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Senate debates cybercrime treaty

Privacy advocates oppose measure on grounds it would promote "invasive investigative techniques."

A controversial treaty that is the first to focus on computer crime is inching toward ratification in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said at a hearing Thursday that the Council of Europe's cybercrime treaty should be ratified quickly because it "will help the United States continue to play a leadership role in international law enforcement and will advance the security of Americans at home and abroad." Lugar is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The treaty would require participating nations to update their laws to reflect computer crimes such as unauthorized intrusions into networks, the release of worms and viruses, and copyright infringement. The measure, which has been ratified by Albania, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania, also includes arrangements for mutual assistance and extradition among participating nations.

The Bush administration supports the proposal. If ratified by the Senate, the treaty would "enhance the United States' ability to receive, as well as render, international cooperation in preventing, investigating and prosecuting computer-related crime," Samuel Witten, a legal adviser at the U.S. State Department, said when he testified Thursday. "Such international cooperation is vitally important to our efforts to defend against cyberattacks and generally improve global cybersecurity."

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 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.

Still, some civil liberties groups have criticized the portion of the treaty that is moving through the Senate.

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