Web threat to identify killers
By CNN's Graham Jones
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Threats by vigilantes to reveal the identities of the two killers of James Bulger on an out-of-UK Web site have thrown up again the thorny issue of policing the Internet.
A grainy digital photo currently doing the rounds in Liverpool purports to be a recent image of Robert Thompson, now 18.
The picture is from CCTV footage from a camera in a shopping centre where care workers have taken him on "socialisation" trips to prepare him for his release.
A teen-ager is seen walking with a male companion. There is a clear sight of the teen's face.
Last January the head of the British High Court's Family Division, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, was sufficiently moved by submissions that the lives of Thompson and Jon Venables were in danger if they were not granted anonymity that she issued an open-ended injunction.
This prevents the British media from revealing the new identities of the two teen-agers as they try to build a new life outside.
The UK media also cannot report anything about changes in the pair's physical appearance since their detention, or about the units where they are being held now or where they were held from February 1993.
"What they are desperately trying to do is to hide the information forever and ever, really -- information about the boys ... where they live, what their names are, where they are working, what towns they live in," legal expert Marcel Berlins told CNN.
The new attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, recently issued a stern warning to the British media not to breach the ban.
He said he was "concerned" at press reports that a recent photo of Thompson might be posted on the Internet.
The shot was brandished on British TV by a presenter of a Channel 4 programme but not actually shown on screen.
Yet the traditional global freedom of the Internet means the injunction -- a far-reaching one which even stops publishing information about the teens' accents -- cannot cover the Web.
"It is difficult to see how circulation could be controlled by this injunction," says Vincent Scheurer of London lawyers Osborne Clarke.
"If pictures of Thompson and Venables are published they will spread rapidly with the URLs sent by e-mail."
Scheurer likened the potential spread of the pictures to the sexy e-mail composed by London lawyers which spread so rapidly it was seen by 10 million people.
"The links to the pictures will spread like wildfire," he said. "They will go 'round the world."
The mother of James Bulger recently called on future girlfriends and buddies of Thompson and Venables to photograph them at the first opportunity to ensure their identities are revealed.
She said in a statement: "It doesn't matter how much the authorities spend trying to protect Venables and Thompson, it will be impossible for them to keep their identities a secret from girlfriends they meet in the future, or drinking buddies."
Simon Creighton, solicitor for Venables, said his firm would examine how any picture came to be on the Web and whether it breached the terms of the injunction protecting the pair's identity.
"We would ask the attorney general to act, and we would seek action ourselves," he said.
But he agreed that it could be difficult to act if photos were published on a non-UK Web site.
The police chief who investigated the case, Det. Supt. Albert Kirby, has said it would be "totally irresponsible" to publish the pictures and that it would "destroy much valuable work done over the years" to rehabilitate the youths.
The area's local paper, the Liverpool Echo, and its Web site recently carried a poll on whether the two teen-agers should be released, and it showed the strength of public feeling on the case.
It brought their biggest-ever response, with 41,962 people either phoning in or voting on the Internet.
Of these, 35,017 (83.5 percent) said the pair should not be released, with just 6,945 (16.5 percent) saying it was time to allow them back into the community.
CNN London Bureau Chief Tom Mintier contributed to this report.
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