GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany (Reuters) - Russia has stepped up its campaign for a globally binding treaty on cyber security, warning that many states are acquiring cyber warfare capabilities that, if unleashed, could subvert economies and bring down critical infrastructure.
Hosting a gathering of experts in the German Alps to try to rally support for its controversial proposals for a U.N. convention to crack down on Internet crime and terrorism, Russia said 120 countries now conducted online war games to try to understand the Internet's military potential.
"We won't use nuclear weapons - it is a Doomsday weapon. But when we have a situation where we have millions of hacker attacks on our money, on our private computers, it means that it is a new form, a new level of confrontation," said Andrey Krutskikh, Russia's recently appointed special coordinator on information technology in its foreign ministry.
Russia has been hosting such meetings in Germany - which it likes to call the cyber equivalent of Davos - for the past six years. This year it is trying to drum up support for a treaty that would classify "information warfare" as a crime against international peace and security.
Under Moscow's proposals - which are being resisted by a number of Western countries who regard them as an attack on free speech - governments would aim to "maintain a balance between fundamental human rights and the effective counteraction of terrorist use of the information space".
The Russian proposals have made little headway, however, due to a philosophical gulf between Western nations and more authoritarian countries over whether it is possible or desirable to curb the open culture of the Internet.
There was no breakthrough at this week's meeting in Germany either, but Krutskikh, who is leading Moscow's campaign, said agreeing such a treaty should be "a top priority."
The Stuxnet computer worm that affected Iranian nuclear facilities in 2009-10 had done "enormous damage", he added, and a wide range of critical infrastructure around the world could be a target for cyber attack too.
"It could be a metallurgical plant - there are countries quite dependent on one plant and if this plant is put out of order the economy and the society of that country could collapse. It could be banking systems ... (or) private phones," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting in the picturesque German mountain resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Krutskikh said hacking attacks on Russian sites were in the "hundreds of thousands, if not millions, every day ... It is a test of vulnerabilities which is a dramatically serious matter".
Highly-publicised episodes, from the blocking of U.S. and British government websites by activist hacker groups Anonymous and LulzSec to this week's suspected cyber attack on Iran's main oil export terminal, have shown the vulnerabilities of the Internet.
In November, a U.S. intelligence report to Congress warned that China and Russia are using cyber espionage to steal U.S. technology secrets to bolster their own economic development and that poses a threat to U.S. prosperity and security.
"We cannot deny that attacks come from (the geographical territory of) Russia, but they come from the UK, they come from everywhere," Krutskikh said.
Asked who was responsible for the attacks on Russian computer systems, he said he believed states experimented with such probing, but "mostly it could be hooligans".
Western experts at the meeting said Moscow's proposals, put forward last September, were vague, risked undermining free speech and stood little chance of being widely adopted.
Karl Rauscher, chief technology officer of the EastWest Institute, a security thinktank, told the meeting that the proposed treaty's call for states to "refrain from slander as well as from using insulting or hostile propaganda to ... interfere in the internal affairs of other states" clashed with U.S. first amendment rights to free speech.
He said the vast quantity of information being put on the internet made it impossible to censor.
Other experts who spoke at the meeting said there was no international agreement on the definition of terms such as "terrorist", used in the treaty.
Russia's proposals have already been rejected by the United States and Britain, which says attempts to restrict the free flow of information are doomed to fail. No U.S. officials took part in the forum.
Krutskikh said Russia was not discouraged by opposition to its ideas, however, and would try to make progress in other discussion fora, such as a United Nations expert group on information security that is set to meet later this year.
Editing by Andrew Osborn