Internet regulators may face Swedish Waterloo

The country is at the vanguard of online freedom and its Pirate Party is home to a new version of the web that its members hope will usurp the global model

A newcomer to the Swedish political scene, the Pirate Party is determined to protect freedom of information on the internet.
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Best known for pillaging Vikings and the pop supergroup Abba, Sweden is now hosting its own version of the internet - one without government controls. At a time when many of the world's governments are demanding access to mobile phone records and Google is accused of openly collaborating with the CIA, Sweden is home to an unregulated version of the internet.

Protected by that country's liberal laws, a legitimate Swedish political party, the Pirate Party, is attracting the growing support of Swedish citizens and is determined to provide an alternative to the highly regulated internet envisaged by governments such as the US and service providers such as Google. Iceland is also drafting legislation to protect freedom of information on the internet. Whether the regulated version of the internet or Scandinavia's liberated vision wins will determine which services, applications and products will be available online for at least a generation to come.

"We see it as our duty to bring internet anonymity to the world," says the Pirate Party leader Rick Falkvinge. "We are really a conservative party as we only want to preserve the right to anonymity people already have when they post a letter. We are fighting for the freedom of the individual across the world." The Pirate Party is developing its own internet service offering unmonitored e-mail and anonymous web access. It is also supporting Pirate Bay, a Swedish website that offers users across the world free downloads of copyrighted material such as music and films. When Pirate Bay's founders were sentenced to prison terms two years ago, thousands of Swedes took to the streets to protest against the verdicts. The Pirate Party received a huge boost of its membership and won 7.1 per cent of the Swedish vote in the subsequent European elections.

"We have been on a parallel track to Pirate Bay," says Mr Falkvinge. "When Pirate Bay went to ordinary ISPs [internet service providers], the ISP received a call within 20 minutes threatening legal action for breach of copyright. Most preferred not to host Pirate Bay. We now host Pirate Bay's servers on our premises," says Mr Falkvinge. "We want to change the law regarding illegal downloading of copyrighted material in order to safeguard individual freedom. This is because, in order to enforce copyright law effectively, it is necessary to monitor all internet communications to ensure no one is file-sharing copyrighted material," he says. "As a politician, I look first at the principle of human rights involved and secondly at any commercial considerations of companies that stand to lose money as a result of technological progress."

Sweden's Pirate Party is also hosting computers for WikiLeaks, the radical website that made headline news when it released restricted US material that includes video of a US helicopter apparently gunning down unarmed civilians in Iraq. Sweden is not alone in its support of WikiLeaks or in its demands for an end to government attempts to censor news broadcast via the internet. "We are using the known methods developed by the world's tax havens, but we intend to offer the world an information haven," says Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland's parliament.

Ms Jonsdottir developed an initiative that has been passed by the government that is designed to make Iceland an international haven for press freedom for sites such as WikiLeaks. New laws intended to make this possible are now being drafted. "I think what is happening is a clamping down on the internet following its initial freedom. Europe is used to being OK in this direction. One of the pillars of a civilised society is freedom of information," says Ms Jonsdottir. Analysts believe the internet is now at a crossroads where it could become far more highly regulated.

"I think the internet has gone through its first phase where everything was open and that has been positive in some ways," says Matthew Howett, an analyst at the research company Ovum. "But today there are bigger decisions to be taken. For example, how are you going to finance the development of new communications infrastructure if the providers of services such IPTV [television broadcast over the internet] are not sure they can deliver their service effectively?"

This a future that some Scandinavian politicians are determined will never come to dominate the internet. The battleplan of politicians such as Mr Falkvinge is to establish a political template for freedom on the internet in the belief it will spread to other countries. "Our plan is to change the internet laws in Sweden, in Europe and in the rest of the world - in that order. Europe is the world's largest single economy and what happens in Europe will set the standard globally," says Mr Falkvinge.

"Sweden was early in its high-speed broadband rollout, many times faster than the standard connection in the US. US users are therefore more willing to accept the vision of the internet as just a pipeline to broadcast TV." But there is evidence that even Europe has conflicting visions of which version of the internet to support. "In Europe the freedom of the internet is under threat in some countries," says Ms Jonsdottir. "In Italy, for example, [prime minister] Berlusconi wants to pass an anti-terrorist act that would mean a huge battle for whistleblowers and journalists."

Analysts believe, whatever the political rights and wrongs of the debate, a major war over the future of the internet has already begun. "It is very possible that the internet splits into parts depending on geography or commercial model adopted. I think it is very difficult to reconcile very different approaches by government or big IT corporations," says Mr Howett. "It is not going to be easy to regulate the internet as there are too many stakeholders and no real forum within which to do it."