PARIS — With even the FBI staggered by the volume of crooked goings-on in cyberspace, envoys from the world's leading industrialized nations and private business gathered here this week in a fledgling effort to fight a rapidly spreading crime that knows no borders.
The new technology-borne forms of crime "call for mobilization and collective responses on a global scale," French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said in a message to delegates.
But wide differences in national approaches, and between those of governments and business, were rapidly evident. At the heart of those differences was the degree to which the Internet can be policed without losing the unfettered access that has made it what it is.
"Criminals are pretty inventive about staying ahead of the curve of technology," said Assistant Atty. Gen. James K. Robinson, head of the U.S. delegation to a three-day conference on Internet crime. "The old gumshoe stuff, going from door to door with your note pad interviewing people, just isn't going to get the job done anymore."
Last week, the FBI opened a new center, reachable at http://www.ifccfbi.gov, for Americans who believe they've fallen victim to fraud on the Net. After only 3 1/2 days, FBI Deputy Director Thomas J. Pickard said Tuesday, 3,700 complaints had streamed in, ranging from investment scams to supposed memorabilia from Mother Teresa.
"What kills me is that when people read it on the Internet, they think it's like reading it in the Los Angeles Times," Pickard said. "If ever these same salespeople came to their door, they wouldn't even talk to them."
Cooperation was the watchword at the closed-door Paris conference, whose results are to be reported in July to the summit meeting of the Group of Eight--United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia--in Okinawa, Japan.
But experts here have been wrestling for a balance between individual privacy and other citizens' rights and the needs of police and judges for proper tools to investigate illegal behavior.
The Internet is now akin to "the Wild, Wild West" in its lawlessness, said Tim Killam, assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But he said it's important not to stifle such a fast-growing and promising branch of the economy through over-regulation.
The United States is particularly interested in increased public-private sector cooperation as a way to keep the Internet honest and law-abiding. "We can't do it alone. We don't have enough law enforcement to do it alone," acknowledged Elisabeth A. Bresee, assistant Treasury secretary for enforcement.
In the world of e-commerce, many are opposed to strong government involvement, which they view as a menace both to economic growth and individual liberty.
"Believing government has all the answers is problematic," said Ron Moritz, senior vice president of Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp. "The experts are in industry. We pay better. We attract better people."
In contrast, French President Jacques Chirac insisted on the need for vigorous measures by the state to counter "arbitrary rule, oppression and feudalism" on the Internet.
On April 27, the Council of Europe published one attempt at a compromise, a draft treaty proposing uniform international law enforcement standards in cyberspace, including the requirement that all messages and content sent via Internet be kept for three months.
The United States, which held observer status during the drafting process, has been careful not to endorse the idea of mandating the storage of Internet content. It is one of several issues on which not only governments, but representatives of governments and private companies, differ.
Toshinori Kanemoto, chief of the Japanese delegation, said it is essential to arrive at an international judicial framework for "obtaining, presenting and preserving electronic data as evidence."
"For prosecution, the most important thing is that you can find the evidence you need if it's in another country," said Lorna Harris, head of judicial cooperation at the British Home Office.
But such measures strike others as alarming. Austin D. Hill, president of Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc., objected that it was "Orwellian" to conceive of keeping records on all citizens, as the Council of Europe's draft document requires.
For $10, Hill's Montreal-based company will provide an online pseudonym that allows the bearer to encrypt all his or her activity on the Internet and remain totally anonymous. It is the kind of innovation that gives some in law enforcement nightmares.
David Aucsmith, Intel Corp.'s chief technologist for data and communications security, said there are also technical arguments against the Council of Europe's suggestion. "There simply is not enough storage space available to store everything that goes onto the Internet," Aucsmith said.
The Paris meeting, which ended Wednesday, was not supposed to result in concrete decisions, but many participants said they felt a new shared sense of urgency to face the challenges in cyberspace.
"The short answer is law enforcement needs to work at Internet speed," said Phil Reitinger, deputy chief of the computer crime and intellectual property section at the U.S. Department of Justice. "Computers are networked together. So law enforcement needs to be networked together."
The recent global havoc caused by the "ILoveYou" virus dramatically showed how interconnected and vulnerable computers have become, but it also highlighted a limitation of the Paris discussions.
Some participants said nothing they had heard here would have made it easier to track down and arrest the author of the virus if he or she lived in a country that didn't subscribe to common G-8 policies.