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EU cybercrime move worries free speech advocates

Free speech advocates are criticising a European Union effort to coordinate the fight against cybercrime by making hacking and spamming intended to disable computer networks a criminal offence in each member state.

EU justice ministers reached preliminary agreement last week on a framework for harmonising laws in the 15 member countries, asserting that a coordinated effort was vital to combat the growing threat to an information-based society.

"Gaps and differences ... hamper the fight against organised crime and terrorism, and act as a barrier to effective police and judicial cooperation," the ministers said.

The decision provides for creating a common criminal offence of "illegal access to an information system, and illegal interference with an information system."

While recognising the need to "avoid over-criminalisation, particularly of trivial or minor conduct," it does call for jail time for serious cases that pose "an even greater threat to society," the ministers said.

The framework was not formally adopted, however, because ministers must first review an opinion from the European Parliament.

That report, adopted in October, calls on governments to strengthen assurances of respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, "in particular, freedom of opinion, expression, demonstration and association."

Free speech advocates say the current text could potentially be used against organisers of "virtual protests" like the one directed last week against the White House and US Senate, which generated thousands of anti-war calls and e-mail messages.

"The text is so open-ended as to allow a prosecutor or judge who was inclined to go after such things to do so," said Thomas Vinje, a lawyer at Morrison & Foerster in Brussels. "Vagueness is the enemy of freedom of expression.''

EU officials say modifications are still possible before the text is adopted in a month or two. It then will be up to each government to convert the framework into national law

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