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Cyber-crime treaty enters home stretch

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(IDG) -- An international treaty aimed at combating online crime that critics claim would give police too much power has inched closer to ratification, with backers claiming the proposal may be ready for approval by year's end.

The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe issued its approval for the current draft of the treaty Tuesday, spokeswoman Sabine Zimmer said. It now goes back to a committee of experts that will create the final draft.

"The treaty could be open for signatures (by member states) by the end of this year," she said.

The 43-nation Council of Europe, not affiliated with the European Union, has spearheaded the treaty, which will be open for non-European countries to join as well. Experts from Australia, Canada, Japan, and the U.S. are involved in the drafting process, Zimmer said. Signatory countries will be obliged to criminalize certain offenses and to cooperate internationally in prosecuting online crime.

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Industry and privacy groups have been harshly critical of the treaty process, which they say has been secretive and aims to drastically expand police powers without taking into account privacy or human rights considerations.

"I would say it's the worst process I've seen so far when it comes to transparency in government," said Gus Hosein, a senior fellow at Privacy International and a lecturer at the London School of Economics. "For the entire time, there's been complete resistance to make any changes to accommodate the interests of industry or society."

Internet service providers (ISPs) are concerned with the cost and potential liability of implementing what they call vague rules requiring service providers to track data and cooperate with law enforcement, said Joe McNamee, a spokesman for EuroISPA, which represents European ISPs.

He cited, as an example, the draft treaty's definition of "computer data" as "any representation of facts, information or concepts in a form suitable for processing in a computer system." The definition, he noted, could potentially include almost any form of communication.

"I don't know if you've ever heard of voice recognition software. That means your voice is suitable for processing. And any sound can be recorded and processed in a computer, so a cow mooing in the field is producing computer data," he said.

"The drafting group have a frustrating habit of saying that if you don't like the cyber-crime treaty, you don't understand it, which isn't the most diplomatic way of approaching things," McNamee said. "Nobody's opposed to fighting cyber-crime. We're just opposed to fighting innocent people and privacy."

Zimmer said the parliamentary assembly had suggested modifications to the draft, including strengthening human rights protections. "The parliamentary assembly has said that the text should give more guarantees as far as freedom of the individual is concerned, especially concerning protection of data and so on," she said. Those non-binding recommendations will go to the committee of experts, which will decide whether to incorporate them in the final draft.

But Hosein said the human-rights debate in the assembly had focused on European demands that the treaty condemn racist and xenophobic online speech, a proposal opposed by the U.S. "Although they pretended they were talking about human rights, they completely ignored the issue of human rights," he said.

Opponents of the treaty have all but given up trying to influence it at the Council of Europe level, said Hosein. "We have to appeal to national governments to not implement this into law, or to opt out of certain portions of the convention. But I would say it's already a done deal at this time ... The next time there's a child porn case, or a denial of service attack, it's going to go right through."



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