Swedes revolt against online snooping          Send a link to a friend

[June 18, 2007]  STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) -- Want to know how much your boss earns? Or whether your daughter's fiance is in debt? For Swedes, it takes just a few clicks on the Internet to find out.

But many feel the Web has taken things too far, and proud though they are of Sweden's unusual history of openness, they have pressured providers to put some limits on a service that allowed Swedes to snoop through each other's finances anonymously and free of charge.

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"Your neighbor knows what you're making, your brother-in-law knows what you're making, and people around you can know whether you're on any records for outstanding payments. It's private and a bit embarrassing," said Hans Karnlof, a lawyer at the Swedish Data Inspection Board.

Things came to a head in November when a Swedish online site,, started publishing financial details, free of charge, from the national tax authority. The site has some 610,000 registered users -- in a country of 9 million -- and handled an average of 50,000 online credit checks a day.

Regular credit check companies are required to notify those they check. But on Ratsit, anonymous snoops could uncover financial information simply by typing in a name and clicking "search."

Authorities said Sweden's transparency laws were being abused, and pressured Ratsit and similar sites to impose some restrictions.

Information on personal income and debt is still available but now costs money -- $21 for 10 requests a week and $3.60 for each additional request. A more extensive report, including information on financial and property assets, costs $6.90 per search.

And there's no more anonymity; anyone whose finances are viewed will be notified by mail and told who asked.

Openness is ingrained in Swedish society -- its freedom of information act dates to 1766. Today Swedes have unfettered access to almost all records that the state keeps on the population. Only some 10,000 people, who live under some form of threat, are excluded from the public records.

"This type of access to financial information is in no way available in other countries like it is here," said Karnlof, the data board's lawyer. "Visitors we've had from Ireland and Germany, for example -- their jaws just drop when they hear about it."

But until the Internet arrived, citizens had to visit the local tax office to ask about others' finances.

"There's a big difference between sitting hidden at home and being reasonably anonymous, and trotting off to the tax office and ... telling a person eye-to-eye whom you want to check," said Karolina Lassbo, a 27-year-old lawyer.

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Lassbo said she used Ratsit once "because I wanted to see what it said about me." But her curiosity got the better of her: "Then I checked friends and celebrities."

"I do think our service is justified because things like wages should be transparent," said Ratsit's chief executive, Anders Johansson. Employers use it to check whether potential hires are in debt, he said, and "a lot of people use it to negotiate their pay."

Ratsit's service was made possible by a 2003 change in the law protecting media freedom, which allowed online sites to get publishing rights. That enabled Ratsit to become one of Sweden's most popular sites, but also one of the most controversial.

The Data Inspection Board was inundated with complaints, "like an avalanche," said Karnlof.

Apart from the privacy issue, fears that the online openness would aid identity thieves also pushed the National Tax Board into action.

While the law obliges the board to give out tax information, it doesn't say in what form. So tax authorities simply threatened to supply the information on paper, instead of electronically, which would have forced credit checkers to scan millions of records.

To avoid the hassle, the companies agreed to the new restrictions on how the material is accessed.

Before the new rules kicked in a week ago, Ratsit's traffic nearly tripled to over 140,000 hits a day, said Johansson, the company boss.

Ratsit expects credit-snooping to fall off by half, but is offering new attractions, such as a "singles index" showing how many people in a particular ZIP code live alone. It plans to include phone numbers.


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[Associated Press]


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