In September last year, the Swiss parliament passed a new surveillance law known as the Nachrichtendienstgesetzt (NDG) or la Loi sur le renseignement (Lrens). The law would have severely curtained privacy rights in Switzerland. Due to our use of end-to-end encryption, the Proton Mail secure email service would not be negatively impacted by the new law. However, we strongly believe in protecting privacy rights, so together with other opposition groups, we decided to mount a challenge against the new law. Due to Switzerland’s unique system of direct democracy, any law can be challenged by collecting 50’000 signatures within a period of 3 months after the passage of the law.
Today, we are happy to announce that this effort has succeeded and this afternoon at 13:30h, the referendum will be officially presented to the Swiss government in Bern. This means at the next election, the Swiss surveillance law will be put to a public vote by the entire country, and for once, the people and not politicians will decide the future of privacy in Switzerland. We would like to use this historic occasion to thank the numerous Swiss Proton Mail users who assisted in this effort.
The signature campaign started in September and ran until the end of December. By the first week of December, the campaign only collected around 20’000 signatures and the outcome was very much in doubt. It was at this time that we decided to call upon our community for support and we sent an email to all Swiss Proton Mail users (identified by .ch email addresses). The Swiss Proton Mail community is small (we estimate 30’000 users), but quickly mobilized to help collect signatures.
The result is that over 70’000 signatures were mailed in (the collection center stopped counting after 70’000), of which 64’500 were processed, and by Tuesday evening, over 55’000 of those signatures had been certified, meeting the statutory threshold. We are thankful that so many of our community decided to support this effort and we appreciate the many emails of encouragement that we received.
This referendum effort is truly historic because many different aspects of Swiss society were able to unite behind the common cause of protecting the Swiss tradition of privacy. Also backing this referendum was a diverse coalition including rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Grundrechte.ch, political groups such as JUSO (Young Socialists Switzerland), GPS (Green Party), SP (Social Democratic Party) and the PPS (Pirate Party), along with business associations such as Digitalen Gesellschaft, and other groups such as CCC Schweiz. There were also Proton Mail users from all walks of life.
Together, we have demonstrated that privacy has a voice, and we will be heard. We are very grateful to the Proton Mail community in Switzerland for your efforts. We are not numerous, but still we managed to help force a public vote on an important issue that impacts all inhabitants of Switzerland. It is not often that small companies like Proton Mail can impact national laws, but thanks to you, we have formed a strong bloc that can no longer be ignored. Based on this result, we are confident that we will also be able to force a public vote on the upcoming BÜPF data retention law.
Regardless of the outcome of the public vote in June, we have already accomplished our most important goal and civic duty, which is to bring privacy issues to the forefront of public debate. This way, we can avoid the unfortunate situation in the US where the CISA surveillance law was passed and approved in the shadows. If three years of working on email privacy has taught us anything, it is that winning the fight for privacy goes beyond writing code.
We must also constructively engage governments and the general public. On an individual level, this means going beyond simply switching from Gmail to Proton Mail. We must follow the example of the Swiss Proton Mail community and create awareness. We need to engage our local communities and help people understand that encrypted email services like Proton Mail don’t just provide secure email, but also protect democracy. It is only by winning the battle for public opinion that we will be able to permanently secure our privacy rights.
If you wish to get a free encrypted email account and join our community, it is possible to sign up here: https://proton.me/mail/pricing
Update: The signatures have now been delivered to the Swiss government. Despite the heavy snow, many people turned out to fight for our privacy rights. (Photo credit: Parti Pirate Suisse)