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Tech firms call for approval of cybercrime treaty

Senate asked to ratify controversial treaty mandating Net eavesdropping, strict copyright laws. Civil liberties groups don't like it.

Computer security and software companies are urging the U.S. Senate to approve the world's first treaty targeting cybercrime.

A letter from the groups, including the Business Software Alliance, VeriSign, InfraGard and the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, called on senators to ratify the controversial document, which was the subject of a brief flurry of attention last year before it expired without a floor vote.

"The cybercrime convention will serve as an important tool in the global fight against those who seek to disrupt computer networks, misuse private or sensitive information, or commit traditional crimes utilizing Internet-enabled technologies," said the letter, which was sent Tuesday. "It requires countries to adopt similar criminal laws against hacking, infringements of copyrights, computer-facilitated fraud, child pornography and other illicit cyberactivities."

Because U.S. law already includes much of what the convention requires, the Senate's vote would largely be symbolic. The treaty requires nations to adopt laws governing search and seizure of stored data, surreptitious Internet wiretapping, cross-border assistance, and retention of Internet provider records upon police demand.

The treaty also includes stiff copyright-related penalties. It says participating nations must enact criminal laws targeting Internet piracy and circumvention devices--a measure akin to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act--when acts "are committed willfully, on a commercial scale and by means of a computer system."

Another section requires participating nations to outlaw the act of "making available" on the Internet any type of hardware or software that is designed for the purposes of committing a long list of computer crimes including "illegal interception" or "data interference." In some cases, even the mere possession of such hardware or software must be criminalized.

Opponents' criticisms
Those far-reaching prohibitions have caused alarm among civil liberties groups.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year saying the treaty should not be ratified because it "would create invasive investigative techniques while failing to provide meaningful privacy and civil liberties safeguards."

The Canadian government has already suggested that the cybercrime treaty, drafted by the Council of Europe, require Internet providers to rewire their networks for easy surveillance by police and spy agencies.

So far, the treaty has been ratified by 11 nations, including Denmark, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. President Bush has called on the Senate to follow suit.

An addition to the treaty would require nations to imprison anyone guilty of "insulting publicly, through a computer system" certain groups of people based on characteristics such as race or ethnic origin, a requirement that could make it a crime to e-mail jokes about Polish people or question whether the Holocaust occurred.

The U.S. Department of Justice has said that it would be unconstitutional for the United States to sign that addition because of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression. Because of that objection, the Senate is not considering the addition, but other nations ratifying the treaty are expected to adopt both documents.