British police say they are facing a new threat to law and order: mob violence orchestrated over the Internet.
Twice in the past two months demonstrators have used Web sites to organize and provoke serious confrontations with law-enforcement officers.
On Aug. 7, the first day of this year's soccer season, mounted riot police in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, were called out to deal with disturbances during day-long clashes between rival fans of a Cardiff squad and London's Millwall team, notorious for its rough playing style and its unruly, sometimes violent supporters. Fourteen people were injured and six were arrested.
A police spokesman later said there had been a worrying "level of organization" behind the unrest. The spokesman said gang leaders had posted messages to followers on Internet bulletin boards during the week before the game.
One site carried the message: "Eleven o'clock Cardiff Central. Let's get this straight: Millwall are coming to town." The site, operated by a self-styled "super thug," also gave a running commentary on the violence as it happened.
A Cardiff police spokesman says, "The growing accessibility of the Internet" in Britain, through home computers and cyber-cafes, "poses a new kind of problem.... We can access Web sites and note what they are carrying, but we can't know how many potential troublemakers are logging on," he says.
"Unlike the telephone, the Internet can be used to pass information simultaneously to large numbers of people."
Eight weeks earlier, on June 18, an even more serious outbreak of violence hit London's financial center.
Some 4,000 demonstrators staged a "Carnival Against Global Capitalism" that sparked five hours of rioting. The disturbance left 42 injured, resulted in 43 arrests, and did nearly $2 million in property damage.
Detective Chief Inspector Kieron Sharp of the City of London police says that, several days earlier, organizers posted plans on the Internet. On the day of the riot, demonstrators were issued different colored masks and told to follow ringleaders carrying matching flags.
Police say the Internet wasn't the only high-tech tool employed by the anticapitalists. Television footage shows well-dressed ringleaders using mobile phones to order attacks on businesses that included a McDonald's restaurant and a Mercedes dealership.
Police concede that the Cardiff and London outbreaks centered on very different issues.
The Cardiff violence was an updated version of traditional team rivalry. In the past decade, so-called soccer hooligans have caused many instances of violence at matches. At one time, British teams were banned from competing in continental Europe because of trouble with their rowdy fans.
The anticapitalist protest, staged as the G-8 group of industrialized nations was discussing third-world debt relief in Cologne, Germany, was clearly political.
But the link between the two, says Inspector Sharp, was the facility with which people bent on violence were able to use the Internet to prepare and orchestrate it.
Finding ways to identify and handle such preplanned unrest is a high police priority.
Bryan Drew, head of Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service says his officers are now "scouring the Internet," for Web sites and bulletin boards carrying details of planned violence at soccer matches.
In addition, police have begun testing their own high-tech weapon: a riot helmet with a built-in miniature camera that can transmit live video images to a police command post or helicopter. The helmets are being worn by mounted police.
As well as allowing police to keep tabs on suspected hooligans, the high-quality digital video footage will provide evidence that can be used in court.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society