Current rules inadequate to prevent online disturbances

APV 2.0

Curfew riots, farmers' protests; public order disturbances increasingly start online. A problem for many municipalities and police because most legislation applies to the ‘physical’ world. The IJsselland Safety Region was the first safety region in the Netherlands to have NHL Stenden conduct research into this. Chairman and mayor of Zwolle Peter Snijders: "If we see online calls for riots or the disruption of public order, what legal options do we have to intervene? That was the key question.

The research was conducted by Willem Bantema, professor of applied sciences in Local Government and Digitalisation at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, and his team. Willem Bantema understands the municipalities’ needs for tools. "It fits our times that mayors start exploring the legal possibilities of the online world. Utrecht mayor Sharon Dijksma tried this last year with an online restraining order, and Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema starts a pilot to prevent violence via drillraps. It only remains unclear what they can and cannot do. In that sense, these pilots contribute to a better understanding of our possibilities and limitations." Peter Snijders agrees: "We cannot close our eyes to what is happening online. The moment you see things that can lead to disturbances, you want to know which legal possibilities we have to take measures." But mainly because of fundamental rights, the possibilities are limited or not tailored to the online domain. This does not only apply to the General Municipal By-law (‘APV’). The Municipalities Act, too, was drafted in a completely different era and focuses on the physical domain."

According to Bantema, the current rules are ill-suited for tackling online disorder, but this can be remedied. In Belgium, for example, this is done locally by very simply adding in the General Police Regulations that certain rules also apply online. Earlier, the Minister of Justice and Security indicated that it is up to municipal councils to further explore whether the APV offers possibilities. Based on the results of this study, it is more likely that - if desired – national legislation will be developed to additionally support municipalities, for instance by granting well-defined legal authority to mayors."

Bantema is cautious about this, though. "I understand that most mayors want to prevent riots and upheaval. On the other hand, privacy and freedom of speech is a great good. Because as soon as you ban people from expressing themselves online, you are curtailing freedom of expression which goes against our fundamental rights. You should not take that lightly. It is necessary to create proper legal safeguards for this."

The need for such clear regulations is a given, he says. "Residents can organise themselves much faster than governments. We saw that that during Covid-19 and I think we are going to see more and more examples of this in society. If there is something going on in the 'physical' public, like an argument, then it is all very clear and so are the rules. We are more often dealing with a more indirect trigger - namely online - which puts you in a grey area as an authority. Each time, you have to substantiate the relationship between online and offline. We hope this study will help municipalities and the national government move forward."

The Ijsselland Safety Region will present the results of the study to the minister of Justice & Security, and the minister of the Interior. Peter Snijders: " As mayors of IJsselland, we would like to enter into a national discussion on this. It would be great if we could jointly establish a sound legal basis to respond and act appropriately when the occasion arises."