Dutch voters reject "Big Brother Charter"


In a referendum on 21st March 2018, Dutch voters rejected a law which would have increased the state's powers to carry out surveillance and collect people's electronic data. More than 384,000 signatures were collected for the referendum to take place. In total, 49.5 percent of voters chose to reject the law and 46.5 percent voted in favour of it. This particular law - the Intelligence and Security Services Act 2017 - had been passed in July 2017 after years of debate. It has been described by critics as the "Dragnet Law" and "Big Brother Charter" because of its perceived and potential intrusion into the private lives of citizens.

The result of the referendum came as a surprise to many, as polls ahead of the vote showed a majority in favour of the legislation. Dutch internet freedom group Bits of Freedom welcomed the final outcome, noting that civil society's campaign around the referendum had helped to raise public awareness of internet freedom and state control over online communications. The group remarked that:

"In recent months we have worked together with a lot of volunteers and other organizations to convince as many people as possible that this law should be improved. Privacy, internet freedom and the work of the secret services have finally become adult subjects that people take seriously. We want to thank everyone who contributed to this result for their efforts". (Translated from Dutch)

The government acknowledged the results of the referendum and Prime Minister Mark Rutte responded that the government would need to reexamine the law. While the referendum does not have legal force, the consensus appears to be that the government will have to listen to voters' concerns and amend the law accordingly when the Senate considers it in April. Amnesty International Netherlands has called on the government to ensure that the law is amended to prohibit widespread collection of citizens' data and ensure that the Dutch intelligence service does not share the data with foreign governments. 

Despite the victory for civil society groups behind the petition and resulting referendum on the security law, the final result led the lower house of the Dutch parliament on 22nd February to vote to abolish advisory referenda in the Netherlands. That decision is now expected to be confirmed by the Senate; however, civil society groups such as Meer Democratie are planning to take the lower house's decision to court.

Peaceful Assembly

On 28th March 2018, Monitor research partner Liberties.eu reported on the Dutch Ombudsman's concerns that the right to protest is under pressure in the Netherlands. In his new report entitled "Protesting, an abrasive fundamental right?", Ombudsman Reiner van Zutphen says that the government tends to be risk-averse in its approach to demonstrations, saying that authorities typically try to balance the need for public order and safety equally with the right to demonstrate. He urges local authorities and the police to facilitate protests and that any restrictions on assemblies should be "legally justifiable and well-motivated". As Liberties reports, this means making "every effort to facilitate and protect protests so that citizens can freely express their opinions - however unpopular they may be".

The importance of the successful policing of protests in modern-day Netherlands was evidenced in late January 2018 as Dutch far-right supporters held protests in Rotterdam. The protest on 20th January drew several hundred people. Far-right politician Gert Wilders spoke about the need to crack down on immigration, saying that "we live here, not in Morocco, we don't live in Turkey or in Saudi Arabia, but in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands". There was a heavy police presence during the protest, as a police cordon successfully separated the far-right supporters from a small group of counter-demonstrators and no clashes or incidents of violence were reported.