Internet freedom in Sweden — a primer

Sweden ramps up a major foreign policy initiative this week when it hosts the inaugural Stockholm Internet Forum, bringing together 300 technologists, activists and scholars from around the world to brainstorm “Internet freedom for global development”. By linking net freedom to social development, Sweden becomes one of a handful of countries for which defending the rights of Internet users beyond its borders is now an explicit foreign policy goal.

Underlying this policy of promoting Internet freedom abroad lies the assumption that there is Internet freedom within. So just how free are people emailing in Umeå, linking in Linköping or downloading in Dalarna? From a policy perspective, is the set of laws regulating Internet use inside Sweden worth emulating abroad?

To answer these questions, it helps to to look at six facets of Internet freedom that have come to loom large as ever-greater parts of our lives are lived online: Connectivity, transparency, censorship, surveillance, privacy and copyright. How does Sweden fare in each of these areas?

Sweden is one of the world’s best-connected countries, with around 90% 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 regulations promoting competition ensured shared access to Internet infrastructure, keeping prices far below the European average.

On the other hand, network operators are free to prioritize the different types of data they deliver to subscribers; there is no legal requirement to be “network neutral”, though most are, given the competitive landscape. Overall, argues Patrik Fältström, head of research at the Swedish Internet infrastructure organization Netnod, the result has been positive: “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 an e-government task force dedicated to delivering all government services — municipal, county and national — online. By 2008, it topped the UN’s global e-government readiness rankings.

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. In part, this is due to vague directives that have let reluctant bureaucracies drag their feet.

Sweden thus lags behind “open government” leaders, notably the US and UK, and is alone among Scandinavian countries in not having a national open data portal. There are individual successes, such as the open data portal by Sweden’s international aid agency SIDA. Overall, still only one third of Swedish public data sources are available online in an open and free format.

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 blacklist is maintained. “There is no way to legally appeal a list entry, for instance,” he 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 blocklist 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 on a case-per-case basis, 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.

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 — Facebook, 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.

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, 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 illegal file sharers, and compels ISPs to identify suspected offenders upon request by a court of law.

Unlike France, Sweden’s implementation of IPRED does not cut off Internet access for repeat offenders. Swedish courts have also 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 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 parlayed this popular discontent into its first ever European Parliament seats in 2009. Criticism comes in several flavors: Pirate Party supporters wants 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. Says Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Party: “The civil liberties that our parents enjoyed offline must carry over into the online world.”

Others worry that the enforcement laws being implemented have their priorities wrong, or are too intrusive. Argues de Kaminski: “What we need to do is establish rights and principles of freedom concerning the Internet — so that we have a free, open and secure base to begin with. Then we can start to discuss the necessary exceptions.”

When it comes to assessing the FRA, DLD and IPRED laws, the block list and privacy protections, it is worth remembering that they operate within a specific Swedish context. Replicating these laws may not produce the same results in places that do not also have 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.

An edited version of this article is available on, for which it was commissioned.

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