Sweden always seems to be at the forefront of any discussion pertaining to privacy laws on the Internet. The Swedish government places no restrictions on Internet use for anyone. Even in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, there have been no credible reports that the emails and chats of Swedish citizens have been monitored without proper judicial authorization. In fact, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) keeps no file on Sweden at all.
Knowing Me, Not Knowing You
Sweden has a long history of privacy laws. As early as 1973, it became the first country in the world to enact a comprehensive statute that protects the privacy of personal data on computers.
Sweden’s commitment to privacy is so enshrined that when the EU passed the 2006 “Data Retention Directive”, the Swedish government decided not to play ball. The directive required EU states to ensure that all national Internet service providers (ISPs) retain logs of their customers for the purposes of “investigation and prosecution”. This data was required to be kept for a minimum of six months, and harvesting was to begin no later than September 15, 2007.
Fastforward to 2010 and, after years of dragging their feet, Sweden was being taken to court by the European Commission (EC) because it had yet to implement the directive. The EC was seeking a fine for every day the law was not in place. The court action was obviously a kick up the backside for Sweden. The Swedish government immediately put the directive into place, and have towed the line ever since.
Just kidding! Of course they didn’t. It would take a further two years of Sweden clinging to Lady Liberty, screaming “Don’t Wanna! Not Gonna!” before anything changed. The requirement was finally put in place in 2012, but not before Sweden was forced to pay a hefty €3m fine to the EC. The delay was caused by arguments over how best to balance privacy laws and the desire to combat crime. Or, by being a responsible government.
But this little dance didn’t end there. In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) invalidated the Data Retention Directive. The court found it to seriously interfere with human rights. Pretty much as soon as the ruling was announced, Bahnhof (one of the country’s leading ISPs) started destroying all of the data it had been obliged to hold. Bahnhof CEO Jon Karlung also said that Bahnhof would stop retaining new data with immediate effect.
Of course, the EU demanded that Bahnhof be compelled to start harvesting data again, but the Swedish government had no intention of forcing them to do so.
Sweden started its Internet existence the right way, and it seems like the country is prepared to stand its ground in order to keep it that way.
Super Trouper, Google’s Gonna Find Me
Back in the 1990s, the public was just getting onboard with the Internet, but they weren’t really sure what to do with it. Was it another passing fad, like Betamax and the Cabbage Patch Kids?
In the early days, the Internet was very much like Tor is now (a service we’ll come back to shortly). It was wild and free, but if you wanted to go to a specific website, you had to remember the whole URL address. Sometimes really long ones too. Remember the GeoCities chat groups? Those required some Derren Brownesque display of mental prowess just to even turn up at the right place.
Search engines eventually arrived to add a structure that makes sense to people. Algorithms indexed the content of the Internet, making it accessible to everyone who could type a word or two into a search bar. But it was Google who emerged as the de facto homepage of the Internet. Google control 65 percent of Internet search, and their influence is staggering. Naturally, this doesn’t give them a free pass in Sweden. When Google Apps breached the nation’s privacy laws, it was promptly banned. Because the first rule of the Internet in Sweden is that you don’t mess with the Internet in Sweden
Sweden adopted the Internet early due to regulations promoting competition across the country. This meant Internet access costs were (and still are) way below the global average. The take-up was so high that the government started to move its services online, long before any other even thought about it. In 2003, Sweden created the first Internet task force, which in turn came up with the Sweden Electronic Communications Act 2003: 389. This was aimed at ensuring private individuals, legal entities, and public authorities had secure and efficient access to the Internet. Not only were they looking to protect users, but also make the Internet more robust and accessible to all. In 2008, when everyone else was still buying their books from real book shops, Sweden headed the UN’s e-government readiness test. Because of course they did. They’d been doing it for five years already.
Sweden and the Tor Network
Tor has taken the crown from computer games as the go-to scapegoat of choice for lazy politicians looking to overreact about something. The Tor network is the anonymous, uncategorized service that you may know as the Dark Web. But it’s not just full of criminals and girls with dragon tattoos, it’s where the discerning Internet user goes when they don’t want to be spied on. Coupled with a VPN service, Tor is utterly impenetrable. No matter how hard the NSA tries to crack it.
Researchers from the United States Naval Research Laboratory developed Tor as a safe way to transmit US intelligence around the world. The reasons for opening Tor up to the public are as schizophrenic as they are genius. Despite being Tor’s loudest critic, the US remains the largest contributor. Closely followed by… Sweden. A branch of the Swedish government, SIDA, has a goal of promoting “Internet Freedom for global development”. Tor is seen as the best way of achieving this, so they invested in it heavily.
But why do they care so much about not just their own privacy, but the rest of the world’s too?
This Is the Internet, So the Answer Is Obviously Hitler
It all began long before the Internet existed. In 1766, Sweden became the first country to introduce a constitutional law which abolished censorship and guaranteed freedom of the press. The press could report without hindrance and people could speak their minds without fear of reproach. Everything was awesome.
Then the Nazis showed up. The Nazis pressured Sweden to not publish anything which made the Third Reich look bad. In a move which must have had him rubbing his hands and cackling with evil glee, the German Minister of Justice at the time dug up an old Swedish law which prohibited “offensive writings” against a foreign state. A law presumably introduced because Sweden is nice and they didn’t want to be rude.
Many Swedish authors and publishers fell foul of this blatant misuse of power. Ture Nerman got three months in prison for an anti-Hitler column and Israel Holmgren had his book The Nazi Hell pulped (after he was locked up for writing it, of course). In a lovely bit of ballsy Swedish defiance, as soon as Holmgren was released from prison, he immediately re-published the book, ironically titled The Nazi Paradise.
After WWII, the Swedish changed and deleted the laws, lest any future fascist dictator tries to turn their own politeness against them again. A new privacy charter was drawn up, which means today there is absolutely no censorship in Sweden at all.
I Was In Your Arms, Thinking I Belonged There
As suggested by the SIDA program mentioned earlier, Sweden don’t just take care of themselves. Internet privacy is a global concern, after all.
When WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden dropped the snoop bomb on the world, it was Swedish ISP Bahnhof (the same provider who destroyed all their customer records) that Julian Assange trusted to keep the whistleblowing documents safe. Assange specifically mentioned the Swedish constitution, which gives total legal protection to information providers, in his decision to host the files there.
Also, the servers were installed in a secret underground mountain bunker. And if you’re going to take on the world’s governments, you might as well get yourself a sweet lair.
The Swedish approach to privacy and freedom of speech was instrumental in getting the word out there. We had no idea as to the scale of the snooping we have been being subjected to until WikiLeaks showed us. Thanks to a brave few individuals, big governments have been rumbled. They have been exposed. And now we rightly seek to protect our privacy.
So why is Sweden at the forefront of the Internet and its laws? There’s no single reason. But the Kingdom has a long and proud history of free speech. And their torrid time next to Nazi Germany no doubt strengthened their desire to stick it to the man. Their early adoption of the World Wide Web meant they had created an infrastructure while most of us were still waiting for Mom to get off the phone so we could plug in the 48k.
Perhaps there is a sense in Sweden that they were there first, and they want to keep it like it used to be. Their well endowed government got involved early, long before it was all about the spying, controlling, and selling. They did it right in the innocent days, back when email was just a good idea to save paper, and no Nigerian princes desperately wanted to give you free money. The rules were in place before the system got corrupted. Simply, the Internet in Sweden started right and now they don’t want to go backwards. Why should they? The people that work in the Swedish government today grew up with it like this. They don’t know another way. And their way works.
In short, Sweden has consistently been a vocal proponent of Internet privacy. And we mean the true Internet. The Internet without censorship. The Internet as it is meant to be. The Internet that was supposed to be for everyone.
Sweden, we salute you. And thanks for this guy.