Austria rejects online surveillance bill… for now

Austria has proved that overbearing surveillance into the online activity of citizens is not an inevitability in the developed world after a bill that would have allowed law enforcement agencies to monitor online messaging services was defeated.

Online message monitoring

The bill was proposed by the Österreichische Volkspartei (Austrian People’s Party) who are the junior partners in Austria’s ruling coalition. They had originally requested opinions on the proposals to be submitted by politicians, lawyers, and technical experts by 21st August.

Their Bill would have allowed police in Austria to monitor messaging on services such as WhatsApp and Skype if they were awarded a court order. The power would have been available for terrorist related offences, but also any other offence for which the punishment could be five years in prison.

They argued that similar powers were already in place in other European countries, including France, Spain, Italy, and Poland. And the point was also stressed that such data has been used in the past to convict individuals for links to terrorist organisations.

Unlawful proposals

However, the proposals have been scuppered by the Social Democrats, who are actually the Austrian People’s Party’s coalition partner. They have stated that they believe the bill, in its current form, would be against the law in Austria.

Austrian newspaper Vorarlberger Nachrichten quoted Hannes Jarolim, the Social Democrat spokesperson on judicial affairs as saying, “In this form, it is completely impossible.”

Opposition parties too have been strongly opposed to the proposals with the core of many arguments being that the bill would have given law enforcement agencies access to too much private personal data. This would have included data saved in cloud storage or on hard drives.

It is refreshing to see a European country giving precedent to the privacy of its citizens over the alleged security benefits of such an intrusive piece of legislation.

Last year, neighbouring Switzerland did adopt its own intrusive surveillance laws, but those did only pass into law after a referendum. Close neighbours Germany also have various intrusive surveillance and data retention powers.

Bill could be resurrected

However, whilst the failure of this bill is a positive thing for those Austrian internet users who value their privacy, its failure now does not necessarily mean it is dead in the water.

A spokesperson for the Social Democrats parliamentary body was quoted in Austrian media as saying she hoped the bill could be amended and then reintroduced in a form that would enable it to be passed.

Using familiar rhetoric, she said she hoped Austria would be able “to give police the power they need to pursue criminals.”

It remains to be seen whether the proposed bill does see the light of day again, but if there is sufficient political will amongst the ruling coalition parties then it seems likely that it will only be a matter of time before some form of surveillance over online messaging is passed.

It would, therefore, be prudent for Austrian internet users to take steps to protect their online privacy by employing the services of a VPN to encrypt and anonymise all of their online activity.

A reputable VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN can help to keep online messaging private and in intrusive surveillance is likely to become a reality in Austria, both they and other VPN providers can expect a swift spike in subscribers from that part of the world.

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