UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations on Friday approved a Russian-led resolution that aims to create a new convention on cybercrime, alarming rights groups and Western powers that fear it is an attempt to restrict freedom online.
The General Assembly approved the resolution, sponsored by Russia and backed by China, by a vote of 79-60 with 33 abstentions.
It would set up a committee of international experts in 2020. The panel would work to set up “a comprehensive international convention on countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes,” the resolution said.
The United States, European powers and rights groups fear that the language is code for legitimizing crackdowns on expression at a time when numerous countries are moving to define criticism of the government as “criminal.”
China heavily restricts internet searches to hide topics that are sensitive to its communist leadership, as well as news sites with critical coverage.
A number of countries have increasingly tried to turn off the internet, with India cutting off access in Kashmir in August after it stripped the Muslim-majority region of its autonomy, and Iran taking much of the country offline as it cracked down on protests in November.
U.S. deputy ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet told the assembly before the vote: “This resolution will undermine international cooperation to combat cybercrime at a time when enhanced coordination is essential. There is no consensus among member states on the need or value of drafting a new treaty. It will only serve to stifle global efforts to combat cybercrime.”
Another U.S. official said in an interview, “It is precisely our fear that (a new convention) would allow the codification at an international and global level of these types of controls that’s driving our opposition and our concerns about this resolution.”
Any new U.N. treaty that spells out internet controls would be “inimical to the United States’ interests because that doesn’t tally with the fundamental freedoms we see as necessary across the globe,” he said.
Human Rights Watch called the U.N. resolution’s list of sponsors “a rogue’s gallery of some of the Earth’s most repressive governments.”
“If the plan is to develop a convention that gives countries legal cover for internet blackouts and censorship while creating the potential for criminalizing free speech, then it’s a bad idea,” said Human Rights Watch’s Louis Charbonneau.
The United States argues that the world should instead expand its sole existing accord on cybercrime, the 2001 Budapest Convention, which spells out international cooperation to curb copyright violations, fraud and child pornography.
Russia has opposed the Budapest Convention, arguing that giving investigators access to computer data across borders violates national sovereignty.
The Budapest Convention was drafted by the Council of Europe. Other countries have joined, including the United States and Japan. A new U.N. treaty on cybercrime could render the Budapest Convention obsolete, further alarming rights groups.