Relatively few members of the IT community, and even fewer of the general public, have been paying attention to the Council of Europe’s treaty on cybercrime. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Justice has been an active participant for four years in the ongoing negotiation of the treaty, which, if approved, would have an extensive impact on our use of the Internet.

TechRepublic’s coverage of this treaty in Will Rodger’s column “Cybercrime treaty raises privacy and commerce questions” provoked a thunderous outcry from our members. Not one single reader wrote in support of the treaty, and all had severe reservations about it. But the grounds for those reservations varied widely.

I’ll revisit the article briefly and then summarize some of the major threads of commentary offered by our members.

Raising the alarm
Rodger opens his column by sounding an ominous note: “American corporations have always assumed the Internet would offer the same freedoms they enjoy in the ‘real’ world. That assumption may no longer be true.”

Supporters of the treaty say it will create a framework for international police cooperation when cybercrime investigations cross international borders. Rodger claims the unintended (or at least unacknowledged) consequences would include “[placing] huge financial burdens on almost anyone who runs a Web site or operates a computer network, while obliterating safeguards against overzealous searches.”

Opponents of the treaty, which include the human rights group Privacy International and a trade association called Net Coalition, fear the treaty could force ISPs to keep detailed records on customer activity to prevent copyright infringement. This would be costly for the ISP and intrusive of the customer’s privacy. “Worse still, [opponents] claim, child pornography provisions could turn ISPs into professional porn surfers responsible for watching their servers and turning over to police anyone they think may be violating the law,” Rodger says.

Support is thin
Rodger finds that content providers and the Justice Department are virtually the only groups supporting the treaty. A Department spokesperson claims that most fears articulated by opponents are exaggerated. And the Justice Department plans to release an “explanatory memorandum” addressing some of the charges made by critics of the treaty.

Just more corporate greed
A few members see the unsettling aspects of the treaty as an outgrowth of corporate greed. Nichomach and lfawcett blame the content providers. “Even if I agreed that the content providers should be given some special laws and protection,” writes lfawcett, “the impact on all other Internet information exchange, as well as the rights of individuals to subscribe to what they want without knowledge of ‘big brother,’ would be overwhelming…If they have a business problem in protecting their [copyrighted] value, they should come up with a way that does not impose on all others.”

Foreign plot or homegrown conspiracy?
Several readers found the international nature of the treaty threatening and sought refuge in the U.S. Constitution. “I am starting to feel that ‘Big Brother’ is getting closer and closer to watching everything we do,” said Brain. “Cannot the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution protect us in these areas?” Member swarre01 thought the treaty’s intrusive power “sounds like a clear case of unreasonable search.” And JimHM felt the treaty would give a company intent on protecting its intellectual rights “the right to violate my U.S. Constitutional rights of free speech, unwarranted search, and privacy.”

But Nichomach has another take on the issue of Americanism. After noting that the article identifies supporters of the treaty as “software, motion picture, and recording companies,” Nichomach concludes: “And the vast majority of the companies in these sectors are—drumroll, please—AMERICAN….I am merely pointing out that this alleged ‘foreign plot’ to remove your rights is an entirely homegrown, made-in-the-USA [scheme].”

The wider context
Are the issues raised by the treaty part of a larger trend? Our discussion raised at least two possibilities. Member greenspj believes the decline of legal protection of our privacy is well under way. “And you thought your private information and papers were secure from unreasonable search and seizure? You haven’t read federal law recently, have you?”

David Esquivel defines the problem more narrowly. “Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a series of legal battles that have resulted from the inadequacies of most of the world’s current legal structures…today’s laws are simply not structured in a manner that allows them to easily handle technology issues….Lawyers simply do not understand enough about technology and…try to apply laws that are a hundred years old to technology issues.”

Where do we go from here?
Although claiming he is “not, by nature, an activist,” VB guy in NY believes this issue will prod him into action. “The global Internet, and the broad free exchange of ideas that it enables, is a unique phenomenon in human history,” he writes. “I can’t stand the thought that power-hungry police organizations would attempt to bridle this…beast.”

If you feel your activist spirits stirring, here are some ways to catch up on the issue. Start by (re)reading Will Rodger’s TechRepublic column on the treaty. Then, take a look at the document itself. The final version of the treaty is not expected to emerge from the Council of Europe until September, but you can access it in draft form online.

Justification for the treaty can be found in the press release announcing the release of the first draft last year. In addition, there is a page on the Department of Justice Web site that contains summaries of and links to several documents dealing with the international threat of cybercrime. Finally, the European Committee on Crime Problems issued an Explanatory Memorandum for the treaty.

Criticism of the treaty can be found on the Web sites of Privacy International, Net Coalition, and The Center for Democracy & Technology.

After you have reviewed the treaty and the supporters’ and opponents’ arguments, join the discussion prompted by Will Rodger’s column and share your opinion about the treaty.

Weigh in on these important issues

We are all concerned about security and protection from cybercrime. Yet we also recognize the importance of privacy and independence from excessive government oversight. Have you found some sort of balance between those concerns? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below.