Strong protest Dutch libraries against access to data
The public and academic libraries in the Netherlands have united in strong protest against a proposed new law that will give the police extraordinary new access powers to data about readers. The law is now with the Senate and the committee on legal affairs is waiting for answers from the minister after a first critical round of questions. The law addresses all holders of data, from car rent companies to video stores and from private people with databases to any kind of company with data about their customers. Parts of the law have already entered into force, in special legislation for banks and for telephony and Internet providers.
Generally, the law will make it much easier for law enforcement to get access to data, by lowering legal barriers and safeguards. The proposal distinguishes between three kinds of data: identifying data, other data and sensitive data. Identifying data are much more than just name and address. This category includes postal address, date of birth, gender and all kinds of administrative identifiers such as customer number, insurance policy number, bank account or membership numbers. Any police officer can demand ‘series’ of these identifying data, without any suspicion, as pro-active investigation. These demands can be even be made verbally, on the phone.
Only sensitive data, such as religion, race, political affiliation, health or sexual life still require an authorisation from an independent examining magistrate. Any ‘other data’ can be ordered by the public prosecutor. This is a massive category of all kinds of data stored in business administrations, but also for example reader profiles held by libraries. Supposedly, people who’s ‘other data’ have been requested without any result, should be notified after the research is closed. But a recent evaluation of the new extraordinary policing powers in the Netherlands revealed that hardly anybody is ever notified. Minister of Justice Donner has already told the Senate that he wants to talk with the public prosecution office to see if this obligation to notify needs a revision, “in case essential investigation interests are at risk.”
The Dutch libraries are now alarming a general audience in the Netherlands with their appeal to ‘Keep Big Brother out of the library!’. “Libraries are not convinced by soothing remarks that all law enforcement activities in the Netherlands are supervised by the public prosecutor or judge. That provides no guarantee against a too broad use of the powers granted by the draft law. In the United States, where the powers are more broadly defined, many more inquiries have been made than originally claimed, and with a much broader scope than could have been expected from the original intention to fight terrorism. The intended fight against terrorism could thus easily degenerate into a kind of moral police supervision.”
The Dutch library protest is similar to the massive protest from libraries, librarians, booksellers, publishers and readers in the United States against the new snooping powers granted in section 215 of the Patriot Act. On 12 April 2005 this US coalition welcomed a testimony by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that he is willing to amend the section to protect reader privacy. One approach would be to require the FBI to possess ‘specific and articulable facts’ indicating ‘reason to believe’ that the person whose records are sought is a terrorist or foreign agent.
Press release Dutch libraries (in Dutch, 25.04.2005)
US Book groups support efforts to amend patriot act (12.04.2005)