One would think that the so-called Patriot Act, or the secret wiretapping leaves things to wish for in the US. In any case – given this and similar concepts around the world – Sweden seems to have felt left out (what do I know), so Ingvar Åkesson helped to write a law for giving FRA – where he is now director-general – quite arrogant powers.
Isn’t it great that a government agency (a civilian one, but controlled by the Ministry of Defence) in effect can write its own laws? Not that they will necessarily follow them, but it will help them to get what they want.
The issue of wiretapping has been brewing for some time, though it seems most of the attention only came about shortly before the vote, and the proposal was accepted by the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) in June this year by a narrow margin. It is likely that it would have been rejected, but in a tactical swoop a number of last-minute amendments were made based on previously discarded comments from several critics.
It has become quite a political circus (there have also been some other – rejected – surveillance proposals lately, not related to FRA). If unchallenged, it will take effect Jan 1, 2009.
The proposal will certainly have an impact on how Internet and other electronic communication is structured in the area, and some operators are already suggesting to re-route traffic to exclude Swedish territory. This, however, is not the primary focus of the debate – Swedish residents will be directly affected as well.
Two votes short of rejection
Originally the Social Democrats, who have been in power for a long time in various constellations, were pushing for the idea some years ago. Now with the Moderate Party pretty much in charge it got voted through. This time, the Social Democrats opposed it (easy way to win political points, I would say).
There seems to have been intense activity within all parties, but in the end only two people from one of the ruling parties dared to go against the government’s line. Two more and the proposal would have been dead.
As of now the government seems to be doing its best at denying that there is any problem with the new law – despite harsh criticism, including that from several powerful Swedish government agencies and other organisations. The Prime Minister (Fredrik Reinfeldt) has even gone so far as to say that critics “do not understand” the law, while key people of the government seem to be quite good at confusing things themselves even concerning quite basic matters.
Part of the debate is about what the law actually says; it may be written in Swedish but it seems that FRA added some sort of legalese encryption if you will. However, many bloggers have helped to establish what it is really about, and what the technical implications are. The facts are becoming clearer every day, but the government is still trying to avoid facing them.
As of today FRA – among other tasks – listens to radio traffic etc. looking for foreign threats. The argument goes that the interesting data is now mostly on cables used for telecom, and that FRA should be able to listen to that as well.
It has been claimed that Swedes would not be affected as domestic traffic would be filtered out – and even so, that “keywords” would be used to avoid too broad surveillance (except proponents are trying even to avoid the term surveillance, instead referring to more politically correct constructions like “signals intelligence” or “anti-terror”).
Well, many of these arguments have been debunked and proven to be deceptive or even outright falsities. If the truth about this proposal was acknowledged, I don’t think it would survive long. As for the government, they should expect significant repercussions either way.
However, it’s not over yet. There is a lot of activity going on: demonstrations, political meetings, hearings, etc. etc. Several movements have been created against the law.
Yesterday for instance, by initiative of a member of the Liberal Party, the public was invited to a local political meeting. It was announced on a blog, and guess what – about 20 people showed up (excluding 10 or so regulars) with less than a day’s notice to listen and discuss FRA. We had a great time, and I look forward to more actions like this. Quite frankly, today’s politics may not survive without it.
Birgitta Ohlsson – member of the Riksdag – was there, as was a top government official (Håkan Jonsson, representing himself at the meeting). The official did not convince me, but he clarified some things and his presence allowed for a dialogue on the matter which was appreciated. Sadly, such things seem rare in the government circles right now.
Maybe they hope to win this battle, but they may very well lose the next election over it if they remain steadfast. (That said, I’m sure it will also raise many questions if the government finally backs down on the issue.)
What’s wrong with the reverse gear?
Among other things, I learned at the meeting that the inner workings of the Riksdag is somewhat more complicated than one would think. For instance, it does not seem to be possible to revert the decision without writing a – similarly extensive – new law to override the first one, which will require significant juridical manpower.
As it’s quite late in the process, and the government is not cooperating, the parties may have to look to their own resources to resolve this. (The government itself can certainly do the legwork, but it seems they will only do so if they have no other choice, meaning someone else may have to do the legwork first…)
So, guess which may be the only party with these capabilities? The Social Democrats. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if they are truly interested in tearing up this proposal, but it worries me that they seem to have a monopoly here, and who knows what kind of deals will be made.
The clock is ticking
As of today, several members of the Riksdag from the governing parties have took a stand against the law, so it seems likely that it will be hard to keep it as-is, if a motion to drop the legislation can be formed in time. But how much change is necessary to please the dissenters? Some argue there is no longer a sane way to achieve a reasonable compromise given the time constraints, so will there be enough pressure to drop the legislation altogether?
There were some other possibilities mentioned, such as delaying the enforcement of the legislation subject to a parliamentary inquiry, which seems possible but still may require great efforts to get enough parties and members of the Riksdag together in a common motion. Currently there are a number of efforts to divert attention, so the trickery is far from over. Time is running out, and it seems the battle may well end in September (any motions must be available early in October).
Note, however, that the Social Democrats do not want the issue to be pending too long, in case the next election favours them and they have to sit through it again. Who knows what they will do in the end, or if all parties will manage to cooperate well enough.
All in all, there is still hope, but we can expect a rather messy development during the coming months. Book writers, rejoice!
(Rather limited, sorry. Hint: Google Translate supports Swedish texts; most things should be readable.)
- Blog of Patrik Fältström, the IT expert in the Swedish government.
- Dedicated Wiki (in Swedish)
- Links to blogs in Swedish, in no particular order: