Earlier this year my colleague Rebecca LaFlure wrote about Sunshine Week in the U.S., which is a chance for organizations nationwide to promote the importance of government transparency. Much of the laws that compel the government to be open with their records can be found in the Freedom of Information Act, which went into effect in 1967. As Rebecca pointed out, it is important to celebrate and defend this key piece of legislation, which opened government meetings and important records to public scrutiny. However, U.S. public records laws are not the first of their kind even by a long shot.
Sweden’s Freedom of Press Act
In 1766, the U.S. wasn’t even a country yet. In fact, American patriots were just starting to consider the idea of independence after England passed the infamous Declaratory Act, essentially telling colonists the empire had the complete authority to tax the colonies however it saw fit.
Yet that same year a Swedish revolutionary, Anders Chydenius, was fighting for Swedish citizens to have more power and information about the way their government operated. On December 2, 1766, Swedish Parliament passed the Freedom of Press Act, which gave Swedish citizens (which included modern-day Finland at that time) the right to seek information freely, organize demonstrations, form political parties and freedom of religion. While this Act has been amended many times over the years, it remains relatively intact and is still a cornerstone of Swedish democracy and freedom. However, this act is not just seen as important for Sweden. It is understood by many to have paved the way for other great social movements and declarations and even influenced parts of the U.S. Constitution. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recently set up an exhibit at its headquarters in Paris to honor the Act’s 250th anniversary.
Sweden is Synonymous with Transparency
It is amazing to think this small Scandinavian country could be so far ahead of the world in terms of transparency in government, but this trend seems to have continued. Many aspects of Swedish governance and culture are still on the cutting edge among western societies. Even today, Sweden remains one of the most open and free places in the world, and with its highly educated population and high standard of living, it is considered a great place to live and to conduct business. Transparency International, which is a world-leading watchdog on fighting corruption, ranks Sweden the third least corrupt country in the world, with its Nordic neighbors Denmark and Finland ranked first and second, respectively. The U.S. is ranked 16.
Sweden is “Open” For Business
The benefits of Sweden’s openness go far beyond just access to government meetings and records. Public records laws allow investors access to information to shed light on their potential business partners and add a level of transparency to their deals that can be hard to find elsewhere in the world. Beyond the public records you can find in the U.S.—such as criminal and civil records, business filings, liens and judgments—Sweden allows the public to review summaries of individuals’ income tax returns, the financial statements of privately owned companies, a search of a person’s assets, including property, cars, boats and airplanes, all by the individual’s personal identify number, greater details about a person’s military service, and many other records that are not available to citizens of other countries in the world.
While there is clearly room to debate the right to individual privacy over such openness, it is no wonder that Sweden’s 250-year history of transparency has contributed to such low levels of corruption and have helped make it such a great place to do business. Unlike many other countries, in Sweden you have the opportunity to know exactly who you are doing business with.