Last week, Bildt and his colleagues at Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed hundreds of delegates to the Stockholm Internet Forum to discuss what Sweden considers one of the “great global issues of the future”.
“Our aim is clear: to create an international, inclusive platform for constructive discussions on the importance of internet freedom for development,” Bildt told conference attendees in Stockholm last week.
“We will work to connect the unconnected to an open, secure internet that drives innovation and growth, and that contributes to better democracy and the enjoyment of free speech.”
But while Bildt’s message was clear to everyone in the audience in Stockholm, a report released on Wednesday suggested that Sweden has so far failed to adequately explain its commitment to internet freedom to a wider audience.
“Sweden does a lot right already, but we are too unknown. We’re a small player. So we need to work with others to raise our profile,” United Minds analyst Paul Alacron, one of the authors of the report, told The Local.
The report, Freedom and Development on the Internet, was published by the Swedish Institute, together with the United Minds opinion research firm, and is designed to give a qualitative view of internet freedom in six countries, as well as insights into Sweden’s perceived importance for the issue.
In-depth interviews with 18 internet experts and activists in Russia, Pakistan, India, China, the United States, and Egypt revealed that there is a demand for Sweden’s expertise on internet freedom, but that awareness of what Sweden has to offer is limited.
“If you ask a regular Chinese, most would probably think that the United States is the best role model [for internet freedom]. Most Chinese don’t know anything about Sweden,” one Chinese blogger is quoted as saying in the report.
Meanwhile, Pranesh Prakash from the Centre for Internet and Society in India, said Sweden could better leverage its strong reputation to help promote internet freedom.
“If the Americans push an issue, many go against it simply because they’re behind it. If Sweden takes up the same proposal, the chances are greater that the debate will be about the proposal itself,” he said in the report.
According to report co-author Javeria Rizvi Kabani of the Swedish Institute, Sweden has kept a low profile in part due to safety considerations for activists who have participated in exchange programmes organized by the Swedish Institute.
“The safety of those in the of human rights defenders and net activist networks we’ve created over the last few years and who have visited Sweden always comes first. So we’ve focused on that rather than Sweden’s profile on these issues,” she told The Local.
The low-profile approach is nothing new for Sweden, she added.
“We have been very strong in recent years in foreign aid and supporting the process of democratization around the world, but unlike other countries, we haven’t put ‘brand Sweden’ next to that work,” Rizvi Kabani explained.
While Sweden is generally recognized as a country that promotes transparency and the freedom of information, the report revealed that the ongoing case involving Sweden’s attempts to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has dented some people’s belief that Sweden is committed to internet freedom.
“The trial of Julian Assange makes Sweden’s relationship with the issue of internet freedom complicated,” Egyptian journalist Nasry Esmat said in the report.
“I’m aware that the accusations against Assange pertain to something completely different, but that makes Sweden appear like a country that doesn’t support WikiLeaks.”
The report also pointed to a “troublesome development” in some countries whereby regimes are trying to exert more control over the internet and the spread of information.
According to Alacron, such developments, while concerning, are simply one more argument for why Sweden needs to raise its profile as a staunch supporter of internet freedom.
“Sweden has an important role to play. That’s very clear,” he said.
“Knowledge and understanding about Sweden may be rather low, but at the same time there are high expectations for what Sweden can do. The conditions are ripe, therefore, for Sweden to play an even more important role in these issues.”