You won't get to me... long as you play by the rules.

Of course, I wouldn't be too surprised if you bend them a little in order to have it your way, but let's assume for the moment that everybody actually sticks to the rules, and see what happens.

The law

The rules? According to the 1973 Data Protection Act, which in spite of some minor modifications is still (until October 24, 1998) the law of the land, anybody who expresses an opinion about an identified human being in computer-readable form without government approval is a criminal, facing fines or up to one year in prison. That's right, you can go to jail for speaking out about your fellow men in digital, be it on a World-Wide Web page on the Internet, or in a private memo on a floppy diskette.

Of course, every rule has its exceptions, and this one has plenty. In fact, you could say it's made up of exceptions. A Data Protection Act without exceptions would be something like Swiss cheese without holes in it, or a piece of newly baked bread after somebody forgot to put the yeast in. Not too tasty, really. So, what are the exceptions in this case? As explicitely provided for by the law, or permitted by the Swedish Data Inspection Agency as they have seen fit in the past, you may anyway:

That last one is particularly interesting, because it isn't really spelled out in the Data Protection Act, nor is it the explicit wish of the Data Inspection Agency that you should use computers to write books about people. Instead, that last exception is how the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court has (reluctantly, I might add) interpreted the Freedom of Press Act that forms part of the Swedish constitution.

Freedom of expression

It may be hard to believe, but we do in fact have a fairly decent law carefully crafted to protect our freedom of speech in the printed medium (books and magazines). Even though the law is limited to the printed medium, the general idea is that it helps preserving freedom of speech also in other media.

Technically, a law prohibiting blasphemy in public could be introduced by a simple majority vote in the parliament. However, that alone would in no way prohibit anybody from printing strongly blasphemic magazines and selling them in public places, since it takes more than a simple majority vote to amend the Freedom of Press Act. So, if you really want to come down hard on blasphemy, youŽll realize that prohibiting it in public speech but not in public print won't do you much good, and hopefully youŽll forget the whole idea.


However, not so with computers. In many a public eye, computers are synonymous with evil, or at least with phone bills. There is simply no end to the amount of surveillance and privacy intrusion possible for a government with computerized records covering the entire population of the country, detailing intimate information such as age, spouse, children, place of residence, employer, annual income, paid taxes, unpaid taxes, bank assets, criminal record, political affiliation, private opinions, sexual orientation, and unpaid phone bills.

With that prospect in mind, the need for strong laws against intrusion of privacy should be obvious. However, the government would be a fool to deny itself the tools required to keep track of the population entirely, and some of the exceptions in the Data Protection Act are indeed aimed at making things a little easier for the police, the taxation authorities and so on. After all, you don't really expect the police to use the information they have on you for any unwarranted purpose, do you?

So, that essentially leaves us with a Data Protection Act aimed at keeping private companies and individuals from playing Big Brother and knowing too much about their neighbours, unless they can demonstrate a specific need to know. Some companies such as insurance agencies can, and will probably obtain the permits needed to go about their daily business, including sending you personalized marketing letters offering you and your family any kind of insurance you haven't got yet.

However, do you seriously believe that you would just as easily be allowed to send e-mail to friends and colleagues telling them what you think of your local politicians? Really, what kind of people do you think make those laws? Physicians?

Back to reality

Ok, time to calm down. The police isn't likely to come knocking on your door and take your laptop away anytime soon. Why not?

Because, as you may realize yourself if you give the whole thing a thought, people keep violating this law all the time, and nobody seems to care. Hunting people down for using e-mail to talk about everyday issues, such as other people around them, wouldn't be too wise a use of taxpayers' money. Better look the other way, and pretend they never noticed the violations, so that we'll all still believe we have a law againt invasion of privacy. After all, what would be the result if people realized that they are subject to laws that are never enforced?

Anarchy. Perhaps not complete anarchy, but at least enough anarchy to correspond to the number of unenforceable laws.


It's October 24, 1998. Celebration day. The 1973 Data Protection Act, long overdue, is finally being abolished by the parliament.

Remember Romania in the 1980's. Under the regime of Ceaucescu, the Securitate secret police kept the public in check. To assist them in their efforts against organized thought crime, the law required every owner of a typewriter to register with the authorities and obtain a license to use it. The authorities kept a type sample from each typewriter to help them identify the origin of any unlawful typing. After the fall of Ceaucescu in 1989, the law requiring typewriter licensing was quickly abolished.

In 1998, Sweden abolishes the old law requiring people to obtain a license in order to maintain information about their fellow men i digital form. A new law, the Personal Records Act, takes its place.

This isn't a mere change of name. The new law is substantially different from the old one, since the latest developments in information technology, such as image processing and personal computers, can now be taken into account. After all, almost 25 years have passed since the previous one was written. The key differences:


The government is obviously terrified of Big Brother, and wants to protect itself as well as the general public against his prying eyes. However, we have seen Big Brother, and it's us. All of us.

We are now supposed to close our eyes in order not to pry on our fellow human beings anymore. When everybody's eyes are closed, who is going to look out for violators who peek through their fingers? The police? Specially trained dogs? Computers?

Thanks to the Swedish constitutional protection of civil rights, the only ones actually affected by either the old or the new law are public offices, which don't enjoy freedom of information and speech like individuals and private corporations do.

While this may be workable from a strictly legal point of view, there is a risk that popular misinterpretation of the law may create a common opinion that the law isn't properly enforced against appearant offenders such as human rights groups and racist organizations, thus contributing to widespread disrespect for the law in general, as well as to people taking the law in their own hands.

The new Personal Records Act simply can't live up to its intent of fighting smut and trash on the Internet. We'll probably need yet another law for that.

Updated 1998-10-01
Anders Andersson