The Netherlands is a wealthy Western European democracy known for its liberal and tolerant attitudes. As of December 2017, 95.9 percent of the population has access to the internet, making the Netherlands one of the most connected countries in the world. Censorship of all but the most criminal content is almost unheard of in the Netherlands.
Similar was also true of government surveillance, but this changed in 2017 when the government passed a far-ranging surveillance law that was widely compared to the UK's terrible Investigatory Powers Act (aka the Snoopers Charter). In a surprise turn of events, an advisory referendum held 2018 rejected the new law, but the government chose to ignore the result.
In order to meet criticisms raised during the (purely advisory) referendum, the government promised to adapt the law at a later stage, but a shift in the Dutch political landscape may result in these changes never being made.
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The Netherlands is a parliamentary democracy. It has many political parties, ensuring that no one party ever secures an overall majority of votes. Parties must, therefore, cooperate to form coalition governments. It has a monarch, but this role is purely ceremonial.
The Netherlands has a very progressive human rights record and enjoys a reputation for open-minded liberalism and tolerance. This reputation has been eroded somewhat over the last few years, however, by increasing levels of xenophobia towards refugees and Muslim minorities.
This has fueled a rise in support for far-right political parties, resulting in Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) winning 20 seats in the 2017 general elections. No other party would enter a coalition with the PVV, however, which effectively shut it out of government.
This is particularly noteworthy in a fragmented political arena where it took a record 225 days to form a center-right governing coalition under Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
In March 2019, the normally staid provincial legislature elections turned into one of the greatest political upsets in Dutch history. The far right Forum for Democracy (FvD) party, which previously held just two seats in parliament, overtook Rutte's Freedom and Democracy (VVD) party as the largest in the Netherlands.
Observers are worried that this far-right victory could entrench xenophobia in one of Europe's most progressive countries.
The Netherlands has traditionally been regarded as relatively surveillance-free, but this changed when the government passed the Wet op de inlichtingen - en veiligheidsdiensten (Wiv) law in early 2017.
The Intelligence and Security Service Act (English translation) is a Draconian piece of legislation which grants the Dutch government wide-ranging surveillance powers. Under the Wiv, the government can:
- Tap online communication from a whole neighborhood if a single suspicious person is living there.
- Hack all automated devices, such as smartphones, computers, and smart TVs.
- Create a secret DNA-database that every citizen can be added to.
- Share collected data with foreign intelligence services without analyzing it first.
The Wiv has also become known as the "Sleepwet or "Sleepnetwet" (trawl law).
In the Netherlands, a non-binding advisory referendum can be forced on any issue if 300,000 signatures are collected in support of it. Five students managed to do just that when their cause went viral after being featured on popular Dutch political satire show Zondag met Lubachud.
The referendum was held on 21 March 2018, and the Dutch public very narrowly rejected the Wiv by 48.8% to 47.3%.
Perhaps unsurprising is that votes were sharply divided along sharply along age lines, with 60% of people over the age of 55 voting in favor, compared with 41% of voters under-35.
So what next?
In spite of the referendum result, the Wiv came into effect on 1 May 2018. This is no surprise since the government bullishly declared in advance of the vote that it planned to ignore the result. Indeed, it went further and declared plans to abolish advisory referendums altogether!
In order to allay fears raised during the referendum, the government has promised to amend the Wiv at some (unspecified) point in the future.
Clearer guidelines are intended to ensure that only specific pieces of information can be collected, and intelligence agencies must perform a yearly review before discarding collected information which is no longer relevant to investigations. Rules are also to be tightened up around sharing information with foreign intelligence services.
A coalition of civil rights organizations, companies, journalists, lawyers, and NGOs are demanding that the law is suspended until the changes are made, and have announced plans to institute summary proceedings to enforce this. It is impossible to know if these proposed changes will ever be made.
For many years the Netherlands was a renowned hotbed of copyright piracy, thanks to the fact that downloading copyrighted material was legal in the country.
In theory, there were strict limits to this freedom only movies and music could be downloaded (not computer software), and only if you already owned it. In practice copyright laws were not enforced, resulting in something of a pirate free-for-all.
In order to compensate copyright holders for their loss, since 2003 the Dutch government levied a personal copy feed tax on all blank storage media such as CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, and USB thumb drives.
This all changed in 2014, however, when the EU Court of justice declared the local legislation unlawful.
Member States were free to adopt legislation permitting, inter alia, reproductions for private use to be made from an unlawful source, the result of that would clearly be detrimental to the proper functioning of the internal market.
The Court further determined that the personal copy fee was also illegal, as it unfairly penalized consumers who had never pirated anything in their lives.
In practice, both ISPs and the government have been unenthusiastic about enforcing the new rules. This is changing, however, thanks to the tireless efforts of anti-piracy outfits such as BRIEN who recently forced Netherlands ISPs to block The Pirate Bay.
Other than The Pirate Bay, people in the Netherlands enjoy among the most unrestricted internet access in the world. As is the case everywhere, of course, highly illegal content is blocked."