At a conference organized by the Council of Europe, delegates from Europe, the United States, Australia and China digested new data pointing to an increasing problem of global proportions: How can national law stop those who commit fraud, spread racism, steal credit card numbers or sell child pornography worldwide, nonstop and just about anonymously?
On top of that, while fraud and copyright infringements remain the lion's share of cybercrime, there is rising concern about terrorists going online to spread more than just propaganda.
"My main concern would be a terrorist attack on" computer systems that run power grids, transportation networks, airports and financial institutions, said Ulrich Sieber, head of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg, Germany.
His message at the three-day conference is that governments must do more to deal with Internet criminals. The 45-nation Council of Europe agrees that governments are dragging their heels.
Its 2001 Cybercrime Convention — the first international treaty of its kind — has been signed by 30 countries, including Canada, Japan, South Africa and the United States, but is law in only eight.
Albania, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and Macedonia are the only nations that have ratified the treaty, which names four types of cybercrime: confidentiality offenses, notably breaking into computers; fraud and forgery; content violations, such as child pornography and racism; and copyright offenses.
The treaty aims to speed up international cooperation in investigations and extraditions and is open to countries outside of Europe.
A general report prepared for the conference highlighted that while exact data is not always at hand, cybercrime is a fast-growing industry in which organized crime and private operators flourish side by side.
There were an estimated 600 million Internet users in 2002, double the 1999 number.
"Even if 99.9 percent of the 600 million Internet surfers were to use (the Web) for legitimate reasons, this would still leave 600,000 potential offenders," said the report.
That statistic underscored a key conference theme: the vulnerability of Internet users at a time when more and more people rely on the Web.
In Germany, according to the report, Internet crimes account for 1.3 percent of all recorded crimes "but for 57 percent — $8.3 billion — of the material damage caused by crime."
A 2004 survey of 494 U.S. corporations found 20 percent had been subject to "attempts of computer sabotage and extortion, among others through denial of service attacks."
Sites promoting racism, hatred and violence have risen by 300 percent since 2000, and Internet child pornography is an industry worth some $20 billion this year.
"Surveys in 2003 suggest that child pornography accounts for 24 percent of image searches in peer-to-peer applications," said the report.
Organized crime is well established in cyberspace, using the Internet for human trafficking and commit economic crimes.
Sieber said prosecuting cybercrime is unfeasible without more cross-border cooperation.
"The Internet is fast, whereas criminal law systems are slow and formal. The Internet offers anonymity, whereas criminal law systems require identification of perpetrators ... The Internet is global, whereas criminal law systems are generally limited to a specific territory. Effective prosecution with national remedies is all but impossible in a global space."