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Sweden Channels Big Brother… Inspired by the U.S.

Last month Sweden shocked its citizens and many in the free world when its parliament passed a controversial surveillance law by the slimmest of margins (143-138) in an effort to combat “terrorism.” This is a familiar refrain for U.S. citizens who have ceaselessly heard the Bush Administration and many in Congress justify encroachments on civil liberties in the name of “national security.”

The new law will allow the Swedish government, starting next year, to eavesdrop on all emails, phone calls and faxes crossing Sweden’s national borders; specifically, law enforcement authorities will be able to scan these communications for “sensitive” keywords without a court order.

In some astute reporting–thinly veiled as dispassionately objective–the Associated Press wrote that “Swedish telecommunications group TeliaSonera AB and U.S.-based Google Inc. have called the law passed June 18 the most far-reaching eavesdropping plan in Europe, comparable to snooping powers authorized in the United States.”

It’s bad enough that Americans have had to put up with post-9/11 fear mongering by those in power, but now we can thank our opportunistic leaders for setting a prime example for the rest of the world on how to sacrifice fundamental freedoms in the name of protecting the people. The U.S. rails against countries like China and Burma for their atrocious human rights records, but we fail to see how our actions at home diminish our liberty cachet abroad.

The Swedes have been protesting this new law by handing out copies of George Orwell’s “1984” and more than 2 million have already signed an online petition against the law. It’s also significant that technology companies like TeliaSonera and Google are speaking out on this issue – more companies need to show such leadership when governments reach too far. (In a significant initiative that CDT has been co-facilitating to develop global human rights principles for the Internet, we’ve been encouraging companies to do just that.)

In fact, back in April, TeliaSonera’s Finnish division, in anticipation of the Swedish law passing, moved its email servers back to Finland, thwarting the Swedish government’s overreaching surveillance. Customers in the U.S. and in other countries should demand more of this kind of creative technical tinkering to protect their privacy and other essential rights when our political leaders fail to do so.