The coronavirus has plunged the whole world into a deep crisis and governments do their utmost to control the dissemination. As I wrote in my previous column, it is important especially now to keep our heads cool and to protect our civil rights and privacy. A short and temporary infringement of our privacy in the general interest may be legitimate. The western model should imply a partial, temporary lockdown, lasting at most twice the incubation period so as to control the spread of the virus based on increased testing, and to facilitate the healthcare system, augmenting the number of critical care beds.
Moreover, this should be a participatory lockdown, based on voluntary participation and citizens’ individual responsibility. This is only logical, as trust is the cornerstone of our democratic society, even though at times there is a lack of it. This concerns trust in fellow citizens, the government and first of all, oneself. At this point in time I have a lot of confidence in the Dutch approach, which is a combination of common sense and relying on healthcare experts. Ultimately, we will have to learn to live with this virus and control potential outbreaks.
To measure is to know and therefore it is essential to scale up the number of tests with the right test equipment without delay. There are tests which can indicate quickly whether someone is infected. It is interesting to note that in Germany, where practically everyone with symptoms is being tested, the percentages of gravely ill and deceased people are considerably lower than in countries where testing is very limited. For policy makers and politicians it is thus very important to take the right decisions on the basis of facts.
If not, there will be a long-standing and emotionally-driven struggle, the encroachment on our freedom will not be short and temporary and power will shift disproportionately into the hands of the State. Such a scenario will see us move towards a forced surveillance society (see the current situation Israel is in, the newly introduced legislation in the UK as well as EU proposals with regard to telecom location data), characterised by the abolishment of anonymous (cash) payments (see the current guidelines in the Dutch retail sector), the dissolution of medical confidentiality and physical integrity in the context of potential virus infections (compulsory vaccinations and apps) and censorship of any alternative or undesired sources of information that counter the prevailing narrative. Besides, commercial interests of IT and pharmaceutical companies would come to dominate even more.
In the best case scenario, both society and the economy will soon be able to revive on the basis of individual and aggregate test results, with this lesson to bear in mind: let’s not lose the importance of our freedom, health and individual responsibility out of sight. All of a sudden, citizens have been left to their own devices and this experience will make them realize that life is not malleable and our society is not a mere paper exercise. This situation could lead to increased civic participation and less government, i.e. greater focus on critical functions. When we take a look around now, we see positive-minded, well-informed and responsible citizens and there is no need to keep focusing on a handful of exceptions. That is, as long as the measures in place are comprehensible, measurable and very temporary, and are not packaged into structural legislation, thereby misusing the crisis in order to grant certain organizations and sectors greater influence and power.
Finally, it’s worth realizing that all entrepreneurial Dutchmen without whom we would not be able to pay our fine public services, also deserve a round of applause. And perhaps the idea of a basic income for every citizen could be reviewed once more. In other words: let’s aim for more individual decisions in a freer society that is supported by technology and common sense!
Here’s to a free 2020!
Privacy First chairman
(in personal capacity)
Many questions have been raised about Privacy First’s point of view in relation to the protection of privacy in crisis situations, such as the one we’re currently experiencing as a result of the coronavirus. As indicated previously, I support the precautionary principle, i.e., we don’t know what we don’t know and what in fact is effective. A strict, western-style approach on the basis of a temporary (partial) lockdown for a (very) short period of time will drastically flatten the coronavirus curve and will make sure the healthcare system does not collapse. This also allows us to gain time to find a vaccine or medicine. We still don’t know exactly what kind of virus we’re dealing with, how it came into existence and how to control it.
Our society is built on trust. In a crisis situation like we’re in now, authorities will have to take temporary crisis measures which allow citizens to do the right thing voluntarily and on the basis of trust. This may temporarily restrict privacy, such as freedom of movement and/or physical integrity (think of being in quarantine). The government can choose to have a full or partial lockdown. Making this choice, it is essential that we rely on the norms and values of our free, democratic society, and that there is trust both in the citizenry and in the means and measures that may be employed. Ideally, this would result in a participatory lockdown based on everyone’s freedom and sense of responsibility.
Past experience shows that when there is open and honest communication, citizens act responsibly and in the general interest. This implies that draconian and structural legislative measures that restrict freedom can be kept at bay, much to the benefit of the people and the economy. In this respect, it is significant that practically all companies, institutions and organizations currently comply with the protocols, and even do more than what is required. After a period of inaction, the Dutch government has decided to act and take responsibility, which is most welcome. After all, this concerns a potentially great number of very sick patients and fatalities, including many elderly and vulnerable people.
Our government has opted for a democratic instead of a dictatorial approach, and that is to be applauded. So let’s use this moment to keep our head cool instead of infringing upon everyone’s freedom and right to privacy, freedom of movement, bodily integrity and cash payments. I see there is a bitter wind sweeping through Denmark, where a coronavirus emergency law has been rushed through, allowing the authorities to force people to be vaccinated (even though there is no vaccine yet), and in France too, where permanent crisis measures seem to have been implemented. All this is incompatible with a decent society and creates misplaced precedents. Let’s act in the general interest on the basis of trust and everyone’s own responsibility. For that, we need neither to be locked up, nor do we want to see the army in the streets, or any other draconian measures or laws to be put in place.
Let’s strive for a free and trustworthy Netherlands and Europe.
Privacy First chairman
(in personal capacity)