The following is a translated version of an opinion piece in Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on the 11th of december 2013. The original can be found here.
How will the open society defend itself against the threats it is facing? With what tools will the defense be organized and to what extent should these tools be used? These are some of the most important issues facing us today.
Scandals involving government surveillance have continued since this summer, especially regarding the leaks about the US National Security Agency. But Swedish authorities have also shown an increasing interest in gaining access to information about Swedish citizens stored by IT and telecom companies. Most recently, the Swedish Security Service have sought to gain direct and unrestricted access to telecom companies’ databases, without the possibility of review and safeguarding the privacy of citizens.
The issue of surveillance has also led to both diplomatic complications and loss of prestige, not only for the United States – but for the entire Western world. The eventual moral high ground that the West had against dictatorships has been undermined by revelations of secret surveillance and abuse of public trust.
While the discussion concerning privacy hasn’t always been constructive – as if the question was a binary yes or no to surveillance – we believe that the real issue is about how the open society can be protected in a manner that is reasonable, proportionate and legitimate. The Swedish self-image is that our society is based on openness and transparency, not least due to the principle of public access. But recently, that self-image has – for good reasons – started to take turn for the worse.
We need to discuss the transparency that is necessary in a democracy , the extent to which surveillance should occur and by what means. An absolute prerequisite for such a debate is that we have transparency in the surveillance already conducted. Without it, the Swedish people can hardly debate the issue.
During 2013, Fores has worked on this project, where we try to obtain information on how Swedish authorities, use surveillance, control and affect freedom on the internet. The result is depressing. Either authorities do not respond to our questions or they delay the process. Institutional weaknesses and policy problems restrict transparency. The consequence is that the Swedish people no longer knows how information gathering works, who engages in it, and to what extent or with the purposes for which it is implemented. This is a problem for the Swedish democracy.
The situation is unacceptable. If Sweden, formerly one of the world’s most open democracies, can not account for how authorities are monitoring their citizens activity online, which country can? Here are a variety of shortcomings that prevent authorities from answering even simple questions about information gathering, decision making and responsibility for action against net freedom.
It’s not about the helpful and talented people working on the authorities and who often struggle to help when they receive a request: the problem is institutional. It is the lack of policies and procedures with the authorities as lacking transparency.
Therefore Fores works to support transparency and openness in Swedish society. We want to see a Swedish transparency report for openness to Swedish citizens are able to determine if the power we entrust the state exercised responsibly and within reasonable limits. We see it as a first step to Sweden to become the world’s most open democracy.