Swedish authority wants online defamation to be punishable by law

A general provision would help create a better balance between freedom of expression and privacy, it said

The Swedish Data Inspection Board wants to make "grave" defamatory remarks made online a crime, even in cases that are currently protected by the country's constitution.

The statement from the public authority follows an inquiry last year by a parliamentary committee that examined whether to update the constitution's freedom of press and freedom of speech provisions for the Internet era. The the Freedom of Expression Committee suggested that the government should leave protections afforded by the constitution unchanged.

But the Data Inspection Board is convinced a general penalty provision is needed, even for sources currently covered by the constitution, such as newspapers and websites with a special permit. These special permits allow websites to have the same protections as print newspapers. A separate inquiry would have to decide what should be considered grave, according to Hans-Olof Lindblom, chief legal counsel at the Data Inspection Board.

"Given the testimony we get from people that get in touch with us, there is a need for more a general protection against grave slander," said Lindblom.

The authority is in daily contact with people who perceive their privacy has been violated on the Internet. A general provision would be a tool to curb these abuses, and help create a better balance between freedom of expression and privacy. The circumstances shouldn't matter, it said.

Nils Funcke, who served as a secretary in the Freedom of Expression Committee, doesn't agree. The committee thoroughly analyzed the current situation, looking at websites and publications, and came to the conclusion that there largely haven't been any major infractions, according to Funcke.

"There are mistakes and blunders, but they are not of the caliber and character that they could be considered grave," said Funcke.

The topic of online defamation made headlines in Sweden after riots erupted in Gothenburg following the December publication of images of young women, accompanied by suggestive comments, on Instagram. The Data Inspection Board mentions the controversy in the opinion it sent to the Swedish Department of Justice.

If the authority wants changes to be made it has to provide more concrete evidence of cases that fall through the cracks of current legislation, and not play on peoples' emotions, according to Funke.

The matter is currently being examined by the Justice Department, according to a spokeswoman. The Minister of Justice is interested in issues related to online privacy, and will therefore visit Facebook's Dublin headquarters on Wednesday to discuss the subject, she said via email.

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