Sunny winter's day in Sweden
Sunny winter's day in Sweden
Boris Manenti

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.”

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Håkan Dahlström

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.

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Society

How The Top Collector Of Chinese Art Evades Censors In New Hong Kong Museum

Swiss businessman Uli Sigg is the most important collector of Chinese contemporary art. In 2012, he gave away most of his collection to the M+ in Hong Kong. Now the museum has opened as the Communist Party is cracking down hard on freedom of expression. So how do you run a museum in the face of widespread censorship from Beijing?

''Rouge 1992'' by Li Shan at the M+ museum

Maximilian Kalkhof

The first test has been passed, Uli Sigg thinks. So far, everything has gone well. His new exhibition has opened, visitors like to come, and — this is the most important thing for the Swiss businessman — everything is on display. He has not had to take an exhibit off the list of works.

The M+ in Hong Kong is a new museum that wants to compete with the established ones. It wants to surpass the MoMa in New York and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Sigg, a rather down-to-earth man, says: “There is no better museum in the whole world.” That is very much self-praise, since Sigg’s own collection is central to the museum.

The only problem is: great art is often political; it questions the rulers. Since the Chinese Communist Party has been cracking down on critics and freedom in Hong Kong, the metropolis is a bad place for politics and art. So how did the collection get there?

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