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Monday, 11 June, 2001, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Treaty 'could stifle online privacy'
Council of Europe chamber AP
The Council of Europe will soon be debating the cybercrime treaty
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Changes to a controversial treaty on cybercrime have done nothing to improve it, say civil liberty campaigners.

Next week, the Council of Europe will vote on the treaty, which has been redrafted 26 times before reaching its final version late in May.

The most recent changes were made to take into account the fears of civil liberty and privacy campaigners. But cyber-rights groups say the latest changes are purely cosmetic and have not diluted what they describe as its most pernicious sections.

The groups say that, if adopted in its current form, the treaty could lead to changes in legislation that would stifle rights to privacy and do little to curb the activities of law enforcement agencies.

Cosmetic change?

In 1997, the 41-nation Council of Europe started work on a cybercrime convention to provide a starting point for countries drafting laws covering malicious hacking, writing and spreading computer viruses, the online dissemination of child pornography and fraud.

In December 2000, 23 organisations, banding together under the banner of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC), signed a letter condemning the 25th draft of the treaty as "appalling", and warned that it handed law enforcement agencies sweeping powers to snoop and could seriously erode online privacy.

Now, three civil liberty groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Privacy International, have sent another letter to the Council of Europe outlining their "continuing concerns" over the wording of the treaty and saying that their fears have not been laid to rest.

The letter chastises the Council of Europe for refusing to open up the redrafting debates to non-governmental organisations and for, it says, ignoring the human rights and privacy concerns of organisations such as the GILC.

It goes on to say that the original criticisms still stand, and that the treaty does not pay enough attention to existing laws which safeguard human rights. It says the treaty's recommendations on protecting privacy are vague and do not go far enough.

Lobbying and legislating

The campaigners want more separation between the agencies requesting permission to carry out surveillance, such as police forces, and those that give them permission. Without these checks in place, the lobby groups fear the powers could be abused.

At the same time that the Council of Europe has been drafting its treaty, the G8 group has been debating a similar convention.

But the G8 invited technology companies and the American Civil Liberties Union to participate in its debate, which led to the throwing out of proposals to make net service providers keep records of what users were up to.

The lobby groups fear that without such informed comment many Council of Europe governments may take the adoption of the treaty as a prompt to enact legislation that could erode human rights and online privacy.

David Banisar, deputy director of Privacy International, said those countries adopting the treaty might frame laws similar to Britain's controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

The RIP Act makes it easier for police to carry out surveillance and puts in place harsh penalties for those unwilling to hand over their encryption keys.

"When the council of the EU and Council of Europe get together to draft these treaties, they are bypassing democratic processes," he said.

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