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

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Topics Politics

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 Sweden.

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.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild predicted only a very Moderate change in Sweden after the 2006 victory of the centre-right coalition over the Social Democrats. Previously, she explained how a fake political party could fox the Swedish establishment. Brendan O’Neill considered whether or not ‘cyber-jihadists’ should have free speech, too. Dolan Cummings asked why we submit to the ‘surveillance society’. Or read more at spiked issues Europe and Liberties.

(1) Sveriges eget Stasi, Dagens Nyheter, 16 June 2008

(2) Sweden approves wiretapping law, BBC News, 19 June 2008

(3) FRA kan inte spana på folket, Svenska Dagbladet, 29 June 2008

(4) Excerpts: Bin Laden video, 29 October 2004

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Topics Politics