4. Media freedoms and digital rights in Finland

Finland is historically known for its freedom of the press.1 In 1766, when still part of Sweden, it became one of the first countries in the world to legally recognise press freedom (Britannica, 2020[1]). Press freedom is considered as part of the right to freedom of expression and the right of access to information in Section 12 of the Constitution (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendments in 2018[2]).

Everyone has a right to freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression includes the right to present, disseminate, and receive information, opinions, and other messages without someone’s prior censorship. Additional rules on freedom of expression are issued by law. Rules on limitations with regard to picture programs that are necessary to protect children are issued by law. (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendments in 2018[2])

Press freedom is also recognised in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was ratified by Finland in 1990. Specific legislation such the Act on the Exercise of Freedom of Expression in Mass Media contains more detailed provisions on the exercise of freedom of expression in the media. Section 1 of the act notes that “interference with the activities of the media shall be legitimate only in so far as it is unavoidable, taking due note of the importance of the freedom of expression in a democracy subject to the rule of law” (Ministry of Justice, 2003[3]).

The Supreme Court of Finland has ruled on the subject of limitations to press freedom in several binding cases. As a state party to the ECHR, Finland is also bound to ensure protection of the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press (Article 10):

  1. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent states from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

  2. 2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. (Council of Europe, 1950[4])

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found Finland in violation of Article 10 on several occasions. For example, in Niskasaari v. Finland, the ECtHR found that Finnish courts had gone beyond what was “necessary in a democratic society” when it punished a reporter with 40 day-fines, totalling EUR 240, as well as damages for misreporting on (and thereby defaming) the Ombudsman for Children (Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, 2015[5]). According to the ECtHR, the Finnish courts had not “paid sufficient attention to the ‘journalistic’ hue of the case”, meaning that those in the profession should enjoy a higher threshold of freedom of expression than a private citizen would in a similar dispute (Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, 2015[5]). The Finnish courts’ reasoning was found insufficient and therefore contrary to Article 10 of the ECHR (Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, 2015[5]). In Saaristo and others v. Finland, the ECtHR found once again that Finland had violated Article 10. Finnish courts had convicted a journalist and an editor-in-chief for violating the right to a private life of a communications manager working in a presidential campaign by claiming in print that the manager had a romantic relationship with a presidential candidate. The ECtHR concluded that, in view of the communications manager’s public role and the importance of the press in a democratic society, the sanctions imposed by the Finnish courts, including criminal liability and an order to pay fines, damages and the plaintiff’s legal fees, were disproportionate and thereby violated the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights, 2010[6]).

The ECtHR has also allowed restrictions on freedom of the press in Finland, for example, in Pentikäinen v. Finland (Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, 2015[7]). In Satakunnan Markkinapörssi Oy and Satamedia Oy v. Finland, the ECtHR found that restraining a newspaper and message service that published and supplied information on taxable income that was otherwise public information was not a violation of Article 10 of the ECHR and that the Finnish court had “struck a fair balance between the right to freedom of expression and the right to respect for private life” (Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, 2017[8]).

Press freedom may be limited in accordance with the law, and often by the same exemptions as freedom of expression. This includes, for example, laws governing libel, defamation and hate speech, which are laid out in Sections 8-10 and 23 of the Act on the Exercise of Freedom of Expression in Mass Media (Ministry of Justice, 2003[3]). The only limitation to press freedom that is explicitly specified in Finland’s Constitution is a limitation on pictorial programmes that may be damaging to children (Section 12) (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendments in 2018[2]).

Access to public archives was first provided by Article 10 of the Press Freedom Act in 1766 (Britannica, 2020[1]). Today, the Finnish Constitution guarantees access to government information in Article 12, which is also the freedom of expression clause. The right to government information is further regulated in law. Specifically, Article 12 of the Constitution states:

Documents and recordings that are held by government agencies are public, unless limited by compelling reasons through law. Everyone has a right to access public documents and recordings (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendments in 2018[2]).

Access to government information is further regulated by the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9]). This act includes a right to access all information held by the government and its agencies and applies to anyone present in Finland. Furthermore, Finnish citizens, Finnish residents and even tourists with a legitimate purpose have a right to access public information, as outlined in Article 3. The act provides that, as a general principle, every government document is public, unless otherwise protected by secrecy law. For the purpose of access to information, government agencies are outlined in Article 4(1) (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9]).

Several government documents are covered by secrecy laws, and thus are not public, including documents covered by a duty of confidentiality and prohibition on exploitation, and special government documents protected by secrecy. Government documents covered by secrecy are the most broadly defined exception, with more than 30 enumerated grounds. Article 6(1) states:

Unless otherwise provided on document publicity or secrecy or another restriction of access to information in this act or another act, a document prepared by an authority shall enter the public domain.

In addition, the government may request fees to reproduce public documents and may refuse to copy public documents without first collecting such fees.

The access to information provision of the Finnish Constitution has not been amended since the 1999 constitutional overhaul. The Act on the Openness of Government Activities (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9]) has been amended several times since 1999, with six amendments entering into force on or after 1 January 2017. The most recent amendment entered into force on 1 September 2020. It added to the types of documents that are presumed to be covered by secrecy laws, and thus are not public, including new paragraphs, as follows:

5) documents that includes information on the Police, Border Patrol, Customs Control, Prison Guard Agencies and Migration Agency’s tactical and technical methods and plans, if the supply of the information from the documents would: jeopardise prevention and investigation of crimes, maintaining of public order and security or the security at a penitentiary, or the reliability of the Migration Agency’s investigation on an alien.

24) documents concerning the need of international protection, the conditions for an alien’s entry and residence in the country or the basis for them or the acquisition or loss of Finnish citizenship or the decision on citizenship status, if it is not obvious that the delivery of the information contained within will not jeopardize the safety for the party or the family of the party.

31 c) documents that concern an alien who is present in Finland, if there are grounds to suspect that the delivery of the information of the documents jeopardizes the safety of the party or the party’s next of kin. (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9])

The extent of the restrictions outlined in this amendment has implications for Finnish journalists’, civil society organisations and citizens’ ability to play a watchdog role in relation to key public functions and offices due to their inability to access necessary public information. The Access to Information Act was amended twice in 2019, with both amendments taking effect on 1 January 2020. These amendments concerned the transfer of public documents between government agencies (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9]).

Article 8 of the ECtHR ensures the right to privacy. In addition, Finland’s Constitution guarantees the right to privacy to everyone living in Finland in Section 2, Article 10. Specifically, Article 10 of the Constitution provides that:

Everyone is guaranteed a right to privacy, honor and sanctity of the home. More detailed provisions on the protection of personal information is issued in law. The secrecy of correspondence, telephony and other confidential communications is inviolable. Measures that limit the sanctity of the home may be prescribed through legislation if necessary to guarantee the fundamental freedoms and rights or to investigate crimes.

As a member of the European Union, Finland is bound by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In 2018, Finland passed the Data Protection Act of Finland which transposes the GDPR into Finnish legislation and entered into force on 1 January 2019 (DLA Piper, 2020[10]). The GDPR also required amendments to many other legal frameworks, such as the Criminal Code, and more detailed obligations on specific topics related to data protection have been adopted in other legislation, for example the Act on the Secondary Use of Health and Social Data (2019), the Public Administration Information Management Act (2020), and the repealing of the Act of the Administration of Information Management in Public Administration, which defines the entire life cycle of information held by the public administration. Finland also has special legislation regarding the processing of personal data (DataGuidance, 2020[11]).

As discussed in Chapter 3, the Office of the Data Protection Ombudsman oversees compliance with the GDPR, and issued several administrative fines and non-binding orders in 2020 (Office of the Data Protection Ombudsman, n.d.[12]). As of January 2020, there were a total of five GDPR enforcement decisions published by the Data Protection Ombudsman, with only one involving a government body (DataGuidance, 2020[11]).

Exceptions and exemptions

Article 10 of the Finnish Constitution states that exceptions and exemptions to the right to privacy may be prescribed in law for the purpose of ensuring other constitutional rights or to investigate crimes. Specifically:

It may be prescribed in law regarding such limitations in the secrecy of communications that are necessary during the investigation of crimes that jeopardise the individual’s or the society’s safety or the sanctity of the home, during trial, at safety controls and during detention as well as to collect information on military activity or such other activity that seriously threatens the national security. (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendments in 2018[2])

Thus, Finland allows limits on the right to a private life in order to apply certain coercive measures, as needed, to investigate and prosecute crimes. For example, the Act on Coercive Measures allows for electronic surveillance, and travel restrictions, when a person is a suspect in a crime that is punishable by at least one year of imprisonment (Ministry of Justice, 2014[13]). In contrast, home surveillance may only be used for suspects in specified serious crimes that include genocide, sexual abuse of children and terrorism, as outlined in Section 3, Article 2. The use of these measures requires that they be in proportion with the severity of the crime. Whether the suspect’s or another person’s rights would be violated, and whether there are other material circumstances, must be evaluated before applying coercive measures as outlined in Section 2. Section 3 dictates that the least invasive measure must always be used first (Ministry of Justice, 2014[13]). As provided for in the Act on the Protection of Privacy in Electronic Communications Services, traffic data must be retained for a period of 6 to 12 months, depending on the means of communication, but may only be accessed in a limited number of enumerated instances (Ministry of Justice, 2004, amendments up to 2011[14]).

The privacy protection provision (Article 10) in the Constitution was amended in 2018 by modifying Paragraph 3 and adding a fourth paragraph stating that:

It may be prescribed in law that measures which affect domestic peace and which are necessary for the enforcement of fundamental freedoms and rights, or for crimes to be investigated. It may be prescribed in law regarding such restrictions on the secrecy of communications that are necessary for the investigation of such crimes that jeopardize the security of the individual or society or peace at home, at trial, in security checks and during detention, and to collect information on military activities or such other activities that seriously threaten the national security. (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendments in 2018[2])

The right to an open Internet (i.e. measures to ensure a free, neutral, decentralised Internet) is not specifically addressed in the Finnish Constitution. However, access to the Internet is a legal right in Finland. Under Section 87 of the Information Society Code Law (Ministry of Transport and Communications, 2014[15]), Internet service providers (ISPs) are obliged to provide access to the Internet throughout Finland, at a reasonable price, as the Internet qualifies as a public utility. Specifically:

Telecommunications operators that Finnish Traficom has designated as universal public service providers for [I]nternet services, as specified in Article 85, must provide – regardless of the geographical location – at a reasonable price from the perspective of the user – a subscription to the public [I]nternet at the place where the user or subscriber permanently resides or is located. The telecommunications corporation must provide the subscription within a reasonable time from the time of the order.

The subscription must be such that all users and subscribers may obtain an expedient [I]nternet connection, considering the transfer speed that most users and subscribers have as well as the technical feasibility and costs.

Provisions on the minimum speed for an expedient [I]nternet connection are issued in regulations by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Before the regulation is issued Traficom shall, as necessary, produce a report on the market for data transfer services, including what transfer speed most users and subscribers use, as well as the technical developmental level, and in addition make an evaluation on the [proposed] provisions’ financial consequences for the tele corporations. Traficom may issue additional regulations on how connections technically must be performed and what technical specification they must meet. (Ministry of Transport and Communications, 2014[15])

Moreover, an open Internet is also regulated under EU law in the “Laying Down Measures Concerning Open Internet Access and Retail Charges for Regulated intra-EU Communications” regulation (European Parliament, 2015[16]). Being directly applicable in Finland, Article 1 of this regulation “establishes common rules to safeguard equal and non-discriminatory treatment of traffic in the provision of Internet access services and related end-users’ rights” (European Parliament, 2015[16]). Article 3 dictates that providers are not allowed to block, slow down, restrict or otherwise discriminate between or interfere with specific services, applications or content. The regulation also requires providers to include in their contracts information on, among other things, volume limitations, speed and quality of Internet access (European Parliament, 2015[16]). In Finland, the supervisory authority for compliance with these provisions is the Finnish Transport and Communications Authority (Traficom) (Traficom, 2019[17]).

In addition, the Act on the Provision of Digital Services (Ministry of Finance, 2019[18]) transposes the EU Web Accessibility Directive into Finnish law (European Parliament, 2016[19]). It applies to digital services provided by Finnish authorities, public sector bodies, providers of services that are essential to the public (water, electricity, transport and mail services), credit institutions, payment service providers, etc. and requires them to ensure accessibility to their websites and mobile applications. Section 8 states that a digital service provider to which the act applies may only diverge from the accessibility requirement if it can show that compliance would impose a disproportionate burden on the provider, considering especially the needs of persons with disabilities using the service (Ministry of Finance, 2019[18]).

As specified in Section 88, Article 3 of the law, ISPs do not need to supply Internet access to persons who have been prosecuted for “disturbing the mail and teletraffic” if the crime was committed with the help of an ISP subscription, or if the subscriber has an unpaid debt (unpaid, due, non-contentious or undisputed debts) with the ISP (Ministry of Finance, 2019[18]). In addition, Section 94 outlines that an ISP need not supply Internet service to a geographically remote area at its own expense if the cost for doing so is disproportional. In these cases, the ISP has a right to be reimbursed by the Finnish state (Ministry of Finance, 2019[18]).

Exceptions to the requirement of ISPs not to block, slow down, restrict or otherwise discriminate between or interfere with specific services, applications or content are laid down in Article 3 of Regulation (EU) 2015/2120 on an Open Internet. The exceptions allow limited traffic management measures that are undertaken to comply with legislation, preserve network security or prevent temporary congestion (European Parliament, 2015[16]).

There have not been any recent amendments to the Constitution regarding the right to Internet access, although an amendment to the Act on the Provision of Digital Services is pending before parliament (Parliament of Finland, 2020[20]). The bill transposes the Directive on European Electronic Communications Code and the Audio-visual Media Service Directive into Finnish law. The proposal focuses on changes that would affect mobile networks and require the harmonisation of their frequency ranges within the EU and would adopt provisions on procedures for expert assessment and network concessions. The bill also proposes extending existing legislation on audio-visual content to include television broadcasts and video-sharing platforms (Parliament of Finland, 2020[20]).

Countries in the Nordic region rank consistently high in indexes measuring press freedom, and Finland is no exception. Finland provides one of the world’s best operating environments for media and journalists and this is illustrated by its impressive comparative standing in reputable indexes on this subject year-on-year (Kuutti et al., 2012[21]). Finland is currently placed second globally in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, which states that while there are some challenges, the “Land of Free Press” continues to protect the legal, institutional and structural foundations required for free media and journalism to flourish (Reporters Without Borders, 2020[22]) despite some fluctuations in recent years (Figure 4.1). Finland also received the best (4/4) score from Freedom House on its free and independent media ranking in 2019 (Freedom House, 2019[23]).

While Finland surpasses the OECD and global averages, Finnish journalists are not immune to a range of pressures on their reporting (Yle, 2020[25]). According to the interviews conducted with journalists and their representative associations in the context of this Scan, it emerged that political, institutional and economic forces can still have an impact on their autonomy. This is corroborated by the recent 2020 World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders, 2020[26]), which states that Finnish reporters can be affected by “state and social pressures” on their reporting. Moreover, the most recent 2020 data from RSF notes uncharacteristically negative scores for Finland in questions relating to the ability of media to publish revelations concerning political power (Reporters without Borders, 2020[27]).

In 2018, the Finnish government recognised that journalists are at an increased risk of exposure to online harassment due to the nature of their profession, with Minister of Justice Antti Häkkänen highlighting this issue as a threat to freedom of expression in 2018 (Law Library of Congress, 2019[28]). In addition, the University of Tampere recently completed a study (2016-20) on the multitude of pressures facing journalists in Finland (Hiltunen, 2020[29]). According to the study, journalists encounter an array of methods aimed at influencing their work. These methods were divided into six categories: 1) interference concerning access to information, 2) psychological interference, 3) physical interference, 4) institutional interference, 5) economic interference, and 6) telecommunicational interference, i.e. disrupting telephone or radio signals. Furthermore, it stated that politicians, companies, authorities and various organisations all seek to influence journalism and sometimes succeed in discouraging journalists from covering certain topics or affecting their modes of operation (Hiltunen, 2020[29]). Low-level interference in everyday journalistic practices and online verbal abuse are the most frequent types of external interference (Hiltunen, 2019[30]). About 14% of journalists interviewed in a recent study stated that they have changed the content of their work due to external pressure, and about 44% consciously used other methods and actions to tackle the interference. Legal pressure is also common, with 35% of respondents having received threats of court cases and 25% with lawsuits for damages (Hiltunen, 2019[30]). The 2020 annual report by the partner organisations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists named Hands Off Press Freedom: Attacks on Media in Europe Must Not Become a New Normal (Council of Europe, 2020[31]) also notes a substantial increase in legal threats and judicial harassment against journalists, with several alerts on lawsuits and criminal investigations filed against those working in media in Finland in 2019.

While overall Finland scores very highly in international comparative indicators related to press freedom, the above issues should be addressed by the government before they begin to have a concrete impact on the capacity of journalists to perform their essential democratic role. Regarding political interference, while private and public media in Finland are largely independent from political parties, politicians and other openly partisan actors, there is some evidence that indirect political influence can still influence news media. As a small country, Finland has similar challenges to other tight-knit societies in regard to close connections between politicians, journalists and others in positions of power (Krull, 2019[32]) (Reporters Without Borders, 2016[33]). Producers and reporters at Yle have also remarked that “preventive censorship has been used, and topics have been blacklisted, which has not happened before” (Hiltunen, 2019[30]). To combat these issues, the government could join many other countries in Europe and around the world who are reflecting on funding structures for media and how they affect editorial freedom and independence2.

Freelance journalists play a key role in promoting a strong civic space due to the independence of their profession. In Finland, freelance journalists in press media have the opportunity to join the Finnish Association of Freelance Journalists, which is affiliated with the Union of Journalists in Finland (UJF) (Finnish Association of Freelance Journalists, 2020[34]). The UJF currently has over 1 300 members (Finnish Association of Freelance Journalists, 2020[34]). Furthermore, it launched Mediakunta in 2017 as a co-operative which functions as a non-profit community for journalists and other media professionals to foster collaboration (Union of Journalists in Finland, 2020[35]). The Radio and TV Journalists Union also has a freelance branch (FAO) with over 400 members (FAO, 2020[36]).

Freelance journalists can be particularly vulnerable to external shocks, such as global financial or health crises, with little to no available support from public institutions (McCluskey, 2020[37]). A 2021 Reuters report “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2021”, which surveyed senior executives from 43 countries, found that the financial sustainability of small and local publications has been greatly affected during the COVID-19 pandemic (Newman, 2021[38]). This can affect the number of full-time employees and freelancers they can afford to maintain. In this regard, Finland could take inspiration from a good practice seen in the United Kingdom, wherein freelance journalists received a taxable grant of 80% of their average monthly profits during the pandemic (Reuters, 2020[39]). Given the important contribution of freelance journalists to freedom of the press and wider societal debate, the government could also financially support freelance journalist associations (e.g. the Association of Freelance Journalists in Finland) in times of uncertainty, economic crisis, or recession to ensure they can continue to assist their members in maintaining and finding projects. One good practice in supporting freelancers is that of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative, which offers funding to freelance journalists that produce civic journalism for underserved communities (Government of Canada, 2020[40]). The government could take inspiration from this initiative to encourage freelancers to participate in reporting on their local areas.

When faced with hate speech and other external pressures, freelance journalists do not have access to support from media outlets and can experience difficulties finding relevant professional support when needed (Hiltunen, 2019[30]). In order to support those who may be vulnerable to harassment or online targeting, a specific mechanism could be established to support employees within the broader framework of employment protection (Illman, 2020[41]). In addition, the government - in collaboration with relevant unions - could seek to better understand and communicate on the external pressures faced by freelance journalists and those without the support of a media company (e.g., on their vulnerability to financial and health crises, lack of income stability, difficulty finding professional support in the face of external interference or harassment) and identify ways to support them.

Journalists across Europe are increasingly facing harassment and violence when reporting at protests and demonstrations (Wiseman, 2020[42]). While this trend is not as apparent in Finland as elsewhere, protesters and journalists covering protests have faced obstacles in recent years. For example, this issue came to the forefront in Finland in 2015 when the police arrested a photojournalist who had ignored orders given to protesters to disperse during a violent demonstration, leading to the Pentikäinen v. Finland case (Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, 2015[7]). The European Federation of Journalists and the UJF condemned the outcome of the decision as setting a dangerous precedent for press freedom and the status of reporters at protests (European Federation of Journalists, 2015[43]).

A recent UNESCO report found 125 instances of attacks on, or arrests of, journalists covering protests across 65 countries between January 2015 and June 2020 (UNESCO, 2020[44]). While the current situation in Finland does not pose as high a risk as in other countries, there is an overall perception by journalists of increasing hostility (Hiltunen, 2019[30]). For example, although physical violence from the police against protestors is rare at demonstrations, journalists have reported experiencing an increased threat from other protestors. Journalists report that hostile sentiments towards the media have often manifested as “pushing, shoving, tripping and verbal aggression” during protests (Hiltunen, 2019[30]). The government could take additional measures to increase training and capacity among the police to combat any harassment against journalists at protests and to better differentiate between protesters and journalists to ensure that they can report without interference. The government could also encourage the police to issue its own guidelines on protecting journalists when they are covering demonstrations and protests.

Hate speech, discussed exhaustively in Chapter 3, has a particular impact on online civic space and on journalists in particular, affecting their ability to do their jobs and posing a threat to journalistic autonomy. Freedom of expression and pluralistic public opinion cannot be realised if professionals feel they must refrain from discussing certain topics or withdraw from public debate (Illman, 2020[41]). Furthermore, extremist movements have encouraged these negative attitudes towards journalists and have employed pressure tactics, with media professionals now being threatened with slander and smear campaigns at a higher rate than ever before (Hiltunen, 2017[45]). In 2016, the UJF and its newspaper, Journalisti, conducted a survey among its members to investigate how many had received threats.3 One-sixth of the 1 400 respondents reported having received some form of threat, with 40% noting that the threats were often related to articles regarding immigration and asylum (International Press Institute, n.d.[46]). Yle also sent an internal questionnaire to its employees in the past year, which discovered that a quarter had been the victim of such targeting.4 Many of the online hate campaigns against reporters over recent years were found to be aided by a propaganda website called MV-lehti (International Press Institute, n.d.[46]).

Several positive initiatives have been undertaken by relevant ministries to limit hate speech and targeting of journalists. For example, the Ministry of Justice published a guide entitled Journalists and Hate Speech as part of a 2019 campaign to curb the intensity of harassment directed at those in the profession (Ministry of Justice, 2017[56]). The aim was to improve support for victims and to support agencies in their efforts to combat hate crimes and rhetoric. Government agencies, non-governmental organisations, the police and the Office of the Prosecutor General were involved in the campaign (Law Library of Congress, 2019[57]). Unfortunately, outside of ongoing efforts to subject the act of sending illegal threats to individuals based on their work to public prosecution (see Chapter 3), neither the government nor parliament has taken necessary action in accordance with guidelines being proposed by advocacy groups (Reporters Without Borders, 2020[22]). Several journalists have stressed that the current legislation and reporting system are weak and wholly inadequate for protecting journalists (Union of Journalists in Finland, 2018[58]), and that harassment directed at them is generally not regarded as a sufficiently grave offence (Union of Journalists in Finland, 2018[58]). Many journalists remarked that authorities often fail to address the issue or simply discontinue investigations due to a perceived lack of evidence (Pekkonen, 2017[59]). The journalism associations interviewed for this Scan also noted that the police often expect victims to investigate instances of hate speech and harassment themselves, claiming a lack of resources.5

The UJF has stepped in to support journalists facing harassment in several ways. It has filed formal complaints with the Finnish prosecutor’s office over its reluctance to press charges in connection with the severe harassment of journalists, notably those who cover topics related to immigrants and immigration (see Chapter 3). It also issued an advice kit for journalists experiencing hate speech and harassment which includes actions such as: saving threatening material; blocking those sending material on as many channels as possible; protecting data security and resetting your passwords; and ensuring personal telephone numbers and address are confidential, amongst others (Vehkoo, 2019[60]). Many journalists and journalism associations have to support themselves should they wish to take a case to court. The UJF has established its own financial resources for this specific purpose. Journalists facing threats, persecution and other forms of harassment can now apply for financial assistance to cover expenses caused by the harassment such as crisis therapy, investigative work linked to reporting an offence or installing security equipment. The Journalists’ Support Fund “aims to support journalists in situations where help from their employers, union or the authorities are either insufficient or too slow” (Union of Journalists in Finland, 2019[61]). The government could support journalism associations and human rights organisations that provide such assistance to journalists with funding and other resources. In particular, it could consider financially supporting the UJF’s Journalists’ Support Fund to cover legal and other expenses for those facing threats, persecution and other forms of harassment.

Moderation of online community content and comments, which mostly involves deleting or blocking contributions with illegal content, is now widely practiced by media outlets in Finland (Goodman, 2013[62]) and can reduce the volume of hate speech aimed at journalists. A recent OECD report “Current approaches to terrorist and violent extremist content among the global top 50 online content-sharing services” (OECD, 2020[63]) notes that major companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google as well as smaller online content-sharing services, have been increasingly pressured by the public to prevent extremist groups or those posting illegal content from using their services. The report stresses that employing content moderation, with transparency and accountability for due processes, can “lead to actions such as content removal or blocking, suspension of the infringing account pending review, or a permanent ban from the platform” (OECD, 2020[63]). Similarly, a recent Reuters report found that the pandemic has forced a rethink for liberal democracies on where the limits of freedom of speech should lie on giant tech platforms in particular (Newman, 2021[38]).

Coupled with moderation, the creation of community guidelines for the public is also increasingly common and can vastly improve the quality of commentary. Electronic Frontier Finland has suggested that online platforms such as Twitter could establish a form of automatic or semi-automatic processing which would be faster than human moderation of an issue such as hate speech or harassment online.6 However, there would need to be effective control mechanisms and efficient recourse options if users feel their content, and thus freedom of speech, has been blocked without justification.7 In this regard, the government could target Internet intermediaries and social media sites and suggest that they implement community guidelines and take greater responsibility in moderating and removing illegal content (Luque, 2016[64]). Public officials could also assist media outlets in identifying illegal speech by providing training to website moderators on the Criminal Code and related case law, which would enable them to remove this content more effectively.

Citizens in Finland and around the world are increasingly expecting that private sector companies which benefit from freedom of expression are also held responsible for illegal content being posted on their sites (Illman, 2020[41]). There are indications that developments towards greater accountability for social media are already beginning. In this regard, the government could collaborate with social media platforms to make them safer by (1) guaranteeing prompt response mechanisms for complaints and removals, (2) incorporating tools that make reporting processes more user-friendly, and (3) investigating ways to minimise the impact of cyber-harassment and systemically revise policies to adapt to an ever-changing context. Furthermore, encouraging media outlets to adopt “think-twice policies,” where readers are reminded of the rules on commenting before posting, as well as limiting the number of articles on which users can post comments in a short period of time, might be effective strategies. Implementing these solutions would require ensuring that they do not infringe upon freedom of expression and would take into account the ongoing discussion on the power that this grants private sector companies in regulating content. The prioritisation of civic education on media and ICT literacy as well as guidance on online behaviour are key in this regard. Finland could also learn from Canada’s Digital Citizen Initiative, which works to equip citizens with the tools and skills needed to critically assess online information and identify misinformation and disinformation for a healthier information ecosystem that contributes to strengthening democracy (Canadian Heritage, 2020[65]). Relatedly, Yle, in its role as a national public educator, could also spotlight this issue for the public in collaboration with the government. Finally, ensuring that laws and norms regulating online communications meet existing international standards on freedom of expression on the Internet (e.g., blocking and filtering, censorship, data retention) and that Finland remains at the forefront of developing best practice in the digital field are key.

While not uncommon in OECD countries, the criminalisation of defamation in Finland (see Chapter 3) is contrary to international guidelines from standard-setting organisations. The UN Human Rights Committee has declared that all states “should consider the decriminalisation of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty” (UN Human Rights Committee, 2011[66]) with several other organisations stating that “Criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws” (UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression; OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media; OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, 2002[67]). The Council of Europe “promotes decriminalisation of defamation and provides guidance to its member states to ensure proportionality of defamation laws and their application with regard to human rights” (Council of Europe, 2018[68]). While the ECtHR has not explicitly called for the repeal of criminalisation provisions, it has criticised the usage of such laws on numerous occasions (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, 2017[69]). This criticism is rooted in fears that criminal sanctions potentially negatively impact freedom of expression (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, 2017[69]). Press freedom advocates have also noted that criminal defamation cases continue to be brought against journalists as retaliation for unwanted investigations and commentary (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, 2017[69]).

Thus, freedom of the press can be limited by provisions criminalising defamation, which can restrict the ability of targeted journalists to respond and defend themselves. In Finland, the defamation issue was brought to the fore in a case against Finnish journalist Johanna Vehkoo in 2019, who was convicted of defamation after she called a local politician – who had been harassing her – a Nazi on her Facebook page (Law Library of Congress, 2019[57]). Some journalists stressed that the judgment against Vehkoo would “encourage those who harass others online” (Law Library of Congress, 2019[57]) and the UJF noted that “bullying journalists and making their work harder by pressing charges against them is an international phenomenon that with this judgement has now come to Finland” (European Federation of Journalists, 2019[70]). Moving forward, the government of Finland could review the current legal framework surrounding defamation and ensure it aligns with international standards, such as those outlined by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Council of Europe and others.

Media pluralism has a direct impact on civic space as it allows for diverse opinions and sources of information to be represented in and contribute to national debates. Media concentration, on the contrary, can hamper balanced and multifaceted conversations and promote one-sided views that can ignite polarisation and societal conflicts. Media outlets in Finland are considered politically independent (Freedom House, 2019[23]) and enjoy the highest public trust in media in the EU, with 91% of respondents stating that they trust the news, according to the 2018 Eurobarometer on fake news and disinformation (European Commission, 2018[71]). Finland also recently topped the 2019 Media Literacy Index, which measures the resilience of European countries to misinformation and disinformation (Open Society Institute - Sofia, 2019[72]). However, one preoccupation is the concentration of media ownership in the country. The Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom report on Finland (Manninen, 2020[73]) categorises the concentration of news media in particular as high risk and finds that a small number of companies dominate each media sector. The same report also notes that while Finland has general transparency laws pertaining to business ownership, no specific laws regarding the transparency of media ownership exist, therefore allowing for a degree of obscurity (Manninen, 2020[73]).

According to the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI), some of Finland’s largest media companies are “active in two or more fields, and the four largest companies have 65% of the newspaper, television, radio, and online advertisement markets’ revenues”. Furthermore, the 4 largest companies in TV broadcasting hold 92% of the audience while the 4 largest companies in the radio sector hold 80%, and the 4 largest companies in the newspaper market hold 59% (ENNHRI, 2020[47]). Finnish legislation allows for this degree of concentration as long as it does not constrict competition. Thus, while there is general legislation governing the activities of media companies to ensure the market remains competitive, relevant laws do not have any provisions to encourage greater plurality or narrow concentration (ENNHRI, 2020[47]). Given that a small number of companies dominate each media sector, the government could review the existing legal framework, which permits this concentration in media ownership, and introduce additional transparency requirements for media companies.

The Finnish mass media market is subject to light legislation and is largely self-regulated (Media Landscapes, n.d.[74]), but there are a number of media regulatory authorities and bodies. The Council for Mass Media (CMM) is one of the most established bodies. Its mandate is to develop best practices in the profession and address complaints directed at the press, radio or television for potential breaches of these practices (Box 4.2).

The CMM is thus a vital self-regulating committee, which has seen fluctuating levels of complaints year-on-year. There was a downturn in the number of complaints received from 2016 to 2019, partly due to the introduction of a seven day waiting period before this time period. At the end of 2020, the number of complaints was on the rise again.8 However, human and financial resources have been improved over the years and the CMM has been promised additional resources to address this new increase.9 The government could thus ensure continued support to Finland’s media regulatory authorities and bodies, and in particular the CMM, in the years ahead with sustained public funding or dedicated subsidies so that they can maintain their critical role in ensuring journalists and media companies practice ethical journalism.

The role of the national public broadcaster, Yle, is outlined in the Act on the Finnish Broadcasting Company, which defines its public service provision as a limited liability company engaged in public service (Ministry of Transport and Communications, 1993, amendments up to 2017[78]). Yle does not require a licence given that it operates under its own separate law (Ministry of Transport and Communications, 1993, amendments up to 2017[78]). Since 2013, Yle has been financed through the Finnish tax system rather than through license fees.10 The aim of the Yle tax model was to keep its funding decisions outside of budget negotiations and to guarantee Yle’s editorial independence and stabilise its funding. Hellman notes that Finnish broadcasting policy has traditionally focused on structural control, meaning that regulation has concentrated on media structure rather than media content (Hellman, 2010[79]). As a result, Yle’s position and its public service duties were always safeguarded while market entry for others was difficult (Hellman, 2010[79]).

There have nevertheless been recent moves by regional commercial media and the Finnish Media Federation (Finnmedia) to restrict the wide-ranging role of Yle, as it affects private commercial entities and the market in regional media. Finnmedia launched a state aid complaint to the European Commission in 2017 which led to an investigation into Yle’s operations (News Media Association, 2020[80]). Finnmedia argued that “the broadcaster’s large-scale publicly funded provision of textual online content distorts competition in the media market and jeopardises the future of polyphonic media” (News Media Association, 2020[80]). The Commission investigated the issue and subsequently called for an amendment to Finnish broadcasting laws (Ministry of Transport and Communications, 2020[81]). As a result, there is an ongoing debate in Finland on restricting Yle’s ability to publish text and social media and a new bill, which seeks to reduce the scope of Yle, is under consideration. The CMM noted that this development is in the interest of commercial media11 as they are seeking less competition between their web content and the material produced by the public broadcaster (Yle, 2020[82]).

As a national public broadcaster and public educator, YLE plays a crucial role in disseminating accurate information and reducing bias and polarisation in public debates. Finland already has several successful initiatives for combating fake news – for example, using the public school system as a tool to fight information warfare through the development of critical thinking skills and providing specialised media literary education (Open Society Institute - Sofia, 2019[72]) – and could further strengthen Yle’s mandate for tackling the spread of misinformation and disinformation and continuing to provide balanced debate. In order to effectively maintain this role, it is important for Yle to represent and reflect the varied viewpoints in Finnish society. The Civic Space in Europe Report 2017 (Civil Society Europe, 2017[83]) noted that small and mid-size civil society organisations are often ignored in national or local media, with household names getting the most visibility in both state and private media (Civil Society Europe, 2017[83]). In this regard, both state policies on public funding and media outlets tend to emphasise professional organisations – often the national branches of international non-governmental organisations – while smaller and local civil society groups go relatively unnoticed. As a result, the government could encourage Yle to give greater space and visibility to a wider variety of voices and demographics, including small and mid-size civil society organisations alongside traditionally well-known and established organisations, on their platform.

In addition, according to the Centre for Media Pluralism and Freedom, access to media and visibility for minorities is currently inadequate. While minorities do appear in public and private media, they are mostly under-represented (Manninen, 2016[84]), especially those groups outside the legally recognised Swedish and Sámi communities. There is also no law guaranteeing minorities’ access to an established degree of representation in broadcast media (Manninen, 2016[84]). However, Yle has been making significant progress in this regard with a range of programmes in several Sámi and immigrant languages in recent years.12 The government could thus protect Yle’s public service role as an educator and ensure they have the necessary resources to continue and expand their news content in other languages.

Finland has a long-standing commitment to transparency and open government as one of the first countries in the world to enact an access to information (ATI) law and enjoys notably low instances of corruption in the public sector. In 2019, Finland ranked third out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which assesses citizens’ perceptions of levels of open government, press freedom, civil liberties and independent judicial systems globally (Transparency International, 2019[85]). In addition, Finland’s participation in the Open Government Partnership and its national action plans continue to prioritise enhancing transparency. The Fourth National Action Plan 2019-2023 focuses on “ensuring the transparency of government activities by increasing the accessibility of information” in particular (Government of Finland, 2019[86]).

While there is a strong tradition of openness in Finland, the ATI law has not been updated to align with evolving best practices in some areas. Finland currently ranks 31st out of 128 countries in the Centre for Law and Democracy’s Global RTI Rating, which specifically assesses the provisions of countries’ access to information laws (Centre for Law and Democracy, 2020[87]). This ranking illustrates several areas of weakness in the provisions of the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9]) that could be improved or implemented through secondary legislation or implementation guidelines (Table 4.1).

In practice, all state authorities are subject to the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9]). This includes courts of law, state administrative authorities, parliamentary agencies and institutions, state enterprises, publicly funded enterprises, and local government authorities. The act applies to both documents created by an authority and those delivered to an authority (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9]). Officials are subject to a two-week deadline, and if a request contains several documents or requires an excess amount of work, the cut-off time limit for information submission is one month from receiving the request (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendment in 2020[9]). Access to information requests in Finland do not always fall within these outlined administrative deadlines due to a lack of human resources and time in some public authorities. To counter this, the government could take a strategic approach by proactively disclosing more relevant, timely and accurate information in advance of requests through its open data portal (Government of Finland, n.d.[89]).

In the case of a refusal to provide information or administrative silence, there is an opportunity for an internal appeals process with the specific public authority involved. If this is unsuccessful, the requester can launch an external appeals process with the main oversight body, which is either the Parliamentary Ombudsman or the Chancellor of Justice depending on the case. If the requester is not satisfied with the arguments for denial of an ATI request, a complaint can be filed with the administrative court, which will then give its verdict. However, the oversight bodies will not investigate cases where an appeal in a court is still pending or where the time for an internal appeal has not yet passed (Global RTI Rating, 2020[88]). The ATI law does not provide for a suggested single pathway or oversight body, as the process depends on the municipal, regional or central agency involved. There is a need to more clearly define the appeals process and mandate of both the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Chancellor for Justice in relation to the Act on the Openness of Government Activities to ensure citizens are aware of the steps to take in the event of a denial of a request for information.

Journalists have also noted difficulties with access to information. A recent media study (Hiltunen, 2019[30]) revealed that nearly half (48%) of the journalists interviewed had experienced withholding or obstruction of access to public information by public authorities. Other studies have also shown challenges in either the ability or willingness of public officials to provide public documents when requested. This is noteworthy considering that a survey conducted by The Worlds of Journalism Study concluded that 40% of Finnish journalists stressed that access to official information was “very” or “extremely” important to their work (ENNHRI, 2020[47]). The government needs to ensure that journalists can always access relevant and usable information in a timely fashion to safeguard their key watchdog and oversight role. In this regard, there is a need to impose sanctions on public officials and authorities that are found to have withheld or arbitrarily obstructed access to information for reasons not permitted in the law.

In addition, the Ministry of Justice noted that there are no statistics available on the number of requests granted or denied, due to the vast amounts of requests received and the fact that most of these requests are made by phone (University College London, 2021[90]). While this is not unusual in OECD countries, the government could create a centralised portal for all ATI requests as the Ministry of Finance confirmed that each body currently deals with its own data and requests. Several countries have established centralised portals to manage ATI requests, as outlined in Box 4.3. The benefits of setting up a centralised portal for ATI requests across ministries include:

  • the government can compile statistics and data on requests for information

  • public bodies can see the most frequently requested information and proactively disclose similar documents

  • citizens can view previously requested information from each public body and follow the progress of their own requests

  • the ATI oversight bodies can track when deadlines are not respected and identify which ministries require additional resources.

The government is aware of these challenges and the current government programme (Government of Finland, 2019[91]) outlines Finland’s ambitions to improve transparency and the implementation of access to information laws. The current government programme aims to “add depth to the management of information policy and make the openness of public information the overarching principle of information policy” (Government of Finland, 2019[91]). Finland has already amended the ATI law several times and there is an ongoing reform process to strengthen access to information. An act to establish a transparency register will be introduced to improve the openness of decision making and prevent inappropriate or corrupt influence, as well as to strengthen public trust further. The government is also currently reviewing the Act on the Openness of Government Activities to apply the current provisions to any government data and information in a general sense, not only to official documents. It will also assess whether the scope of application of the act should be broadened to cover legal entities owned or controlled by the public sector. The reform of the Act on the Openness of Government Activities will also set stricter regulations for authorities to comply and clarify the range of sanctions that can be incurred for any public official or body that violates the act (Government of Finland, 2019[92]). To conclude, while Finland has a long-standing commitment to transparency and considerable progress has been made in this regard, the government could review the remaining shortcomings of the Act on the Openness of Government Activities following the reforms process and ensure its full implementation through secondary legislation and practical guidelines for public bodies.

Finland has recently been considering whether to broaden the scope of its legislation on transparency by opening up all public information for free reuse, a goal which is led by the Ministry of Finance (Ministry of Finance, 2020[99]). Free reuse entails that information and data should be published in an open format, with no limitations on the ability of stakeholders and citizens to download and reuse it (Orme, 2019[100]). The results of the 2019 edition of the OECD Open, Useful and Re-usable data (OURdata) Index point to the need for increased policy action to further support open government data policies in the Country. Finland scores below the OECD average in the OURdata Index, ranking 28th among 32 OECD countries (OECD, 2020[101]). In this regard, an ambitious project on opening up and using public data, established by the Ministry of Finance on 30 April 2020, will promote wider and more effective use of public data throughout society (Ministry of Finance, 2020[99]). The strategic objectives of this project aim to underpin and support Finland’s national information policy, which prioritises improving access to services, boosting competitiveness, meeting the needs of citizens, and enhancing overall quality of life (Ministry of Finance, n.d.[102]). The project will benefit from the active participation of other bodies of the central government, local government, joint municipal authorities and publicly owned companies (Ministry of Finance, n.d.[102]) and will include Statistics Finland (in charge of the data quality sub-project), and the Digital and Population Data Services Agency (responsible for the open data portal service, and the interoperability platform). Through this project, the government could also commit to a whole-of-government approach to improving the transparency of decision making as well as implementing more stringent practices for better information management. This could include a government-wide information repository for all public bodies to enable more effective knowledge-sharing on their policy-making processes, and to encourage the exchange of good practices in managing, using and sharing data and information across ministries and making them accessible and available for public reuse.

Citizens and CSOs are increasingly moving their activities onto social media and the internet, creating what is now commonly referred to as online civic space. Because of this, a country’s level of digitalisation and the manner in which it addresses the issue of digital literacy and the digital divide, are increasingly important to ensure that citizens are well equipped to live a positive, protected and productive digital life (OECD, 2020[103])13. Finland is already among the most digitalised countries worldwide as well as one of the leading countries in the world in digitalisation of public services. The country was ranked first in the EU in the 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) (Figure 4.2) (European Commission, 2020[104]). In fact, studies show that the Finnish population has the best digital skills in the EU (European Commission, 2020[104]). Based on data from 2019, Finland leads due to its performance in digital public services and its integration of digital technologies, coupled with sustained collaboration between the public and private sectors and a lively start-up scene. One of Finland’s strongest advantages is its human capital: 76% of the population has basic or above average digital skills, which is considerably higher than the EU average of 58% (European Commission, 2020[104]).

Finland also has high rates of access to the Internet, with 79% of Finns using the Internet multiple times a day (Statistics Finland, 2019[105]) as well as high Internet usage across most age groups. However, as shown by Figure 4.3, there is still a digital divide between youth groups and groups aged above 65. There is also a growing divide between rural and urban populations, and the gap is even greater between high and low socio-economic groups.14

The government programme prioritises promoting the ability of older people to use e-services and to educate children on navigating online risks (Government of Finland, 2019[91]).The Digitalisation in Everyday Life Board mentioned that it can be difficult to design services for e-health, taxation and social services that are catered to every population demographic.15 A step forward in this regard was the recent EU Accessibility Directive and the implementing Act on the Provision of Digital Services in Finland (Ministry of Finance, 2019[18]), which seeks to ensure better future accessibility for digital services for everyone, promote the full participation of all in the digital society, improve the quality of digital services, and create Europe-wide harmonised minimum standards for the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile applications. The government could further explore the factors underlying the digital divide through one of the aforementioned working groups to find ways to bridge the gap between those that are excluded from the digital leap or do not even have access to the Internet. As identified in the 2019 OECD Digital Government Index (DGI) (OECD, 2019[107]), Finland’s government shows significant room for improvement in adopting a user-driven approach in service design and delivery in order to better meet the needs of the citizens. This could be achieved by increasing the opportunities for specific target groups (e.g. elderly, disabled, minority groups) to test public services (digital or physical) in order to ensure that they are comprehensible, accessible, and addressing the real needs of Finnish citizens.

Finland also takes part in initiatives for greater Nordic co-operation in the area of digitalisation. One example of this is the Cross-Border Digital Services programme, which has been launched for 2021-24 (Nordic Co-operation, 2021[108]). Finland holds the Presidency in the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2021, and its presidency programme will focus on solutions for improving everyday life through digitalisation.16 In addition, the Nordplus programme is the main tool to enhance educational co-operation and mobility in the Nordic region and improve digital competencies and computational thinking. The preparation of students and adults for an increasingly digitalised society is a cross-cutting priority for all sectors targeted by the programme (Nordplus, 2021[109]).

The introduction of the GPDR has undoubtedly strengthened and harmonised the rights of the individual throughout Finland and the wider EU.17 However, according to Sitra, some critical issues remain to be addressed. One notable challenge is the way in which permission to collect data is requested in Finland. In an input provided for this scan, Sitra stressed that the individual should be told briefly and comprehensibly how their data will be used. The current lengthy terms of use and registry descriptions with which organisations seek to comply with the GDPR are not a user-friendly way to enforce compliance. Sitra also noted that there is a need for a new means of consent and management that make it easier to exercise all data rights and also to support organisations to approach users with requests for new uses of data.18 In a recent statement, Sitra outlined the importance of using the national margin and flexibility allowed by the GDPR, taking into account the data protection requirements of the individual, to use supplementary national legislation to provide better services to citizens in both the public and private sectors (Halenius, 2020[110]).

The Data Protection Ombudsman has also recommended that the government consider the GDPR as an opportunity to explore grounds for innovations and to safely investigate and experiment within this framework rather than restrict potential solutions.19 The Ombudsman has suggested that the government take a wider approach and look beyond Finland as the purpose of the GDPR is to provide a set of standardised data protection laws across all EU member countries and make it easier for EU citizens to understand how their data are being used and raise any complaints. In this regard, Finland could also consider and learn from good practices from other EU member states on their implementation of the GPDR.20

Finland has its own unique issues with personal data and privacy. A key challenge in the country is the low population density in some areas, due to large land masses with very few inhabitants. In many cases, a combination of different data sets, even if they are anonymous, could lead to the identification of individual citizens. This is of particular relevance to certain marginalised groups as well as members of the indigenous Sámi community, who tend to live in sparsely populated areas. The modern day possibility to quickly compound data thus raises many questions about balancing public information and personal data.21 In general, the creation of a whole-of-government systematic approach to minimise the risks associated with increased collection of personal data and the compilation of data sets, which can threaten individual anonymity in sparsely populated areas of Finland, could be beneficial.

In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, privacy-friendly and secure digital solutions can support the response to, and recovery from, the crisis. A report by the Council of Europe has identified several shortcomings in the protection of privacy and personal data in some of the legal and technical measures adopted by governments to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic (Council of Europe, 2020[111]). Finland, like other countries, has experienced an acceleration in the development of digital public services and tools in the health and other sectors (Tiirinki, Tynkkynen and Sovalac, 2020[112]), which can bring new challenges. Digital solutions, when implemented responsibly, can be used to trace and enhance supply chains and public procurement related to management of the pandemic going forward, which will allow for greater accountability in decision making. A mobile track-and-trace application launched by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health provides a positive example of Finland’s commitment to data privacy and transparency, with Sitra recognising that the protection of personal data and privacy was duly taken into account in the ministry’s initial proposal and throughout the creation of the application (Kivelä, 2020[113]). Digital solutions could be used to trace and enhance supply chains and public procurement related to management of the pandemic henceforth, which will allow for greater transparency and accountability of decision making. The government prioritised the protection of personal data in its track-and-trace mobile application and should continue to place this level of emphasis on data privacy in the context of any future proposals for digital solutions related to the COVID-19 recovery.

Finland is recognised for its great potential to become one of the leading countries in exploiting the benefits of AI and supporting the public sector in building predictive, AI-powered digital services based on people’s needs (Koskenlaakso, 2018[114]). It has a long history of using basic automated decision making in areas such as taxation and social welfare benefits, which can be traced back to the 1970s.22 Today, it is striving to become a world leader in human-centric and ethically sustainable artificial intelligence (Ministry of Finance, 2020[115]). Notably, the current government programme specifically mentions that the government aspires to monitor the societal impacts of AI to ensure that discriminatory models are not applied in its systems (Government of Finland, 2019[91]). The programme also notes that “instructions will be issued for Finland on the ethical use of artificial intelligence” (Government of Finland, 2019[91]). The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment outlines its vision for AI in Finland in its Leading the Way into the Age of Artificial Intelligence final report:

In 2025, in Finland of the age of artificial intelligence, citizens trust AI-based systems and believe that artificial intelligence will enhance security. The age of artificial intelligence has not eroded people’s trust in society or to each other and Finland remains a trust-based society. Artificial intelligence has been harnessed to produce anticipatory and human-centric services in the public and private sectors. Services are more clearly focused in accordance with the needs, which makes them more effective. The new service structure has thus enhanced citizens’ wellbeing and reduced unhappiness. By doing this, it has helped to strengthen social stability and the functioning of the democratic society. (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, 2019[116])

To guarantee that AI’s benefits are distributed fairly, governments must illustrate – by involving citizens – that AI is not a private good, but rather a good for the public interest (Bird et al., 2020[117]). Finland currently has several ongoing projects aimed at making use of AI with this objective in mind. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment recently launched Elements of AI, an online course organised by the University of Helsinki, that forms part of the strategy to turn Finland into an AI powerhouse (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, 2021[118]). More than 185 000 people have signed up for the ten-hour Massive Open Online course so far, which seeks to improve data literacy surrounding AI and to ensure that all citizens have a basic understanding of AI (OECD, 2020). Finland also has a steering group for its artificial intelligence programme, which is housed in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. The Steering Group published a report in 2018 entitled, Artificial Intelligence: Four Perspectives on the Economy, Employment, Knowledge and Ethics, which investigated the effects of AI on the economy, employment and the labour market, and education and skills and issued related recommendations (Future of Life Institute, 2020[119]). The group issued a final report in 2019 entitled, Leading the Way into the Age of Artificial Intelligence, which laid down 11 key actions covering all sectors to help Finland achieve its ambitious goal (OECD.AI, 2021[120]).

The Ministry of Finance’s Aurora AI programme (Ministry of Finance, 2020[115]) intends to implement an operations model based on people’s needs, whereby AI helps citizens and corporations to better utilise services. Using the AuroraAI service model, organisations from various sectors of society will “create a snapshot of well-being to support ethical, sustainable and human-centric activities and knowledge-based management” (Ministry of Finance, 2020[115]). In 2020, the City of Helsinki (in partnership with the city of Amsterdam) launched an AI Registry, a tool that tracks how municipalities use algorithms to ensure that the AI used in public services operates on the same principles of responsibility, transparency, and security as other local government activities (OECD.AI, 2021[120]). The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment notes in its 2017 Finland’s Age of Artificial Intelligence that legislation should reflect these developments (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, 2017[121]). On the international level, while several ethical guidelines are being developed simultaneously, for example, the European Parliament’s The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence: Issues and Initiatives (Bird et al., 2020[117]), there are no global standards to provide clear reference points (National Audit Office, n.d.[122]). In addition, Finland together with 13 other EU Member States published a joint position paper in October 2020, urging the European Commission to espouse a “soft law approach” that takes into account the fast-evolving nature of AI technologies and favours self-regulation and voluntary practices to avoid harming innovation (Permanent Representation of Netherlands to EU, 2020[123]). Overall, the focus to date has been on measures that encourage and support ethical conduct and a culture of integrity rather than on the prevention of unethical conduct through regulations and sanctions (National Audit Office, n.d.[122]).

In Finland and beyond, progress concerning AI has also raised a number of moral dilemmas associated with its impact on society, including the labour market, inequality, privacy, human rights and dignity, democracy, and bias (Bird et al., 2020[117]). As the Finnish government implicitly acknowledges in the government programme, one of the foremost issues in the public sector is the issue of discrimination and systematic bias, which can arise when machine-learning systems are fed data that only reflect certain demographic groups, or which include societal biases. One illustrative case in Finland involving a man who had applied for credit to buy building supplies provided a prime example of a situation where automated systems can make evaluations that are problematic (Algorithm Watch, 2018[124]). The credit company found no information in its database about the man, leading its system to default to an evaluation based only on his age, gender, place of residence and native language and to refuse the loan on that basis. The National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal found the decision to be discriminatory (Algorithm Watch, 2018[124]). In order to avoid such outcomes, the Ministry of Justice launched the Assessment Memorandum on the Regulatory Needs of General Legislation Related to the Automatic Decision-making of the Administration in 2020, which outlines a number of guidelines on automated decision making in the public sector (Vainio, Tarkka and Jaatinen, 2020[125]). The memorandum notes that automated decision making should be limited to situations with no element of discretion involved, in other words to situations where a decision can be mechanically derived based on known facts and pre-determined rules by the relevant authority. Public bodies should also be “obliged to ensure that the use of an automated decision-making system does not jeopardise the realisation of good governance, legal protection and fundamental rights” (Vainio, Tarkka and Jaatinen, 2020[125]). Furthermore, the memorandum notes that assigning competent public officials with responsibility for the adoption and outcomes of the decision-making rules used by the system can encourage greater accountability. Lastly, it proposes that transparency in automated decision-making procedures should be prioritised (Vainio, Tarkka and Jaatinen, 2020[125]).

Regarding the ethics of AI in the public sector, Chancellor of Justice Tuomas Pöysti has stressed that “ensuring full transparency of AI functions and human explicability are one of the core regulatory needs and principles and that humans must remain accountable and rules and attribution of responsibility should be made clearer across the various kinds of AI applications” (Pöysti, 2019[126]). With the above in mind, the government of Finland could implement new strategies to harness the beneficial powers of artificial intelligence (AI) for citizens, help navigate the AI-driven economic transition, and retain and strengthen public trust in AI while underlining that it should always be used with the public interest at its core. In this regard, it is also important to ensure that programmers and developers working in the public sector represent diverse demographics themselves and are trained to recognise and counteract biases so that AI applications and products do not perpetuate unfairness and discrimination. While anyone can be subject to discrimination, “it typically affects the disadvantaged in society” (Vairimaa, 2019[127]). For this reason, citizens should be made aware of how algorithms and technological tools are created and who may benefit from the systems that monitor user behaviour (Sitra, 2017[128]). Regular, transparent communication to the public on this fast-changing area on the ways in which algorithms and automated decision making are being used in the public sector, acknowledging that the “Elements of AI” course is a successful starting point, may help to build greater trust.

Lastly, it is also essential that a wide range of civil society stakeholders are engaged and given an opportunity to participate through consultations on national strategies regarding emerging technologies in Finland. The European Centre for Not-for-profit Law and the International Centre for Not-for-profit Law recently published a series of country studies on Incorporating Civil Society into National Strategies on Artificial Intelligence (European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, 2020[129]). Their research identified a number of mechanisms and models for increased participation and stakeholder engagement as well as ways to embed human rights in national strategies in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Finland could take inspiration from these studies, as well as the below country practices (see Box 4.4), to ensure that stakeholders are guaranteed a seat at the table as well as due representation.

If handled in an ethical, human-centric and unbiased manner, digitisation and AI can drive Finland towards an even stronger democracy where everyone can easily participate in decision making. However, dedicated legislation will be essential to guide the process. While Finland has many programmes, policies and initiatives to advance its position in relation to AI, its legislative framework lags behind its ambition and the speed with which the technology is developing. The establishment of a centre, office or advisory council for the ethical use of AI in public decision making with an institutionalised commitment to engaging with the public on any projects and strategies related to AI could be considered, with a view to ensuring that as wide a range of stakeholders as possible is guaranteed a seat at the table. To achieve its vision, the Finnish government needs to accompany any AI initiatives and new legislation with regular impact assessments of automated and algorithmic decision-making processes to evaluate their impact on the rights of individuals and communities.


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← 1. The review of the legal frameworks section draws from and summarises the information provided in a background report prepared by the Library of Congress for the Civic Space Scan of Finland. See (Library of Congress, 2020[139]).

← 2. The Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe has recently issued a statement on the ways in which public service broadcasting is currently under threat in Europe (accessed 8 June 2021).

← 3. Interview, Union of Journalists, 5 October 2020.

← 4. Interview, Yle, 22 September 2020.

← 5. Interview, Yle, 22 September 2020 and Interview, Union of Journalists, 5 October 2020.

← 6. Interview, Electronic Frontier Finland, 24 September 2020.

← 7. Interview, Electronic Frontier Finland, 24 September 2020.

← 8. Council of Mass Media, email received 5 March 2021.

← 9. Council of Mass Media, email received 5 March 2021.

← 10. Interview, Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland, 22 January 2021.

← 11. Interview, Council of Mass Media, 6 October 2020.

← 12. Interview, Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland, 22 January 2021.

← 13. The OECD has recently outlined the future implications for civic space of rapid digital transformation and envisaged four potential scenarios. For more information, see: https://www.oecd.org/dac/Digital-Transformation-and-the-Futures-of-Civic-Space-to-2030.pdf (accessed 8 June 2021)

← 14. Interview, Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland, 22 January 2021.

← 15. Interview, Digitalisation for Everyday Life Board, 25 September 2020.

← 16. Finnish National Agency for Education, email received 28 September 2020.

← 17. Sitra, email received 18 December 2020.

← 18. Sitra, email received 18 December 2020.

← 19. Interview, Data Protection Ombudsman, 21 September 2020.

← 20. Interview, Data Protection Ombudsman, 21 September 2020.

← 21. Interview, Ministry of Finance, 28 September 2020.

← 22. Interview, Ministry of Justice, 29 September 2020.

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