STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Sweden's Parliament narrowly approved a law Wednesday that gives authorities sweeping powers to eavesdrop on all e-mail and telephone traffic that crosses the Nordic nation's borders.
Critics have slammed the law as an invasion of privacy and an infringement on civil liberties. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Parliament Wednesday, some handing out copies of George Orwell's novel "1984," about a fictional futuristic police state.
The right-leaning government's slim majority helped secure 143-138 approval, despite strong opposition from left-leaning parties led by Social Democrats.
Supporters argued the law — which takes effect in January — will help prevent terrorist attacks. It gives Swedish defense officials the right to scan international phone calls, e-mails and faxes for sensitive keywords without a court order.
The companies Swedish telecom TeliaSonera AB and Google Inc. have called the measure the most far-reaching eavesdropping plan in Europe, comparable to a U.S. government program.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush granted intelligence officers the power to monitor — without court approval — international calls and e-mails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas.
Last July's Protect America Act extended that authority, but it expired Feb. 15, and a replacement law is being debated.
Many European countries have gradually increased government surveillance powers, including wiretapping and police searches, in a move to combat terror plots.
In Sweden currently, e-mail and phone surveillance requires a court order if police suspect a crime, although the intelligence agency is allowed to spy on airborne signals, such as radio and satellite traffic.
The European Federation of Journalists argued that electronic monitoring of phone and e-mail communications contravenes international and European legal standards.
The government rejects claims the law will give it unlimited powers to spy on its own citizens. It maintains it is interested only in international traffic and will filter out domestic communications.
Four ruling coalition lawmakers forced additions to the bill intended to protect individual privacy. But critics said those changes, which included monitoring by independent institutions, don't satisfy their objections to the law.
"This is just as absurd as before," said Per Strom of The New Welfare Foundation think tank. "It will still create a society characterized by self-censorship and anxiety."