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Mathieu Paapst: ‘Only the police should be able to post images of suspects on the internet’

14 September 2011

Private individuals who disseminate images of suspected burglars, raiders and other suspects via the internet are guilty of taking the law into their own hands. The fact that it is possible does not mean that it’s legal to do it. The Dutch Data Protection Authority should therefore strictly monitor breaches of the law. Shopkeepers and other victims who have images of suspects should simply take them to the police, just as in the past. This is the view of Mathieu Paapst, university lecturer in Law and IT at the University of Groningen. He considers the consequences for suspects too great, whether or not they are actually guilty: ‘It is a global, eternal pillory. Once a photo or film is on the internet, it’s there forever.’

The times when watching Opsporing Verzocht [the Dutch Crimewatch] was the only way to see a picture of a real criminal are long gone. Increasingly often, the police are placing images of suspects on the internet. The legislator has no problems with this, as long as it is part of the investigation process. The problem is that for a long time now the police have no longer had a monopoly on this possibility. Aggrieved shopkeepers, uneasy citizens living next door to a suspected paedophile, and the owners of stolen bicycles put photos and short films online, with images of the suspected perpetrators. Via weblogs like GeenStijl, people as far away as Australia can see clear or blurry photos of people breaking into a petrol station, holding up a jeweller’s or who have perhaps assaulted children.

Taking the law into their own hands

‘Nowadays it’s very easy to make films, and even easier to disseminate them. It may seem to be a handy way of tracing suspects, but it’s not allowed and should never be allowed’, says Paapst. ‘Both the Personal Data Protection Act and the Law of Copyright forbid this kind of action. That’s what we have the police for. In addition, the consequences for the supposed perpetrator are enormous – the images remain floating around on the internet forever, visible to a huge audience. The damage to reputation is immeasurable and, what’s even more important, it is caused before it has been established whether the suspect is indeed guilty.’ With that he sweeps away the argument that the law has more respect for the privacy of criminals than for that of the victims.


The argument that the police are in need of this kind of help from citizens when tracing criminals, because they don’t have enough time themselves, doesn’t wash either, according to Paapst. ‘The fact that the police possibly have capacity problems does not mean that citizens can take the law into their own hands. If the images are really that sharp, and clearly show that a crime is being committed, then the police can always make good use of them.’

According to Paapst, these images are often put online with dubious motives: ‘It’s often just hitting back, taking revenge on a supposed perpetrator. And even if it’s just tracing a shoplifter, I have my doubts about the effectiveness of this measure. Just imagine if all the shopkeepers in the Netherlands were to do this – all you’d achieve would be the opposite due to an overkill of images.’


Paapst realizes full well that powerless shopkeepers won’t be interested in these arguments. Nevertheless, as far as he is concerned they have to respect the law and continue to have trust in the police: ‘And, of course, if they hang a photo of a notorious shoplifter in their shop to make sure he won’t come in again, then although that is in principle the same transgression of the portrait right, it is on a much lesser scale and I have no problems with that. That’s a very small pillory.’


Paapst’s opinion will be discussed during a symposium to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Bachelor’s/Master’s degree programme in Law and IT at the University of Groningen. During the symposium, renowned legal specialists in their field of expertise will ponder the developments of the past ten years and look ahead to the future. The symposium will be held on 16 September, starting at 12.45 p.m. in the Harmonie Building of the University of Groningen (Oude Kijk in ’t Jatstraat 26, room 14.026) and finishing at about 5 p.m. with a drinks reception. You can register via

Curriculum Vitae

Mathieu Paapst (Delfzijl, 1974) studied law at the University of Groningen. He is a lecturer/researcher for the Centre for Law and IT at the University of Groningen. He is particularly interested in internet law, intellectual property rights and IT tenders, and in the legal, ethical and social aspects of the information society.

Last modified:30 November 2017 3.38 p.m.
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