UN backing of controversial cybercrime treaty raises suspicions

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses the General Debate of the 74th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 27 September 2019. [EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE]

Certain UN members may have been ‘bought off’ by proponents of a controversial UN resolution on cybercrime in exchange for support on the plans, an official from the Council of Europe who deals with cybersecurity has told EURACTIV.

In December, a Russian-led and Chinese-backed resolution on cybercrime, called ‘countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes’, was adopted by 79 votes to 60 with 33 abstentions, despite opposition from several major Western powers.

As part of the new measures, a new group within the UN will be set up “to elaborate a comprehensive international convention on countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes.”

“Such a treaty may become problematic in terms of human rights and rule of law protection, indeed it may undermine it and it will not contribute to cooperation on cybercrime or securing evidence,” the Council of Europe’s head of cybersecurity, Alexander Seger, told EURACTIV.

Seger, who has worked closely on the matter, added that it was “puzzling” why certain smaller member states had backed the measures.

The Russian-led plans had originally been put forward by a contingency of nations including China, Belarus, North Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Venezuela.

Suspicions arise

“Many of the smaller UN countries in the Caribbean, in the Pacific, in Africa and so on, voted in favour of the resolution but never talked to their cybercrime experts,” Seger said.

He recounted a conversation with government officials from a particular Caribbean nation where they suggested that support for the resolution may have been pledged following a recent Chinese investment drive into the country.

EURACTIV has been asked not to reveal the identity of this Caribbean country due to political sensitivities within the United Nations. The country’s government did not respond to EURACTIV’s request for a response.

Opponents fear that the plans adopted by the UN in December may only serve to erode freedom of expression online.

Concerns had been raised prior to the vote, with US deputy ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet telling the assembly that the resolution would “undermine international cooperation to combat cyber-crime at a time when enhanced coordination is essential.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch’s Louis Charbonneau has said that “if the plan is to develop a convention that gives countries legal cover for internet blackouts and censorship, while creating the potential for criminalising free speech, then it’s a bad idea.”

“It’s one thing to combat cybercrime. But we shouldn’t create a Trojan horse that helps governments clamp down on free expression,” he said.

In addition, in November, a collective of NGOs and rights groups wrote a letter to the UN general assembly to protest against the measures, saying they could “undermine the use of the internet to exercise human rights and facilitate social and economic development.”

Budapest convention

The fissure within the UN between authoritarian approaches to regulating the online ecosystem and the more liberal position favoured by many in the West is indicative of how certain governments are attempting to stifle freedom of expression.

For example, access to certain websites is heavily restricted in China, where surveillance takes place across communications networks in order to record any instance of anti-government sentiment.

India, meanwhile, cut off access to the internet during the Kashmir tensions last year, and Iran also decided to keep vast swathes of the country offline during November demonstrations.

Since 2001, the sole global agreement for curbing certain types of malpractice online has been the Budapest Convention, drafted by the Council of Europe with the backing of certain world powers, including the United States.

The accord covers the online norms dealing with ‘infringements of copyright, computer-related fraud, child pornography and violations of network security.’

Russia has sought reforms to the Budapest Convention for some time, believing that allowing international investigators access to Russian data could compromise its sovereignty.

The new Russian-led resolution will surface once again on the tables of the committee of intergovernmental experts in August 2020, when they are expected to chart a way forward for any future international cybercrime treaty. Should they do so, the 19-year-old Budapest Convention would be made obsolete.

At the passing of the December resolution, a Russian representative said the new committee will take into account work conducted by the UN expert group on cybercrime, due to publish a report on the matter later this year. On the current timetable, in-depth work on the new convention is set to begin in 2021.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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