Activists want clarification on antiterrorism proposal

Word of an antiterrorism addition to an international cybercrime treaty has prompted dozens of privacy groups and civil liberty campaigners to send a letter seeking clarification on the proposal to the Council of Europe, which has been asked to draft the addition.

The addition, officially known as the second protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime, could give police in the many countries adopting the treaty more power when dealing with encrypted messages sent by suspected terrorists via the Internet.

The privacy and civil liberty organizations, all members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC), in a letter sent Thursday accuse the 43-member Council of Europe of operating in secrecy and urge it to publicly release the draft to “allow vigorous and wide ranging debate over its merits.”

“As the Council of Europe expands even further the powers of law enforcement authorities and definitions of offences, it manages to do so under increasingly closed and secretive conditions,” the GILC members wrote in their letter to the Council of Europe.

“This is about international agreements to restrict the use of cryptography. A lot of people felt this discussion was over and done with a few years ago, but it seems to have started over again,” said Maurice Wessling, director of Amsterdam-based digital rights organization Bits of Freedom, one of the signers of the letter.

But Peter Csonka, principal administrator of the Council of Europe, contends that there is not yet a draft text of the protocol that can be shared with the GILC members.

The issue of terrorism came up after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Members of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, which has representatives from the 43 member states’ parliaments, asked for a protocol on terrorist messages and the decoding of them, Csonka said.

“Not a single letter has been written. The work will probably start in September. If there is a draft, we will publish it,” he said. “There is a lot of paranoia within GILC. They seem to suppose that we are acting on behalf of the U.S. in a conspiracy against U.S. citizens, industry and civil libertarians. This is all fake.”

There is a lot of red tape before the Council of Europe can start drafting a protocol, Csonka explained. Ministers of the member states backed the request for an antiterrorist addition to the cybercrime treaty and asked to hear the opinion of a special committee on terrorism. That opinion is expected in April. After that, the Council of Europe needs a mandate from another committee focused on crime problems to start its work.

“It is a wide issue and it has many implications, legal, political and other. That is why we need a precise mandate,” Csonka said.

Over half of the 43 Council of Europe members, plus the U.S., Canada and South Africa, late last year signed the Convention on Cybercrime. The treaty criminalizes activities such as online child pornography, fraud and hacking and sets rules on how the Internet should be policed.

The antiterrorism protocol is the second addition to the treaty. A first protocol banning racist and hateful online content was added in November. The ban on racist and hateful content was dropped from the convention itself because some countries, including the U.S., opposed such a ban. Tabling it as a separate item made it possible for the U.S. and other objectors to sign the treaty.

The letter to the Council of Europe was signed by, among other groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology in the U.S.; Privacy International in the U.K.; the Chaos Computer Club in Germany; the Swiss Internet User Group; the Human Rights Network in Russia, and the Networkers against Surveillance Taskforce in Japan.

The Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, France, is at +33-3-88-41-20-00 or at

GILC can be found online at