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Sweden: the myth of a cuddly liberal democracy

Osama bin Laden is on record saying he would never bomb Sweden - so why is
it introducing one of the most draconian anti-terror laws in Europe?

Nathalie Rothschild - Wednesday 9 July 2008

Sweden has long been known as a model liberal democracy. Around the world,
the Nordic country is celebrated as a state where, yes, writers and
filmmakers are prone to a bit of existential angst, but where people enjoy
high living standards, egalitarianism and liberty. In the UK, liberal
commentators frequently say we should 'emulate Sweden' in matters of
welfare, democracy and freedom.

Forget it. Sweden, where I come from, is no cuddly liberal democracy. It is
currently in the process of introducing the most draconian surveillance law
in Europe, abolishing the privacy of correspondence and threatening the
protection of whistleblowers. Emulate Sweden? No thanks.

The so-called 'FRA law', the informal name for a new anti-terrorist
legislative package, gives the Swedish intelligence bureau, Försvarets
Radioanstalt (FRA), the right to intercept all cable communication crossing
Sweden's borders. In other words, the authorities now have the right to spy
on every single email, telephone call, facsimile and SMS message that
arrives in Sweden. The controversial law, nicknamed Lex Orwell, sparked
weeks of heated debate in Sweden. It was passed by the parliament a couple
of weeks ago by a vote of 143 to 138, with one abstention and 67 delegates
not present.

The law's proponents claim that the public has nothing to fear. The purpose
is to 'map external threats', and thus communication between Swedish
citizens inside Sweden will not be spied upon. Any intercepted
correspondence between Swedish citizens should, according to the
regulations, be destroyed. Leaving aside the fact that this still represents
an appalling attack on foreign citizens' privacy, there is the small matter
that it is technically impossible to differentiate between domestic and
international traffic. Many Swedish companies and organisations have web
servers abroad, and often emails sent between individuals in one country are
routed via another. National borders mean very little when it comes to
electronic communication.

There has been an angry reaction against the new law in Sweden (some of it,
it must be said, smacking of the doom and gloom which Swedes are so famous
for). One journalist argues: 'Since 1989, Stasi is but a memory. Yet a
similar, but even worse, surveillance machinery is being created - this time
in Sweden.' It is ironic, he concludes, that the new law comes into force in
2009... 'In the year that Germany marks the twentieth anniversary of DDR's
and Stasi's collapse, mass surveillance reappears.' (1)

An editorial in the liberal daily Dagens Nyheter likens Sweden to
dictatorships around the world, warning that now all Swedes are deemed
guilty until proven innocent. Even the editor of the conservative Svenska
Dagbladet urged Swedish politicians to 'think of Orwell and vote no'. The
blogosphere protested wildly in the run-up to the parliamentary vote on the
FRA law. Critical Facebook groups were created, including FRI ('for freedom
and rights on the internet'); several individuals and corporations planned
'civil disobedience' actions. The internet company Bahnof said that it would
reroute all its traffic to ensure it does not fulfil FRA's requirements for
interception. The telecom company Telia Sonera moved its servers for Finnish
traffic in order to protect the integrity of its Finnish customers.

The media, the business world and activists from across the political
spectrum have all opposed the FRA law. Even Sweden's intelligence agency,
Säpo, says the new law denigrates individual integrity. Protests have been
held in many Swedish cities, and even the youth organisations of the parties
in the ruling government coalition have taken a stand against this
all-encompassing legal snooping.

The Swedish government has faced harsh international criticism, too. Belgium
is threatening to take Sweden to the European Court of Human Rights. This
may prove to be a minor worry when you consider that several multinationals
now say they might pull out of Sweden because they do not want to risk their
customers' integrity. According to Peter Fleischer of Google: 'By
introducing these new measures, the Swedish government is following the
examples set by governments ranging from China and Saudi Arabia to the US
government's highly criticised eavesdropping programme.' (2) Last year,
Google warned that it would not invest in new servers in Sweden if the
proposed law were introduced, because it doesn't want to compromise its
users' privacy.

Yes, it is unlikely, as FRA's director Ingvar Åkesson pointed out in a
cringingly defensive article, that the organisation's 650 staff will have
the time or the inclination to monitor every single instance of electronic
communication crossing Sweden's borders, to read long-distance lovers' text
messages, eavesdrop on business men's conference calls or pounce on every
file sharer downloading the latest Hollywood flick. Yet the fact that they
can do this, if they so wish, is reason enough to protest. The Swedish
authorities are sending a very clear message about their right to intervene
in correspondence whenever they wish, and about the lack of rights amongst
Swedish and foreign citizens who will now be objects of suspicion, potential
criminals who must be spied upon. Whatever it is practically used for, the
FRA law is a serious assault on everyday liberty and individual integrity in

Åkesson says that FRA has always been concerned with 'foreign occurrences'.
'According to the new law', he writes, 'FRA will continue that, if under
harder regulations. This is now seen as a threat to the Swedish peoples'
private life. It doesn't add up. Since when did our private lives become
foreign occurrences?' (3) That is precisely the point! FRA is potentially
turning people's private lives into 'foreign occurrences' by giving itself
the power to monitor every word of every message that crosses Sweden's
borders. This redefinition of private communication as the authority's
business threatens both Swedish and foreign nationals' right to correspond
freely and without fear.

Under the new law, FRA will no longer need a court order to begin
surveillance, only approval from parliament. And the new law says that
intercepted correspondence can only be deemed to fall outside of FRA's
powers after it has been scanned; that is, an email between a man in Belgium
and a woman in Sweden will only be labelled 'non-threatening' once FRA has
opened and read it, and then it will not be stored on record. Yet the
question remains: what gives the authorities the right to view our letters
or emails or text messages in the first place?

The good news is that large swathes of Swedish society have stood up to the
illiberal new law, protesting, debating and arguing against the right of the
authorities to interfere in the private lives of Swedes or foreigners in the
name of an imaginary threat. The fact that just 143 politicians voted in
favour of the law in the face of mass public protest graphically illustrates
the gap that exists today between the aloof elite (suspicious, fearful,
illiberal) and the general public (who want to protect their own and other
people's privacy).

Perhaps more than any other recent event in Europe, the passing of the FRA
law shows up the gap between the fairly small-scale reality of terrorism and
our governments' crazed overreaction to it. The Swedish government's new
anti-terror obsession has no basis in reality. Sweden is not a terrorist
target; indeed Osama bin Laden, bogeyman of the modern age, has openly said
he will never attack Sweden. In a video statement in 2004, he said al-Qaeda
has no plans to 'strike Sweden' because it is not part of what he sees as
the crusading West (4). And yet Sweden passes one of the most draconian
spying laws in Europe to keep a check on every correspondence from 'over
there' - that is, from anywhere across the world.

There could be no clearer illustration that the elites' anti-terror measures
have little to do with the reality or extent of the terror threat, and
rather are driven by a sense of paranoia, suspicion and a desire to rein in
people's liberties just in case. Driven not by external threats but by
internal fears, Sweden's needless FRA law is only a more explicit version of
the illiberal, precaution-obsessed anti-terror laws being instituted in
America and elsewhere in Europe. In the name of fighting an entirely phantom
threat to Swedish safety, the Swedish government is treating every piece of
foreign correspondence as suspect, and therefore every foreign individual as
potentially evil.

Sweden as a role model for Western democracies? Give me a break.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

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