Hackers would face a minimum two-year prison sentence under a new, draft European Union law approved by the European Parliament's civil liberties committee on Thursday.
Meanwhile, criminals responsible for cyber attacks against "critical infrastructure," such as power plants, transport networks and government networks would face at least five years in jail. The same would apply if an attack is committed by a criminal organization or if it causes serious damage.
The draft directive, which updates rules that have been in place since 2005, would also introduce a penalty of at least three years' imprisonment for creating botnets.
The new laws would impose certain requirements on police and judicial authorities as well. Authorities would be required to respond to urgent requests for help within eight hours.
Although the civil liberties committee (LIBE) approved the new law by 36 votes to eight, some members were not happy with the outcome. The Greens opposed the agreement due to the failure to differentiate between different types of system breaches and hackers.
"The blunt new rules on criminalizing cyber attacks take a totally flawed approach to Internet security. The broad strokes approach to all information system breaches, which would apply criminal penalties for minor or non-malicious attacks, risks undermining Internet security," said Green Party spokesman Jan Philipp Albrecht.
He said that the crimes of illegally accessing or interfering with information systems, illegally interfering with data, illegally intercepting communications or intentionally producing and selling tools used to commit these offences takes no account of "the important role played by white hat hackers." White hat hackers infiltrate systems to test their security, rather than for any malicious purpose.
Albrecht also questioned whether the new laws would have any real effect in reducing malicious cyber attacks.
However, the member of Parliament charged with steering the proposed legislation through the committee, Monika Hohlmeier, of Germany, said the directive introduces "much-needed common rules for criminal law penalties."
The law will now be voted on by the Parliament as a whole in early July and if approved, as seems likely, will be formally adopted by the European Home Affairs Council, made up of the member states of the E.U.