Online privacy is why Sweden wins the internet

Sweden: The true Land of the Free. No country protects your privacy more than Sweden does. ExpressVPN looks at why privacy is the King of Sweden.
Digital freedom
8 mins
Sweden in the Matrix.

This post was originally published on January 5, 2016.

Sweden always seems to be at the forefront of any discussion about privacy laws on the internet. The Swedish government places no restrictions on internet use.

Even in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, there have been no credible reports that 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 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 the mass harvesting was to begin no later than September 15, 2007.

Fast forward to 2010 and, after three years of feet dragging, Sweden was taken to court by the European Commission (EC) because it had yet to implement the directive.

A good kick in your privacy regions

The EC sought a fine for every day Sweden had not had the law in place. Obviously, the court action was a kick up the backside, and the Swedish government has towed the line ever since.

Just kidding! Of course, they haven’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 lengthy 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 seriously interfered with human rights.

Pretty much as soon as the ruling was announced, Bahnhof (one of Sweden’s leading ISPs) started destroying all 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 had 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 to keep it that way.

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Super Trouper, Google’s gonna find me

Back in the ’90s, 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 or 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? It required a Derren Brownesque display of mental prowess just to even turn up at the right place.

Search engines eventually arrived to add a structure that made 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 everyone’s de facto homepage. Google control 65 percent of internet searches, 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, they were promptly banned. Because the first rule of the internet in Sweden is that you don’t mess with the internet in Sweden.

The internet started early in Sweden

Sweden adopted the internet early due to standing regulations that promoted 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 act 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. 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 U.S. remains its largest contributor. Closely followed by… Sweden. A branch of the Swedish government, SIDA, has a goal of promoting “Internet Freedom for Global development”.

But why do Sweden 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 were allowed to report without hindrance and people could speak their minds without fear of reproach. Everything was awesome.

But 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 lovely and 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 magnificent bit of ballsy defiance, Holmgren he immediately re-published the book, upon release from prison. Though with a new, ironic title, The Nazi Paradise.

After WWII, the Swedish changed and deleted the old censorship 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 doesn’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, as a factor 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 until WikiLeaks showed us. Thanks to a brave few individuals, big governments have been rumbled and exposed.

Why privacy is the King of Sweden

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. The early adoption of the World Wide Web meant Sweden created an infrastructure while most countries were still waiting for Mom to get off the phone so we could plug in the 48k.

Perhaps there’s 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 Prince 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 backward. Why should they? The people that work in the Swedish government today grew up with this system. They don’t know another way. And their way works.

Sweden has consistently been a vocal proponent of internet privacy. And the true internet, to boot. The internet without censorship. The internet as it is meant to be. This is the internet that was supposed to be for everyone.

Sweden, we all salute you. And thanks for this guy.

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Featured image: Stephen Finn/Dollar Photo Club

Johnny 5 is the founding editor of the blog and writes about pressing technology issues. From important cat privacy stories to governments and corporations that overstep their boundaries, Johnny covers it all.