The European Parliament yesterday supported the widespread belief that a sinister global "big-brother" network – known as Echelon – does exist.

A total of 367 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted to support a report claiming Ecelon's existence, with 159 voting against, and 34 members abstaining.

"This is a big step forward," said Ole Schmidt, an MEP from Sweden. "This is a damned important exercise in democracy. Now that a political body has revealed the existence of Echelon, we can put an end to the years of rumours upon the subject."

The report, published earlier this year, failed to produce hard evidence that the US is using its global telecommunication-tapping network to conduct industrial espionage. "It is frequently maintained that Echelon has been used in this way but no such case has been substantiated," the report says.

However, the document now lists several examples where intelligence officers are believed to have interfered in a commercial contract. It claims that European aircraft maker Airbus Industrie had its lines tapped in 1994 while negotiating a $6 billion contract with the Saudi Arabian government and national airline.

Spy ring of truth The European Parliament committee leading the Echelon investigation concludes that the spying network is limited mainly to satellite communications, so a majority of telecommunication signals distributed terrestrially in Europe cannot be tapped with the network.

"Echelon has access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications, and, owing to the large numbers of personnel required, can analyse only a limited proportion of those communications," the report says.

Echelon was instituted by the US, with the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, according to the report.

Despite Echelon's limitations, the European Parliament believes that, by listening to European's email, fax or telephone messages, the US is breaching the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). US National Security Agency (NSA) officials in the UK and Germany are believed to be listening to messages. The Parliament urges that the US abides by European human rights law.

It also recommends that all email be encrypted, and calls for national European governments and the European Union to "support projects aimed at developing user-friendly open-source encryption software, as this is the only way of guaranteeing that no backdoors are built into programs".

Schmidt said: "Although national governments in Europe and the US are not obliged to respond to this report, I think many will. The power of the European Parliament is limited, but in some areas it is growing," he said. "In terms of forming public opinion we are a strong political body - this report is an illustration of that."