Internet freedom in Sweden — a closer look
Published: 13 Apr 2012
Sweden promotes internet freedom globally. But what about internet freedom within Sweden? Just how free are people emailing in Umeå, linking in Linköping or downloading in Dalarna?
To better understand how the internet is regulated in Sweden, let's take a closer look at six important topics: connectivity, transparency, censorship, surveillance, privacy and copyright.
A well-connected country
Sweden is one of the world's best connected countries, with around 90 percent of households having access to the internet. It was also one of the earliest countries to see a majority of its population online — by 2001 — in part because of regulations that ensured shared access to internet infrastructure between network operators, keeping prices far below the European average.
On the other hand, network operators are not obliged to treat all data equally, though most do, given the competitive landscape. Overall, the effect on connectivity has been positive, according to Patrik Fältström, head of research at the Swedish Internet infrastructure organization Netnod. "The access you get when you buy simple broadband access is more open than most other places on the planet," he says.
One response to having so many Swedes online so quickly was to move government services there. In Sweden it has long been possible to file taxes online. Since 2003, Sweden has had an e-government task force dedicated to delivering all government services — municipal, county and national — online.
Providing e-services is one thing; compelling government agencies to make their public datasets available online in free and open formats has proven far harder, despite a long tradition of making (analog) documents public. Only one-third of Swedish public data sources are available online in an open and free format. Sweden is also the only Scandinavian country to lack a national open data portal.
There are individual successes, such as OpenAid, the open data portal by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). But overall, Sweden lags behind "open government" leaders such as the United States and the United Kingdom.
In Sweden there is no law that compels internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to sites. ISPs voluntarily collaborate with police to block a centralized list of sites trafficking in child sexual abuse.
And yet such a system is not ideal, argues Marcin de Kaminski, an internet researcher at the department of Sociology of Law at Lund University. That's because there is no transparency in how the block list is maintained. "There is no way to legally appeal against a list entry, for instance," de Kaminski says, "and there is no third-party control of what is actually blocked."
The risk, then, is that an unregulated block list could end up being used as a political tool — perhaps not in Sweden, where trust in the police is high and there is widespread disdain for censorship — but in other countries looking to adopt the Swedish model of internet regulation. "Even though the Swedish block list has these flaws," says de Kaminski, "it is used as a role model in the European discussion about block lists."
In 2008, Sweden's parliament narrowly passed a law that lets its signals intelligence agency (FRA) monitor the content of all cross-border cable-based internet traffic to combat "external threats" such as terrorism and organized crime — but only after obtaining court permission, and upon the explicit request of government or defense agencies.
In 2012 parliament broadly passed the "Data Retention Directive" (DLD) which compels ISPs to store the who, where and when (but not the what) of online communication within Sweden for six months, in case law enforcement agencies come calling for their investigations with a court order.
The FRA law has proven controversial in Sweden; the DLD law not so much. One reason is that they both exist within a European context, where EU directives guide how national legislatures are meant to implement laws. While the DLD law implements a minimal version of the European Data Retention Directive of 2006, the FRA law goes beyond the directive's scope by allowing the surveillance of content.
Privacy and protection
Sweden's Data Inspection Board has long worked to ensure that personal information stays protected when handled by government agencies, businesses and people. The internet has greatly transformed its role, which now includes combating cyberbullying and regulating use of cloud-based data storage.
One complicating factor is that many of the services people use to share personal data — like Facebook and Google — lie outside Sweden's jurisdiction. Another is the natural tension between the right to privacy and the right to free expression and a free press, with that balance scrambled by the rise of blogs and semi-private publishing on social media platforms.
Copyright — a hot topic
File sharing is popular in Sweden, especially among youth, even though much of it is illegal under Swedish copyright law. In an effort to enforce copyright protection online, Swedish parliament in 2009 broadly passed a law implementing the EU directive on intellectual property rights enforcement (IPRED). The law allows criminal prosecution and jail terms for heavy-use illegal file sharers, and compels ISPs to identify suspected offenders upon request by a court of law.
However, Swedish courts have ruled that the right to privacy of suspected occasional file sharers trumps the interests of copyright holders, curtailing IPRED's scope to more serious cases. Sweden's IPRED law is currently also being challenged in the European Court of Justice for violating European personal integrity laws.
A more encompassing international treaty, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has been signed by EU member states but has not yet been ratified.
Both IPRED and ACTA are proving controversial, especially with Swedish youth. Sweden's Pirate Party harnessed this popular discontent to win its first European Parliament seats in 2009. Criticism comes in several flavors: Pirate Party supporters want to overhaul the very notion of copyright, so that the online remix culture and other non-commercial uses of creative content are exempt from regulation. Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Party, says that "The civil liberties that our parents enjoyed offline must carry over into the online world."
Others, like internet researcher de Kaminski, worry that the enforcement laws being implemented have their priorities wrong, or are too intrusive. "What we need to do is establish rights and principles of freedom concerning the internet," de Kaminski says, "so that we have a free, open and secure base to begin with. Then we can start to discuss the necessary exceptions."
The Swedish context
It is worth remembering that the FRA, DLD and IPRED laws, the block list and privacy protections operate within a specific Swedish context. Replicating these laws may not produce the same results in places that lack Sweden's negligible corruption, high levels of trust in public institutions and a culture of free expression — non-legislated norms. Internet freedom in Sweden is determined by more than the sum of its legislative parts.
This feature has been published by the Swedish Institute.