Hooligans on the Net? Experts lash out at media

Only a handful of sites are devoted to creating public disorder, pundits say.

Claims that soccer hooligans use the Internet to organise violence have been attacked by the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and other organisations, all of which claim the issue is being blown out of proportion by the media.

"These people were violent before the Internet came along," said a spokeswoman for the NCIS. "They are now simply using it as a new tool for communication... You can't say the Internet is responsible for the problem," she said.

The spokeswoman blamed reporters for getting carried away with "hype" stories relying on tenuous cyber-links. "The media has a tendency to blow things out of proportion. We certainly don't want to scare-monger and say the Internet is all bad."

According to the reports Saturday's violence was arranged using a number of "closed" Web sites, accessible only to those with a login and password indicating that the organisers work in small groups.

It is against the law to incite violence, online or off. Any site believed to be actively encouraging acts of public disorder is liable to be shut down.

A spokesman for the UK's independent Internet watchdog organisation, the Internet Watch Foundation, told ZDNet News: "I could probably count the number of Web sites aimed at inciting public disorder on one hand. It's not really that secretive even when sites are closed, because you can usually get an idea of what they are about from the first few pages."

Malcolm Hutty, director of the Campaign Against Censorship on the Internet, said there may even be a more sinister reason for the negative press spin. "It is ridiculous to say the Internet is responsible for football hooliganism. You might as well say telephones are responsible as well. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the people who want to pass the Interception of Communication Act in order to have far greater powers of surveillance on the web gave out information about this to create the sort of negative propaganda they need."