Netherlands expected to hold referendum on spying powers

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The Netherlands is expected to hold a nationwide referendum on a controversial new law that provides intelligence agencies with vastly increased powers to intercept and monitor digital communications. Critics say the law threatens privacy, freedom of speech, and press freedom.

A law that took effect in 2015 enables citizens to force a nationwide, non-binding referendum if they collect more than 300,000 valid signatures within 6 weeks. As of 4:45 p.m. local time on Monday, the campaign said it had collected more than 303,000 signatures.

The campaign to collect signatures will continue until October 16, after which the Electoral Council will check the validity of a sample of signatures. If 300,000 signatures are confirmed as valid, the referendum will take place on March 21, when citizens are already scheduled to vote in local elections.

The Law on Intelligence and Security Services – which was approved by the House in February and by the Senate in July – allows the interception of digital communications without the authorization of a judge, even if citizens are not suspected of a crime.

While a minister has to approve each operation, the controversial law enables interception on a large scale. Examples include the interception of all communications between Syria and the Netherlands, or the interception of all communications in the neighborhood of a suspect.

The law also allows security agencies to hack computers and smartphones to spy on suspects or to collect data, even if security agencies have to use computers which belong to people who are not involved. It also enables intelligence agencies to set up a secret DNA database.

Among other complaints, the law allows intelligence agencies to retain data for up to three years, and longer if information is deemed to be relevant. Data may also be shared with foreign intelligence agencies, even if the information was not analyzed by Dutch intelligence agencies.

A number of organizations have voiced concern about the law, which is due to take effect on January 1. Amnesty International said the increased powers to spy on citizens en mass threaten human rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of speech.

The Dutch Association of Journalists (NVJ) has also expressed concern, warning that journalists will not be able to protect their sources. The association announced earlier this year that it would initiate legal proceedings in an attempt to stop the legislation.

“Journalists need anonymous sources to expose abuses, which may occur at the justice department, the police, and security services,” NVJ said in July. “This new law means that the security and anonymity of these sources can no longer be guaranteed, because computers and phones of journalists can be monitored.”

Supporters of the law have noted that an independent commission will examine requests for surveillance, but the Council of State – a legal advisory body to the Dutch government – said in October 2016 that it had “serious doubts” about the effectiveness of the system of oversight. It also criticized the collection of data on a large scale.

“This law provides Dutch intelligence agencies the most far-reaching powers they have ever had to spy on the internet on a large scale and without a specific target, which opens the door to unprecedented surveillance,” Amnesty International said.

The referendum would be the country’s third since the Kingdom of the Netherlands was established in 1815. The country’s first referendum took place in 2005, when voters rejected a proposed European Constitution. Another referendum took place in 2016 when voters rejected an association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine.

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