two children who had been murdered in the Swedish town of Arboga had been leaked onto the Pirate Bay. Several photos of their corpses were now being shared among the site's users. The case, in all its gory details, had struck a chord with the public and was covered widely in the Swedish press that year.
The story that now followed accused The Pirate Bay founders of putting the photographs of the dead children online. In the outcry that followed, things began to change. The public perception of Sunde shifted: He was no longer portrayed as the hero, the underdog everyone rooted for. Instead, he became the villain, a cynical exploiter, profiteering from the death of two children.
The story wasn't entirely true. The pictures hadn't been uploaded by the site administrators but by another user. It wasn't a leak: All police investigations are made public by default under Swedish law, so finding them had been a simple matter of calling the court and providing a delivery address. What Sunde, Svartholm Warg and Neij had done, however, was refuse to remove the torrent from The Pirate Bay once it had been posted.
Sunde patiently answered questions from the journalists who kept calling. He explained how the site administrators never judged what users chose to upload, and how plenty of offensive stuff could be found using search engines like Google. The Pirate Bay was no different, he argued. It simply indexed stuff that users wanted to share.
His strategy didn't work very well. The debate took a turn for the worse when some began using the case to argue for reform of the principles of transparency that govern the Swedish judicial system. Even the Swedish minister for justice herself chimed in, arguing for the courts to abide by tougher secrecy regulations. The Pirate Bay was suddenly being painted as a threat against everything Sunde held dear: openness, transparency and freedom of information.
The final straw came when he was invited onto Debatt, a popular talk show on Swedish television, to discuss The Pirate Bay in front of a live studio audience. Sunde accepted on one condition: he would not discuss the photographs from the Arboga case. The producer who invited him agreed to those terms, but that was a lie. When Sunde arrived at the studio, one of the other guests was the father of the two murdered children. Shortly thereafter, Sunde stepped back from The Pirate Bay. In a blog post that has since been deleted, he announced that he would no longer speak to journalists. "I've got no respect left for the media," he wrote. In a sense, he was proven right. Debatt posted a public apology. One year later, a government committee concluded that the photos posted onto The Pirate Bay should never have been made public in the first place. No changes in law were needed.
More important to Sunde was the support he kept getting from fans. "We get letters sent every day. People seem really grateful, and that gives a lot of energy. Keep in mind that we're not Britney Spears, we haven't got a publicity department. We're not selling posters," he says.
In the summer of 2012, Svartholm Warg was arrested in Cambodia on suspicion of hacking and fraud, presumably unrelated to the Pirate Bay case, and transported back to Sweden. He is currently awaiting trial. The amount of support from the public in his case has been overwhelming, Sunde says. "His mother has received thousands of letters. That makes me really happy. She is realizing how much of a positive impact his actions have had on people."
Looking back, it is clear that The Pirate Bay pushed forward the public debate on copyright and freedom of information. The file-sharing movement shook the entertainment industry to its core and, arguably, functioned as a catalyst for streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix. In the European Parliament elections of summer 2009, a few months after The Pirate Bay founders were sentenced to jail, the Swedish Pirate Party secured 7.1% of the vote. Many people who then took an active part in the debate on software piracy, some of them close friends of Sunde from the Pirate Bureau days, are now renowned academics who have made names for themselves as proponents of copyright reform. But few have ever translated their words into code and action.
Sunde points to the left side of the table in front of him. "This is where they are," he says, referring to the film and music industry. He then moves his finger a few inches to the right. "And this is where the academics are, like Lawrence Lessig." He is referring to the Harvard professor famous for his critiques of copyright law and well-known among intellectually-minded software pirates. In his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lessig argues that the Internet has changed things to such an extent that many of the rules governing the offline world, notably copyright law, need to be rewritten. That is exactly what The Pirate Bay set out to prove in practice.
Sunde then points to the far right of the room. "I want to be over there, pulling everyone else in my direction," he says -- far off in the distance, in other words, away from the thinkers, pundits, speakers, journalists and authors who have taken an interest in Internet freedom and software piracy. Those are the people with a steady income through writing articles, selling books and profitable speaking engagements.
But Peter Sunde was sentenced to jail and fined millions of dollars.
How does that make him feel?
Sunde stays silent for a while before answering:
"I get love letters sent to my home. Do you?"
*The Pirate Bureau sets up a bittorrent-tracker, later named The Pirate Bay. It grows to become one of the largest file-sharing sites on the Internet.
*Motion Picture Association of America contacts the Swedish Ministry of Justice, asking them to take action against The Pirate Bay. This is a very sensitive issue in Sweden, where ministers are strictly forbidden to directly intervene in how government agencies, such as the police, handle specific cases. The legal term is "ministerial rule."
*Police raid the data center where The Pirate Bay is hosted. The servers are taken offline and Gottfrid Svartholm Warg and Fredrik Neij are taken in for questioning. Three days later, The Pirate Bay is back online.
*Minister for Justice Thomas Bodström is accused of ministerial rule following the raid, but the allegations are dismissed.
*Peter Sunde, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Fredrik Neij and Carl Lundström are charged with copyright offenses.
*The policeman responsible for the investigation into the Pirate Bay accepts a new job with Warner Brothers, one of the claimants in the case.
*A district court sentences Peter Sunde, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Fredrik Neij and Carl Lundström to one year in prison and a total of 31 million Swedish kronor in damages. The defendants appeal the verdict.
*Tomas Norström, the presiding judge in the district court, is accused of bias after it emerges that he is affiliated with a Swedish pro-copyright organization. Other members of the same group are employed by the film and music industries.
*The Royal Court gives its verdict in the Pirate Bay case. The four defendants see their prison terms shortened somewhat, but the damages increase to a total of more than $7 million. The defendants again appeal the verdict.
*The High Court declines to take up the case on appeal.
*Gottfrid Svartholm Warg is arrested in Cambodia and transported back to Sweden. He is now serving his sentence in the Pirate Bay case while a prosecutor investigates a separate hacking and fraud case.
*With interest, Peter Sunde, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Fredrik Neij and Carl Lundström now owe roughly $11 million.
FACT BOX: The Pirate Bay founders
Peter Sunde, alias Brokep
*Sentenced to eight months in jail, yet to be served.
*Former spokesperson for The Pirate Bay
*Divides his time between Malmö, Berlin and Gdansk
*Founded the online payments startup Flattr
*Claims no ongoing affiliation with The Pirate Bay
Fredrik Neij, alias Tiamo
*Sentenced to 10 months in jail, yet to be served
*Currently residing in Laos
*Declared himself bankrupt in 2012
*Still the registered owner of the Pirate Bay domain name
Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, alias Anakata
*Did not show up for the Royal Court hearing
*Sentenced to one year in prison, now being served
*Arrested in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during fall 2012 and transported back to Sweden. Now under investigation in a separate hacking and fraud case.
*Multi-millionaire residing in Switzerland
*Charged with being the main financier behind The Pirate Bay
*Sentenced to four months in prison. Served his jail time at home, with an electronic tag
*Declared himself bankrupt in 2012
*In the past, has been tied to right-wing-extremist groups