The letter states, "We believe that the draft treaty is contrary to well established norms for the protection of the individual, that it improperly extends the police authority of national governments, that it will undermine the development of network security techniques, and that it will reduce government accountability in future law enforcement conduct."
Said protest organiser Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington, "We think there needs to be an appropriate and measured response to the problems posed by computer crime, but we don't think that all users of the Internet should be viewed by governments as potential criminals, and that's the direction that this convention seems to take us."
A spokesman for the Council of Europe did not immediately return phone calls.
Non-European countries, including the US, are expected to sign on to the convention after it is completed, a process that could be finished by the end of the year. Rotenberg said he suspects the Council of Europe took the lead under pressure from US authorities. "The fingerprints of the US Department of Justice are all over this proposal. It grows out of a report done by the [US] Department of Justice on cyber crime ... a lot of the language [in the draft convention] is borrowed from that report."
Rotenberg's view is that US law enforcement authorities are using the international treaty process to push through measures that would not pass the domestic legislative process. "We're concerned, because in this effort to get international means to address cyber crime, a lot of the procedural protections that would exist in national law would be struck down ... we saw this as a bit of policy laundering by the US."
"I even know, having spoken to a number of officials at the Council of Europe, that they've been under a great deal of pressure by the Department of Justice," said Rotenberg, adding that US Attorney General Janet Reno and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) official Michael Vatis have been spearheading efforts to combat computer crime.
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman said, "We don't have any comment regarding these protestings. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we have no comment."
Maurice Wessling, director of the Dutch Internet privacy group Bits of Freedom, another signatory to the protest letter, said he is concerned the treaty could roll back privacy rights already won in his country. "There's a huge extension of police powers in the field of interception and decryption. The one that strikes me most is where any person can be forced to help police in decrypting computer data; and of course that also includes the suspect .... I really thought that we had this discussion behind us. I thought we all agreed that the suspect can never be forced to incriminate himself."
Both Rotenberg and Wessling said they hoped that protests both before the Council of Europe and within individual countries could gain them a place at the table in completing the convention, which they said has so far been dominated by government and industry representatives. Said Wessling, "The whole drafting process has been very closed. Privacy, human rights groups, civil liberties groups, feel that they have been left out of the process, and all of a sudden when the draft has become public, now the whole process will take only a short time -- so there is a very limited time to comment."
The letter was signed by 29 groups, including the US American Civil Liberties Union, Bits of Freedom, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the UK group Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties, Electronic Frontiers Australia, Russia's Human Rights Network, France's IRIS (Imaginons un réseau Internet solidaire), Spain's Kriptopolis, and South Africa's LINK Centre.