Emergency office criticized for sending people to Twitter for Storm Poly updates

Members of Parliament reacted with incomprehension to a warning message from the NL-Alert system that was sent to people in Noord-Holland about the severe storm that struck on Wednesday. People were directed to Twitter for news and updates about the storm, while that medium has been inaccessible to people without an account since last weekend.

“How the digital government can fly out of control,” said MP Nico Drost, whose ChristenUnie party is part of the governing coalition. “In an emergency, every resident of our country must be able to rely on the good provision of news. Via channels that are accessible to everyone. And that should not depend on an unpredictable medium.”

Drost made the remarks on Twitter himself. His comments could not be found on his Instagram page, his LinkedIn profile, his page on the ChristenUnie website, or his page on the website of the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament.

His comments echoed those shared earlier by privacy advocate group Bits of Freedom. The organization wrote on both Twitter and Mastodon, “Hundreds of Thousands of people just received an NL-Alert,” pointing out that people were told to visit the Amsterdam-Amstelland Fire Brigade’s Twitter account “on the little bird website” for more information.

“We don’t think you should have to create a Twitter account in case of emergency!” the organization added. “We have gone from ‘an air raid siren goes off and you turn on the radio or TV on your local emergency station,’ to ‘you receive a notification on your smartphone and have to create an account on an American tech platform to see information about the emergency.’”

The issue was also addressed by several NL Times readers. By email, one person who contacted NL Times stated, “I think counting on third party companies for such sensitive and urgent messages is a mistake,” and hoped more awareness could be raised.

According to D66 MP Hind Dekker-Abdulaziz, it can “create dangerous situations” if the emergency services only communicate via Twitter. After all, people who do not have an account or are already at the platforms new message limit will not be able to see any public appeals or updated instructions. “This has to change,” she said. Her message was also only shared on Twitter, though she also has an account on the decentralized Mastodon social network, as well as LinkedIn.

The criticism is “completely understandable,” said the Amsterdam-Amstelland Security Region, which distributed the warning message. “If we had known earlier, we would certainly have approached this differently,” a spokesperson said. “We found out pretty quickly through feedback from Twitter users and media, who said, ‘Nice that you mention Twitter, but you now have to have a login for that.’”

Two NL-Alerts were sent in quick succession by the security office, first in Dutch and then in English, with both containing the link to the fire service’s Twitter account. A third alert was sent nine minutes later at 9:08 a.m. repeating the information in both languages, but without the link. Soon after, the security office said it quickly linked up with the police and the municipality of Amsterdam, with the latter providing a live blog with updates. This was again communicated to various media.

It is not yet clear how NL-Alerts will be set up in the future. “We will meet very quickly to find a good solution. We have a number of options and have to choose the best one.”

All of the alerts were distributed after one person was killed when a tree fell on a car in Haarlem in which she was a passenger. About the same time, two others were injured trees falling on cars in other parts of Amsterdam.

Reporting by ANP and NL Times

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