In late November last year, The United States and 29 other nations signed a treaty establishing common tools and rules for fighting Internet crime. On 23 November, foreign ministers from the US, Canada, Japan and South Africa joined their counterparts in 26 other countries in signing the Council of Europe's 'Convention on Cybercrime', an international treaty designed to harmonise laws and penalties for crimes committed via the Internet.
The convention streamlines definitions and civil and criminal penalties for hacking, copyright infringement, computer-related fraud, and child pornography.
The treaty also includes provisions added in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks that give member states common powers to search and intercept the Internet communications of suspected terrorists.
The treaty will go into force as soon as five member states have ratified it; three of them must be Council of Europe members. The treaty must still be approved by the US Senate before it takes effect in the US.
Criticism and concern
The Council of Europe's cybercrime treaty has steadily earned criticism from consumer and civil liberties groups concerned that the convention could lead to the emergence of an international electronic surveillance network, or a kind of global 'Big Brother'. Specifically, critics allege that US law-enforcement agencies will use the treaty as an end-run around US surveillance laws, and as a way to obtain the kinds of powers not granted in new US anti-terrorism legislation signed into law last year in the wake of 11 September.
First Amendment groups also are worried about the implications of a supplemental protocol that will soon be added to the agreement that makes any Internet publication of racist or xenophobic material a criminal offence.
A precious balance
Speaking on the eve of the signing ceremony in Brussels last week, the Council of Europe's Legal Director Guy de Vel countered those claims, saying the treaty strikes "a precious balance between the requirements of criminal investigations and respect for individual rights". De Vel also said he remains mystified about allegations that the treaty might compromise civil rights.
"When I read the text of the convention, I still find it difficult to understand why these accusations were made," he said. "It is possible that the true motivations of the draft were, unfortunately, not always properly understood."
Other nations that signed the treaty include: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Moldova, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.