Freedom of Speech and
the EU Data Directive

A better version of this document.

The EU Data Directive  Rating , and the Swedish law based on the Data Directive, has raised concerns in Sweden. The Directive has been seen as a serious infringement in the freedom of speech as supposedly protected by the Swedish constitution.

By professor Jacob Palme, e-mail, at the research group for CMC (Computer Mediated Communication)  Rating , which is a part of the K2Lab laboratory at the DSV university department.

First version: 30 November 2000.
Latest revision:
17 July, 2001 .


Short Summary of
the EU Data Directive

The EU Data Directive  Rating specifies that any storage (on a computer, or even by pen and pencil) about any directly or indirectly identifiable person is "personal data". Such registration is only permitted for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes, in adequate ways, kept up to date, kept in an identifiable format. It is also only permitted with permission from the person identified, or for legally required needs without such permission.

Personal data may not be exported outside EU without permission from the person identified.

Exceptions: Registration by the public defense, purely private registration within a household, registration done by authors, writers and artists solely as part of their professional work.

Short Summary of the Concerns

Interpreted literally, the EU directive means that almost all freedom of speech on the Internet is illegal. Only publication where no person is identified in any way is not covered by the directive. Since publication on the Internet is a very important part of freedom of speech, this directive severely restricts the freedom of speech.

The directive is so generally worded, that it actually applies to almost all human activity, since almost all human activity to some extent involves personal data in computers or on paper. Thus, the directive makes freedom of speech illegal in almost all human activity illegal, unless it is done according to the restrictive rules of the directive.

The exceptions for authors, journalists and artists are not enough, since freedom of speech is not a right restricted to only people of these special vocations.

Examples of Activities which are Illegal According to the Act:

  • Search engines like Alta Vista. And such engines are central to the usage of the Internet as a vast area for freedom of speech!
  • Any criticism of a person without permission from the criticized person, like for example criticism of a public official. And the right to criticize public officals is central to freedom of speech!

Examples of how the Act has been Applied in Sweden

The Swedish Data Inspection Board has in general interpreted the law in such a way that it allows all activities which it likes, but disallows activities which it dislike. Examples of web pages which have been forbidden by the board are:

  • A list of fur producers kept by an animal-rights organization.
  • A list of bank directors, criticized for misuse of their rights by an organization for bank customers. He was convicted in the primary court and the appelate court, but freed by the Swedish Supreme Court.

Freedom of speech is thus only provided when you write things which the Data Inspection Board likes.

How should the Directive be Changed

The general view in Sweden is that it is not enough to make slight changes in the directive. The whole directive should be rewritten with freedom of speech in mind. Instead of making almost all human activity illegal, the directive should specify a list of special types of data bases, to which it applies, and only be applied to those. A law should only be written to cover things which the legislators understand! Especially in case of a law which causes serious freedom-of-speech issues.

Examples of items in such a list might be:

  • Personnel data bases
  • Medical patient data bases
  • Customer data bases
  • Police data bases
  • Direct marketing data bases

There should also be a procedure for extending this list, when needed. Because of the risk of conflict with freedom of speech, the directive should be restricted and not general-purpose.

More Info


The full text of the EU directive at URL

The decision of the Swedish Supreme Court overturning the directive:

Freedom of speech and the EU Data Directive at URL  Rating

Swedish attempts to regulate the Internet at URL  Rating

The Swedish personal register law

History of the COM Computer Conferencing system  Rating .

talkback Here you can discuss government legal control of the Internet in Sweden and other countries.

Other documents of interest  Rating .

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