Patriot Act Sprouts in Sweden

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While Sweden’s national television channels stream an unusual amount of terrorism-themed films and series this summer, the Swedish parliament passed a controversial anti-terrorism law—strikingly similar in character to America’s Patriot Act. The law legalizes government wire-tapping of international calls, faxes and emails without a court order. In the post-9/11 era, it is increasingly difficult to overlook the exportation of American laws, the modified concept of “democracy” and even the sanctions on civil liberties.
While most of Europe recedes from its post-World War II alliance with the United States in light of the Bush Administration’s conduct in the Iraq War and the War on Terror, Sweden, a nation famed for its consistent neutrality in most international political matters, is now adopting American policy.
The propositions of the “FRA-law” (the Swedish acronym for the Swedish National Defense Radio Establishment) have made it the most contentious topic in the Swedish media, with almost every popular media outlet expressing its discontent with the law, dually echoing the popular sentiment of the Swedish people.
As politicians gathered in parliament on June 18 for the awaited vote on the law, protestors gathered outside parliament and cities across Sweden handing out George Orwell’s book “1984.” Some protesters held up posters that read “Big Brother is watching you” and “No military in my living room,” which illustrates the common fear that Sweden will become one of the few non-dictatorships to take such serious codified steps toward curbing civil liberties in the name of security. But as the streets of Stockholm filled with the voices and posters of citizens unhappy with the prospects of what many would call a move toward a democratic police state, the law passed within the walls of the parliament building with the narrow margin of 143 to 138.
As the Swedes vehemently protest the enactment of the FRA-law, the legal implications of its ratification, the methodological details and the potential abuses of the law still remain in the shadows. The law seems to play into the concept of inter-governmental “transparency” and secret information sharing with a lack of oversight that is characteristic of the post-9/11 era. FRA General Director Ingvar Åkesson managed to shed some light on the situation, stopping short of calling it a democratic elite party of information sharing. He explained that information passing Sweden’s borders could be sold to other interested democracies.
However, selling such information comes at the cost of other factors, including the loss of foreign investment and domestic jobs. Others claim that such monitoring occurs in other nations without explicit laws to legalize the process and argue that the codification of such procedures would make the law clear for citizens and explicitly legal in practice. The difference then between Sweden and other wiretapping states is that the proposition of legalizing wiretapping has awakened a discussion that clearly shows a dislike for the law, as well as its implications for the Swedish economy—a discussion other nations lacked due to the absence of an open, public debate.
As one of the foremost connected nations in Europe, Sweden is a transit point for much of Finish, Russian and Norwegian Internet traffic. Because of this, the law affects a wider public than merely the Swedish people. As by nature of wiretapping “international” communication that passes through Sweden’s borders is accessed, which is an integral feature that many foreign businesses and investors find unattractive. Furthermore, while the law claims to specifically target communication that crosses Sweden’s borders in order to monitor international communication, when it comes to the Internet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between communication within Sweden and communication crossing the “borders.”
As telecommunications and Internet providers begin to withdraw from the Swedish market to protect their customers from monitoring, the remaining Swedish providers will be forced to conform to the new law. The cost burden of monitoring calls and sending information to FRA headquarters falls on telecommunications companies, a cost that competing foreign companies stationed outside of Sweden will not have to pay.
The question then becomes how far Swedes are willing to give up their personal and economic freedoms in the context of developing information sharing and security—a process that will likely have more value for other nations than for Swedish security. This is a topic that the United States has grappled with and it is an issue that challenges the very pillars of democracy—civil liberties. In America the debate over the Patriot Act is based on the Constitution, the discussion in Sweden has evolved into a foreign, domestic, economic and civil liberty dispute that involves international businesses and individuals worldwide.
Even though parliament formally made its decision, Swedish citizens remain hostile toward the imposition of the law. Yet the government, which has heretofore brushed off the foreign and domestic uproar as a mere misunderstanding of the law, will now have to face the heat of a dissatisfied, vocal nation and the very real threat of an economic communications infrastructure that faces foreign divestment.

Frida Alim is a second-year political science major. She can be reached at aabdelal@uci.edu.

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