No sooner did a mandatory data retention law go into effect in Austria this month than thousands of Austrians banded together in a swift opposition campaign to overturn it. The Austrian law originated as the misshapen offspring of the 2006 European Data Retention Directive. Led by AK Vorrat Austria, a working group against mandatory data retention, the pushback against this mass-surveillance law demonstrates that opposition remains alive and well six years after the European Union adopted the infamous Directive.
The Austrian data retention law compels all ISPs and telcos operating in Austria to retain everyone's incoming and outgoing phone numbers, IP addresses, location data, and other key telecom and Internet traffic data. The information is collected for all citizens, rather than just those suspected criminal activity. In many cases, the data is handed over to law enforcement.
Austrian activists took advantage of a two-year delay of the implementation of this ill-conceived Directive in their country by mapping out their opposition strategy in advance. They sought to leverage a two tier strategy to beat back the Data Retention Directive at the European level, and to fight against the Austrian data retention law at the national level.
One day before the law entered into force, Austrian activists organized funeral marches to protest this anti-privacy, anti-anonymity, anti-free expression law.
Now, just weeks after the Directive officially went into effect, its future hangs in the balance as a pair of efforts calling for its reversal speed toward Austria’s Constitutional Court. Austrian activists are seeking to overturn the legality of the Austrian law with a mass complaint filed with Austria’s Constitutional Court. With nearly 7,000 supporters formally signed on and 18,000 declaring their intent to join, that effort that is shaping up to be “the biggest complaint in the history of the republic,” according to European Digital Rights (EDRi), a coalition of 32 privacy and civil rights organizations working in the European Union, including EFF. AK Vorrat Austria initially announced that it hoped to bring 1,000 individuals together to sign onto the complaint – and surpassed that goal in two days’ time.
But activists aren’t stopping there. On a parallel track, AK Vorrat Austria has already gathered 100,000 signatures for a citizens’ initiative calling for their government to work towards the abolishment of the EU Directive. The signatures are enough to meet the required threshold to force the issue to be considered by the National Council, Austria’s legislative branch of government.
Andreas Kirsch, President of European Digital Rights (EDRi) and of the Austrian Association for Internet users (VIBE!AT), noted that this is the first time activists have taken advantage of a new tool that allows citizens to sign petitions on the parliament website. "So the parliament not only has the pressure of 100,000 citizens but also of the success of their own new instrument for direct political participation," he explained. "They therefore need to show that they take our concerns seriously." He said a hearing could take place as early as June.
This isn’t the first time this Directive has sparked an uproar in Europe. When it first became clear that the EU was going to cave to governmental lobbying interests from the U.S. and UK and enact a sweeping law that would effectively legitimize mass surveillance, the Freedom not Fear movement responded with massive street protests in Germany and across Europe.
The opposition continues, and is only growing. Courts in Romania, Germany, and the Czech Republic have declared their national laws derived from the EU Directive to be unconstitutional, while a court in Ireland has referred a case to the European Court of Justice—the highest Court in Europe for matters related to European Union law—questioning the legality of the overall EU Data Retention Directive. The European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx has called the Directive “the most privacy-invasive instrument ever adopted by the EU in terms of scale and the number of people it affects.” Despite all this, the European Commission is still defending it even though it has not been able to provide any evidence that the Directive is necessary, and therefore legal, in the European Union.
Austrian Association for Internet users (VIBE!AT), the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights and several other Austrian activists are encouraging all concerned Austrians to join this fight. Austrians can join the mass complaint against the Austrian data retention law by filling out the declaration form by May 18, available at verfassungsklage.at.
Meanwhile, all Austrians age 16 and older should support the citizens’ initiative online at zeichnemit.at (in German) to call for the abolishment of the EU data retention directive. Take Action: Sign the citizens' initiative now. Tell the Austrian government to fight for the repeal of the European Data Retention Directive in Brussels.
"We were able to demonstrate – in combination with the ACTA demonstrations – that a large number of citizens oppose a further increase of government surveillance," Kirsch said, "and that the time of anti-terror hysteria is finally over."
Note: This post has been updated from an earlier version.