British Court Restricts Teen's Net Use

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An English court has banned a teenage boy from posting abusive or insulting comments on a social networking website after judging his participation in the network to be anti-social.

Norwich Youth Court in eastern England issued an Anti-Social Behavior Order (Asbo) against a local 17-year-old implicated in petty criminal boasting on the online community Bebo.

Asbos are controversial control orders introduced by the Blair government in 1999 in an effort to clear Britain's town centers of petty criminals, often called "hoodies" or "yobs." They usually ban offenders from frequenting certain places or carrying out particular activities, but this is believed to be the first one that restricts Internet activity.

The offender, whose name has been withheld as is the custom in British cases involving minors, appeared in court Wednesday after admitting to a catalogue of offences, including taking a motor vehicle without the owner's consent, failing to surrender to custody and possession of cannabis. Police also presented evidence that the teenager had written abusive comments on the site about the local police.

In one instance, he pasted an excerpt from a Norfolk Constabulary press release about his and his friends' crimes with the heading "Oh yeah, we are notorious." He also invited fellow Bebo users to "Leave a comment if you hate the c---- who harass you on a Friday or Saturday night."

The court order bans the teenager from "publishing any material on the world wide web that is threatening, abusive or insulting, makes reference to the Hellesdon Crew [the name of his gang] or promotes criminal activity." It also prohibits him from entering the town center of Hellesdon, where he lives, except for work or school.

The Asbo was granted after policeman Tim Chapman of the Norfolk Constabulary applied for permission to use the Web to investigate criminal activity in the Hellesdon area. (Norfolk police officers are normally banned from social networking sites like Bebo in order to keep officers from wasting time.) "There is an attitude within the youth community that they are technically able but everyone over 24 is technically inept. That's their naivety, and our advantage," Chapman told TIME.

Advocates of British penal reform say that as Asbos are granted in a civil court, in which the burden of proof is lower, police often secure senseless orders. In a much-cited example, a depressed woman who tried to drown herself in the River Avon was given an Asbo in 2005 forbidding her from jumping into rivers. Others question the efficacy of the some 4000 Asbos granted each year; a 2006 poll by MTV Europe found that a third of young people see Asbos as a badge of honor.

Even so, police are right to turn their attention from traditional hot spots like pubs and town squares to virtual gathering sites like Bebo and Facebook, according to Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University. They are fertile ground for petty criminals. "One drawback is that there's so much antisocial behavior to choose from, like fishing in a spot where the fish bit as quickly as the bait is lowered," he said.

In the United States, as in the U.K., police have as much right to surf the Net and scan pages as the public, Zittrain said, although he added that broad orders restricting Internet use would be difficult to secure in American courts.

In Hellesdon, Chapman said he is already following up several Bebo and Facebook posts containing pictures of underage drinking and cannabis use. He is also monitoring the web use of the 17-year-old, who faces up to five years in prison if he is found to have breached his cyber-Asbo.

The one problem? "He's barred us from entering his Bebo page. It's now members only," Chapman said.