Brazil Web Forum Takes on Cybercrime

The Internet is a powerful tool for free expression and dissent, but those freedoms have also helped child pornographers, predators, terrorists and other cybercriminals.

All this has left computer experts, lawmakers and Internet service providers at a U.N.-sponsored conference here Wednesday grappling with how to balance these concerns in an increasingly globalized, digital world.

"The law has always been a product of society reflecting community standards," said Markus Kummer, the official heading the Internet Governance Forum. "This is in conflict in many ways with the borderless nature of the Internet."

The four-day forum, which ends Thursday, brings together some 2,000 representatives from the information-technology industry, governments and civil society to discuss the leading issues confronting the global network today.

The issue of cybercrime took on an added importance Wednesday after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in London that he would ask Internet and technology companies to help stop the online distribution of terrorist propaganda as part of plan to crack down on extremists.

Experts, however, questioned how effective such a move would be in combating terrorism.

"It's a censorship proposal and as with every censorship proposal there are going to be those who are for it and those who are against it," said John Gage, vice president and chief researcher for Sun Microsystems Inc. "It's one of these things that's going to be very difficult to implement. The intelligence people aren't interested so much in what is said as who is talking."

Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a coalition of e-commerce leaders like Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, eBay Inc. and Yahoo Inc., said the U.K. government would be better served focusing on tangible online threats like the cyberattacks that shut down computers in Estonia for several days earlier this year.

"The attack on Estonia was just the beginning," he said. "An attack on the banking system could cause real financial losses. An attack on critical infrastructure like the water system or the train system could be devastating."

Most of the talk about cybercrime centered on child pornography and other harmful content.

"If someone had to drive 500 miles and go to a dark place to get child pornography before, and now they can get it over the Internet it becomes much easier," said Marco Gercke, an adviser to the Council of Europe and law professor at the University of Cologne. "On the Internet you can hide your I.D., encrypt and protect behavior."

Gercke said that the legal community was still trying to make sure measures to combat cybercrime don't impede on the rights of lawful users. He said it might take 50 years to get the system of checks and balances right.

"Lawmakers are trying to address the challenges on a legal basis and I think that the latest approaches, the number of them that I have seen, are going beyond what I would say is balanced," he said.

Denton Howard, training coordinator for Inhope, which tries to improve Internet hot lines responding to illegal content, said the most important weapon in fighting child pornography and other cybercrimes was to make national laws fair and consistent worldwide.

"You can have privacy, but what we are talking about here are the rights of children and victims also," Howard said. "They must be protected. It's not one right versus another."

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