European Convention on Cyber Crimes

The Convention was opened for signature in Budapest and is, therefore, also known as Budapest Convention. It entered into force in 2004, provides guidelines for the development of national legislation and serves as a framework for international co-operation.

Parties to the Convention are required to adopt appropriate legislation in order to penalise certain offences, like:

  • offences against network security like illegal access to computer data, interception of data, interference with data, misuse of hard- and software for the purpose of committing a crime

  • computer-related forgery and fraud

  • child pornography

  • infringements of copyright

Signatory states are obliged to foster international co-operation by:

  • assisting the competent authorities of other Parties to the convention in the collection of stored data as well as in the recording of content data in real-time

  • affording each other mutual assistance and, for that purpose, designating a point of contact available on a 24/7 basis

  • extraditing criminals

Since the Cybercrime Convention is not only open to all Council of Europe member states, but to all States, which have participated in its elaboration, a number of non-European countries – among them the USA, Japan and Australia – have become members.

The Convention on Cybercrime or Budapest Convention is the only binding multilateral treaty instrument aimed at combating cybercrime. It was drafted by the Council of Europe with active participation from its observer states in 2001. The Convention provides a framework for international cooperation between state parties to the treaty. It is open for ratification even to states that are not members of the Council of Europe. The Convention is the only substantive multilateral agreement with a stated objective of addressing cybercrime with convergent, harmonized legislation and capability building. Therefore, it is widely recognized as a decisive document on international best practice and enjoys compliance even from non-signatory states. Most model legislation and attempts at drafting a new international instrument on cybercrime have also relied on the principles expounded in this Convention. The Budapest Convention is also supplemented by an Additional Protocol to the Convention which was adopted in 2003.

Offences under the Convention

The Budapest Convention broadly attempts to cover crimes of illegal access, interference and interception of data and system networks, and the criminal misuse of devices. Additionally, offences perpetrated by means of computer systems such as computer-related fraud, production, distribution and transmission of child pornography and copyright offences are addressed by provisions of the Convention. The substantive offences under the Convention can broadly be classified into “(1) offences against the confidentiality, integrity and availability of computer data and systems; (2) computer-related offences; (3) content-related offences; and (4) criminal copyright infringement.” The Additional Protocol makes the act of using computer networks to publish xenophobic and racist propaganda, a punishable offence. However, the full range of cybercrimes are not covered under the Budapest Convention. These include cybercrimes such as identity theft, sexual grooming of children and unsolicited spam and emails.

Provisions of the Convention

The treaty functions on a mutual information sharing and formal assistance model in order to facilitate better law enforcement and lays down procedure to seek and receive such assistance. Article 23 of the Convention outlines the general principles under which international cooperation can be sought, as follows:

“Article 23 – General principles relating to international co-operation

The Parties shall co-operate with each other, in accordance with the provisions of this chapter, and through the application of relevant international instruments on international cooperation in criminal matters, arrangements agreed on the basis of uniform or reciprocal legislation, and domestic laws, to the widest extent possible for the purposes of investigations or proceedings concerning criminal offences related to computer systems and data, or for the collection of evidence in electronic form of a criminal offence.”

It is clear then that assistance facilitated by the Convention relies on pre-existing cooperative agreements between the parties. Thus, as also stated in Article 39 of the Convention, the provisions only serve to supplement multilateral and bilateral treaties already effective between parties. In addition, mutual legal assistance (MLA) between parties where no such mutual arrangements exists, can be facilitated through procedures laid down under Article 27. Principles and procedures related to extradition for criminal offences under the Convention is also detailed in Article 24 of the Budapest Convention. These sections primarily aid formal legal assistance between signatory parties to the Convention in case of a cybercrime (as defined under the Convention itself).

The Convention itself does not demand ‘dual criminality’ per se. However, the adoption of the Convention demands harmonization of national legislations and results in reciprocal criminalization. This is crucial as the Convention has mutual assistance and extradition provisions, both easier to process when dual criminality is established between the requesting and assisting parties.

The Cybercrime Convention Committee (T-CY) was setup to represent the interests of and foresee regular consultations between state parties to the Convention. The biannual plenaries conducted by the T-CY and working groups discuss developments, shortcomings, grievances and possible amendments of the Budapest Convention.

Significant Drawbacks of the Convention

The Convention on Cybercrime has also come under severe criticism for both its specific provisions that fail to protect rights of individuals and states, and its general inadequacy in sufficing to ensure a cyberspace free of criminal activity.

The 12th Plenary of the T-CY (at page 123) concluded that the mutual legal assistance facilitated by the Convention was too complex and lengthy, rendering it inefficient in practice. The outdated nature of provisions of the Convention clearly fail to cater to the needs of modern investigation.

The provisions of the Convention have been critiqued for supposedly infringing on state sovereignty. In particular, Article 32 has been contentious as it allows local police to access servers located in another country’s jurisdiction, even without seeking sanction from authorities of the country. In order to enable quick securing of electronic evidence, it allows trans-border access to stored computer data either with permission from the system owner (or service provider) or where publically available. As Russia finds this provision to be an intolerable infringement of its sovereignty (amongst other things), it has categorically refused to sign the Convention in its current state. However, it is important to note that the claim that provisions infringe on sovereignty has been addressed and countered by the T-CY in its guidance note on Article 32.

Russia’s displeasure with the existing multilateral instrument was evidenced by the introduction of a Russia-backed proposal for an international cyberspace treaty. The proposal, specifically for a convention or protocol on cybersecurity and cybercrime was considered and rejected at the 12th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. US and EU refused to countenance a new cybercrime treaty, opining that the Budapest Convention sufficed and efforts should be directed at capacity building.

Regardless, Brazil and China which have expressed displeasure at the primarily-European treaty, have refused to adopt the Convention for the same reason. India also continues to remain a non-signatory to the inequitable Convention, having categorically declined to adopt the Convention which was drafted without its participation. India’s statements also reflect its belief that the Budapest Convention in its present form is insufficient in tackling cybercrimes. This may hold especially true as India routinely faces cyber-attacks from China. This is a problem that will not be resolved by mere ratification of the Budapest Convention as China is a non-signatory to the treaty. With multiple countries remaining a non-signatory, with little scope for change in their positions, the reach of the Convention is certainly limited. There is a demonstrable need for a unique, equitable and all-encompassing instrument that governs cybercrime. To ensure maximum consensus and compliance, this instrument must necessarily be negotiated with active participation from all states.

European Convention and IT Act, 2000

It was drafted by the Council of Europe along with Canada, Japan, South Africa and the United States of America. The importance of the Convention is also indicated by the fact that adherence to it (whether by outright adoption or by otherwise making domestic laws in compliance with it) is one of the conditions mentioned in the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act passed in the USA (CLOUD Act) whereby a process has been established to enable security agencies of in India and the United States to directly access data stored in each other’s territories. Our analysis of the CLOUD Act vis-à-vis India can be found here. It is in continuation of that analysis that we have undertaken here a detailed comparison of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“IT Act”) and how it stacks up against the provisions of Chapter I and Chapter II of the Convention.

Before we get into a comparison of the Convention with the IT Act, we must point out the distinction between the two legal instruments, for the benefit of readers from a non legal background. An international instrument such as the Convention on Cybercrime (generally speaking) is essentially a promise made by the States which are a party to that instrument, that they will change or modify their local laws to get them in line with the requirements or principles laid out in said instrument. In case the signatory State does not make such amendments to its local laws, (usually) the citizens of that State cannot enforce any rights that they may have been granted under such an international instrument. The situation is the same with the Convention on Cybercrime, unless the signatory State amends its local laws to bring them in line with the provisions of the Convention, there cannot be any enforcement of the provisions of the Convention within that State. This however is not the case for India and the IT Act since India is not a signatory to the Convention on Cybercrime and therefore is not obligated to amend its local laws to bring them in line with the Convention.

Although India and the Council of Europe cooperated to amend the IT Act through major amendments brought about vide the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, India still has not become a signatory to the Convention on Cybercrime. The reasons for this appear to be unclear and it has been suggested that these reasons may range from the fact that India was not involved in the original drafting, to issues of sovereignty regarding the provisions for international cooperation and extradition.

The Convention gives States the right to further qualify the offence of “illegal access” or “hacking” by adding elements such as infringing security measures, special intent to obtain computer data, other dishonest intent that justifies criminal culpability, or the requirement that the offence is committed in relation to a computer system that is connected remotely to another computer system. However, Indian law deals with the distinction by making the act of unathorised access without dishonest or fraudulent intent a civil offence, where the offender is liable to pay compensation. If the same act is done with dishonest and fraudulent intent, it is treated as a criminal offence punishable with fine and imprisonment which may extend to 3 years.

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