The Netherlands is to pilot a radical experiment that will ban young offenders involved in serious crime from using social media and specified websites, in an effort to break their links with the gangs who control them.
The strategy is to be trialled in a cluster of three cities, and the mayors, in a joint statement, said the “digital restraining orders”, the first of their kind, would attempt to tackle the way in which youngsters were drawn into crime by disrupting the technology that connects them.
“When it comes to tackling problematic group behaviour in the digital era, it’s time to let go of existing strategies”, the mayors of The Hague, Delft, and Zoetermeer said on Monday.
“This is unexplored territory. There is as yet no legal framework to support it. But gang violence is serious enough to warrant it as a first step.”
The new bottom-up approach aims to tackle local crime in the three cities, but crime, say the mayors, that is by no means petty and is frequently lethal – as in the high-profile case of 20-year-old Bilal Aydin, a talented young footballer stabbed to death because he refused to join a gang.
It involves shootings in playgrounds, stabbings in shopping centres and schools, and intimidation beatings in quiet streets, often directed by connections online, and frequently a precursor to induction into drugs-related gangs where targeted killings are a rite of passage.
Police figures show nearby Rotterdam, a major transshipment port for illegal drugs, was the murder capital of the Netherlands in 2022, with 16 gang-related killings. Amsterdam came second with 11. If the pilot is successful, the orders are likely to become nationwide.
“When you read how some young people communicate online, what they talk about, and how they talk about it, you realise how critical it is to intervene,” said the mayor of Zoetermeer, Michel Bezuijen. “Our research to date has been thorough and invaluable in bringing us to that realisation.”
The key to a digital restraining order – also known as a digital area ban – is that it will be “personalised” to match an offender’s record of social media and internet use, insofar as it can be established by the authorities.
This is likely to make it “hurt” considerably more, to the extent that it potentially cuts him or her off from the encrypted online world in which they usually socialise, learn to act in the networked manner of gangs, and agree and plan their attacks.
The first step will be a temporary ban. There may also be a ban on making specific statements online, particularly where they are inflammatory.
Social workers will become involved where necessary to ensure that siblings don’t interfere with the working of a ban.