STOCKHOLM - “This is happening right now in Homs, Syria...” Hans Eriksson shows a shaky video of column of smoke just after a bombing from Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
Bambuser is the name of the service launched by this 44-year-old Swede, which allows any smartphone user to broadcast live what’s happening in front of him – without any censorship. The service is a precious resource for Arab Spring protesters.
“In these countries where information is – or was – under heavy surveillance, it is crucial to be able to show the details of the repression. The world needs to know,” says Eriksson. His service is used by CNN, the BBC and Al-Jazeera.
From 5,000 to 10,000 raw, unedited videos are uploaded every day by this 12-person start-up. Bambuser is the latest symbol of Sweden’s fight for freedom of speech on the Internet.
Three years ago, the country decided to take a stand for the promotion of freedom on the Internet. Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt launched a dialogue with companies on Internet freedom. He was soon followed by Hillary Clinton, who made an acclaimed speech on Internet freedom in 2010.
“Freedom of expression has always been a cornerstone of the Swedish government, we just extended it to the Internet,” says Ministry of Foreign Affairs Special Adviser Johan Hallenborg. “The freedom to say what we want on the Internet or anywhere else is a human right.”
In 2011, Sweden launched a U.N. initiative with the support of more than 80 co-sponsors, to promote, protect and facilitate human rights on the Internet. The resolution, which affirmed that ““the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice” was adopted in July 2012 by 47 states of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“It’s a start. With this resolution, we will be able to promote the perspective of human rights on the Internet in order to force the states to be more transparent,” says Hallenborg.
What freedom of speech doesn't include
Transparency is also Netnod’s creed. This foundation, which handles most of Europe’s Internet physical transit, is also lobbying operators and the governments for the “transmission of information, without restriction, without monitoring, without modification and without discrimination,” according to director Kurtis Lindqvist.
Freedom of speech doesn’t mean “the right to say absolutely everything,” says Hallenborg. “Of course there are limits, the same limits as offline communications,” he adds. In Sweden, hate speech, denying the Holocaust, inciting violence or crime is forbidden. Swedish Internet providers have already blocked, at the bequest of law enforcement, hundreds of Internet pages containing child pornography.
The Kingdom of Sweden still managed to rank number one on the World Wide Web Foundation’s 2012 Web Index, an overview of the web’s availability and impact on countries around the world.
(The controversial site Wikileaks, which publishes secret information from anonymous sources, has long based most of its servers in Sweden, in large part because of the country's protections for Internet freedom)
Why is Sweden encouraging digital freedom of speech so fervently through its companies and politics? “When you launch a service in such a small country, you have to think globally to be successful,” says Eriksson. “For this to happen, you need an open dialogue.”
Thinking global to be successful can also be applied to Swedish companies. In a country where the Foreign Ministry includes the Ministry of Trade, they “dream of an open world where everyone can communicate,” says Hallenborg. “This would help to promote democracy, to reduce poverty, to encourage education and develop trade. A global market would provide many opportunities, especially for local companies.”
Not so naive at all: behind the humanist ideal of digital freedom, Sweden is busy looking out for its commercial interests as well.