A law requiring that Internet service providers in the Netherlands make it
easy for police to "tap" consumers' online discourse is making its way through the country's parliament--a move privacy
advocates say could trigger a global domino effect.
Earlier this month, the upper house of the Dutch Parliament passed an amended law to forbid
telecommunications companies from selling services unless their networks
can support government surveillance during a criminal
"Providers of public telecommunications networks and public
telecommunications services shall not make their telecommunications
networks and telecommunications services available to users unless they can
be wiretapped," states Article 13 of the act.
"By or pursuant to a governmental decree, rules may be laid down with
respect to the technical ability to wiretap public telecommunications
networks and public telecommunications services," it continues.
If adopted by the lower house, the law could have sweeping implications for
Net users in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
The Dutch proposal mirrors a law adopted in the United States that is
mired in controversy. Enacted by Congress in 1994, the Communications
Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) allocated millions of dollars to
help phone companies upgrade their networks and develop new technical
standards to accommodate court-ordered wiretapping.
But major phone companies in the United States and in countries such as the
Netherlands also offer Internet access or sell network backbone service to smaller
Civil liberties groups charge that this convergence of voice and
data networks could give law enforcement officials unauthorized access to
numerous private conversations because information on these networks is
transmitted in "packets." This factor can make it almost impossible for law
enforcement to tap into just one Net user's activity without seeing data
shipped by other people, privacy advocates argue.
The CALEA technical standards are not yet final due to the deadlock between
FBI, telcos, and consumer groups. Parties
on all sides have recently petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to step in
and settle the matter.
"The assistance capability requirements that law enforcement is seeking do
not expand law enforcement's electronic surveillance authorities granted by
Congress. It only preserves them in a new era of telecommunications," the
Justice Department and FBI stated in
their FCC filing. "Law
enforcement officials have worked diligently with the industry to develop a
CALEA standard that addresses industry concerns while preserving law
enforcement's electronic surveillance capabilities."
Groups such as the Electronic Privacy
Information Center (EPIC) and Center for
Democracy and Technology argue that the Netherlands is being
influenced by the United States, and that these days there is no real
difference between voice and data networks.
"We're seeing this pressure around the world to make wiretapping easier to
do," Dave Banisar, staff counsel for EPIC.
"CALEA was not supposed to deal with computer networks, but its scope is
being expanded worldwide," he added. "The Netherlands could start forcing
equipment manufacturers to make this a standard feature of Internet
services because its country needs it. The Netherlands isn't a large
country, but it is part of the European Union, and at the moment it has a
fairly large impact on networking there."
The legislative move in the Netherlands was likely kicked off by a dispute
authorities had with a local ISP last fall. As previously reported,
XS4all (pronounced "access for all")
refused to comply with a request from the Dutch Ministry of Justice's Forensic
Science Laboratory to monitor one of its subscriber's Net surfing
activities as well as all communication via email, newsgroups, and chat
And Britain's National
Criminal Intelligence Service submitted a report last year calling for
to permit police to monitor and intercept email.