“Sweden has more Internet censorship than Mongolia” reads a headline on Swedish Television’s website. In the wake of the social media-inspired protests sweeping the Middle East, that may sound a bit surprising.
The story is based on a new survey of Internet censorship. The actual conclusion is a little less sensational than the headline: Sweden, the United States and other Western countries have stronger controls online activity than many countries in Africa and South America. The OpenNet Initiative, which includes academics from Harvard and two Canadian universities, has taken data from Reporters Without Borders to sort the world into the categories “no censorship”, “some censorship”, “Under surveillance”, and “pervasive censorship”.
Sweden and the other Nordic countries, which usually consider themselves beacons of freedom, along with most of the rest of Europe and North America are scored as “some censorship”. At the same time, much of Africa, South America, and Mongolia are rated as having no net censorship at all.
The worst cases are, not surprisingly, China, Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East. Both Tunisia and Egypt recently tried to pull the plug on the Internet completely during the social media-fueled protest movements there. That led to the United States being criticised by some as hypocritical after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the crack-down in Egypt at the same time her government is trying to gain access to Twitter account information because of the Wikileaks revelations, and the Obama administration is seeking what some have called an “Internet kill switch”, which would allow the government to close down the networks in case of cyberattacks.
But that’s not why Sweden and other Western countries rate lower in the survey, says the website Mashable. They say the censorship in the West is mostly aimed at stopping child pornography and file-sharing of copyrighted music, films, and software.
In its profile of the Nordic countries, the initiative notes that the hunt for file-sharers and fears of terrorism have led to intelligence agencies monitoring Internet traffic, which it says is in conflict with long-held traditions of freedom of expression. This, it points out, has led to local protests. The profile also notes that a survey of global surveillance activity by Privacy International in 2007 characterized Denmark as the only Nordic country that is an ‘‘extensive surveillance society,’’ while Sweden, Finland, and Norway were listed as exhibiting ‘‘systematic failure to uphold safeguards.’’