LONDON — The criminals are behind bars but their victims are still feeling their reach — through the Internet.
The British government said today that Facebook had removed the profiles of 30 U.K. inmates at its request after several incidents in which prisoners reportedly used the social networking site to organize crime or taunt others.
The announcement made some Internet users worry about government interference online, but many crime victims said even more should be done.
“When someone is convicted of a crime he loses his civil liberty though sentencing,” said Gary Trowdell of Families United, a group founded by relatives of young murder victims. “We say he should use his cyber-liberty as well.”
Families United met earlier this week with Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who said the government would act “to tackle those cases where offenders seek to taunt or harass victims and their families” through Web sites.
British prisoners are banned from using social networking sites like Facebook. Britain — unlike many European countries — bars almost all inmates from access to the Internet, except for educational purposes under supervision. But authorities acknowledge that some have used smuggled mobile phones to update their pages, or have gotten friends on the outside to do it for them.
The Sunday Times newspaper reported last month that Colin Gunn — a gangland boss convicted of conspiring to murder a couple in 2004 — warned on Facebook that “I will be home one day and I can’t wait to look into certain people’s eyes and see the fear of me being there.”
Jade Braithwaite, one of three men jailed for the stabbing death of London teenager Ben Kinsella, also had a page — now gone — with postings on his life in prison, including one saying he was “down but not out.” A photo also was posted to the site showing him wearing a “Free Jade Braithwaite” T-shirt.
Ben’s father, George Kinsella, said his wife and children had had to read “very distressing” comments on the Net.
“Ben’s sisters, younger sisters, look at Facebook regularly and my wife found it very distressing to read some of the comments that were being put on there on virtually a daily basis,” he told broadcaster ITV.
In other cases, escaped convicts have used Facebook to taunt the police. British burglar Craig “Lazie” Lynch became an Internet celebrity after he posted mocking messages and defiant photos on Facebook during four months on the run from a minimum security prison.
He was re-arrested last month and sent back to jail.
Straw said Britain was looking to “raise the stakes against prisoners who seek to use these sites.” He said measures already introduced include body scanners in all jails to stop phones being smuggled in.
Straw said Facebook removed the 30 offenders’ sites within 48 hours once they had been notified but he was working with the social networking site to act even faster.
“What we’ve got to is set up a better system with Facebook so that if they get a notice from us that this site is improper than all they have to do is not make a judgment about it but press the delete button,” he told the BBC in an interview today.
Facebook said it took the problem seriously and would close down accounts that violated its rules, which ban harassment and intimidation and prohibit the creation of fake profiles.
“Facebook is absolutely committed to keeping its sites safe and clean,” said spokeswoman Sophy Silver. “The World Wide Web can be a wild and unruly place. Facebook tries to put some rules and protocols on top of the unruly Web.”
David Wilson, a criminologist at Birmingham City University, said authorities have long struggled to stop convicts reaching out from behind bars to harass victims, collude with cronies or intimidate witnesses.
“It was previously done by letter, by visitors who take messages out of the prison, by telephone,” he said. “Now it can be done in more postmodern media like Facebook or other social networking sites.”
Wilson said that provided authorities with an opportunity as well as a problem — unguarded Internet postings can yield valuable information for police.
“It makes something which might have been covert, overt,” he said. “If they are doing these kinds of threats in this very visible way it allows us to gain a lot of intelligence.”
The Ministry of Justice did not respond to calls and e-mail seeking an elaboration of Straw’s statement, but to some his actions smacked of government control of the Net.
“For the government to interfere in what is both a private company and a social space, that seems absurd,” said Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship.
Simon Davies of the rights group Privacy International, said the statement was “part of a trend right throughout the government to see social networking sites as in some way lawless territory. “
“The reality is, Facebook has a process, and it will cooperate with governments,” he said.
Victims’ families, meanwhile, are calling for stronger action. Families United wants the government to introduce an “e-ASBO” to stop convicted killers bragging online.
The measure is named for Anti-Social Behavior Orders, sanctions introduced by the government that allow magistrates to impose conditions on a person’s behavior in a bid to stop low-level annoyances like graffiti, littering and loud music.
They want new rules that would let authorities pass more information than is currently allowed to Web sites about convicted criminals, so they can them monitor them more effectively.
The government has not committed to that plan, but the families said their meeting Wednesday with Straw was positive.