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The APC European Internet Rights Project

Country Report — Sweden

By Mathias Klang

Availability of Internet Access

While statistics in general, on Internet use in particular, are uncertain, one result does reappear. Sweden tops the world in mobile and Internet technology use. Internet growth in Sweden has progressed from 2-3% of the total population in 1995 to 15% in 1997.1

During November 2000, 57% of the Swedish population between 12-79 years of age connected at least once to the Internet. 44.9% of this group were women. The largest age group of those online was the group 35-49 years old.2

The reasons for the high computer use in Sweden has been discussed, and while the answers vary, two factors have been seen as particularly important for Swedish computer literacy. The first is the government's willingness to give tax reductions for employers willing to enter into computer purchasing schemes. But probably the most surprising initiative was that from LO (The Swedish Trade Union Confederation), who negotiated affordable computer packages for their members. Since 1997 almost 55,000 such packages have been sold to their members.3 The interesting point about these computers is that many of LO's members do not use computers in their everyday work.

On a political level most parties are working towards the goal of Internet access for all. Certain groups that are underrepresented in Internet usage statistics are targeted, these groups include, for example, handicapped, non-city dwellers and low wage groups.

Position of Internet Service Providers

Due to the character of the market it is very difficult to get a complete overview of Swedish ISPs. In a report4 to the Post och Tele Styrelsen (Swedish Oftel) 115 companies are listed with a caveat that there may be many more.

The market has seen an intensive growth in companies offering free Internet. Whilst free has been defined differently by the actors, the development of free Internet access shows no signs of slowing down. At present, free Internet consists mainly of companies that only charge per minute without any fixed fees, but there are some companies who offer completely free Internet.

Degree of Internet Censorship

The new Data Protection Act based (Personuppgiftslagen (1998:204))5 upon the European Data Protection Directive replaced the old Data Protection Act but in certain cases the old Data Protection Act is still applicable until October 2007. Concerns have been raised that if the new Act is interpreted in the same manner as the previous Data Protection Act this could seriously limit free speech on the Swedish Internet.

While there have been cases where the law has been interpreted narrowly especially concerning information made public on web pages. This has led to an amendment in the Data Protection Act concerning so-called "harmless" personal information.6 Such information may be published on the Internet even if it can formally be seen as a breach of the Act.

The concerns that the Act could be used to limit public access to government information, free speech or freedom of expression have been largely exaggerated, since the Data Protection Act cannot affect these freedoms. These limitations to the Act are partly due to the fact that these freedoms are constitutional and cannot be limited by ordinary law, and also by the fact that the Act specifically states that they must be protected and not limited in any way by the Data Protection Act.

After the High Court in Sweden found that the owner of a BBS was not responsible for the content others uploaded, Sweden enacted the BBS law7 (Lag (1998:112) om ansvar för elektroniska anslagstavlor) in May 1998. This law states that a supplier of an Internet-based information service is responsible for any illegal content on his equipment. The act was designed for, and the name implies it, electronic bulletin boards, but it is applicable on much more than these. The act applies to all information service providers on the Internet.

The owner or provider of an information service is responsible for illegal material on his system even if parties outside the owner/providers control have uploaded such material. To become liable under the act the service provider must control the content of his servers or at least have the ability to control content. If controlling messages is too onerous a task then the provider must react swiftly to complaints to avoid responsibility. If illegal content is common the provider must maintain regular control and remove any illegal material. It is not enough to react to complaints.

Internet Privacy Issues

Sweden has traditionally had a serious approach to Data protection issues with the first Data protection Act being enacted in 1973. This law was largely unchanged until the new Data Protection Act of 1998 replaced it. Towards the end of the old act's lifetime almost every computer was in violation of the act.

The new Data Protection Act makes it illegal to publish people's names (or other unique identifiers) on the Internet without their express consent. This legislation has the effect of limiting freedom of speech on the Internet despite the legislation's express claim that it will not affect this freedom.8

The law has now been amended so that harmless information may be published on the Internet without express consent and, while this does help the public debate, the concept of harmless information is far from clear. There are also exceptions for journalistic purposes written into the law. The legislation is based upon an EU directive and will be implemented in all EU member states, yet Sweden has chosen to interpret the directive in a strict manner.

At present the Act has been written in such a way so that everything is forbidden unless expressly allowed. A better model for legislation of this type would be that everything is permissible unless expressly forbidden.

A serious privacy issue is one of employer monitoring. In Sweden no protection exists for employee privacy concerning employee email or browsing private sites during working hours. Very few employees are aware that the employer has the right to monitor all computer activity and read everything in the employee's computer even if such material is protected by passwords or encryption.

In conclusion, Sweden's Internet usage growth and the early privacy discussions have put the country in a good position for continued development within the ICT and privacy related fields. It is important to note that, despite its early involvement in data protection, Sweden has not been particularly active in the privacy debate and must be encouraged to take a more active role.

1. Österman, T. & Timander, J. (1997) Internetanvändning i Sveriges befolkning, Teldok Raport nr 115.



4. Docere Intelligence (2000) Internetmarknaden i Sverige, oktober 2000.




8. Summary of preparatory works in English

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