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March 16, 1996

Guardian Angels Now Patrol the Net

The Guardian Angels, those self-appointed keepers of justice whose red berets have become a familiar sight in many major urban areas, have taken their crime-fighting campaign to cyberspace.

The international organization, headquarter in New York, has formed a separate group, called the CyberAngels, to patrol the Internet for evidence of harassment, hate mail and, perhaps most of all, pedophiles preying on children. The group plans to patrol the virtual communities of the Internet much like the Guardian Angels' Community Safety Patrols monitors city streets.

But CyberAngels differs from its parent organization in one important way: While the Guardian Angels have been known to confront people commiting a crime or threatening to commit one, CyberAngels simply report them to the authorities, including the FBI, and to Internet service providers organizations or institutions that host the site.

So far, the group has signed up 600 volunteers to patrol electronic networks, said Patrik Olterman, assistant director of CyberAngels and a full-time member of the Guardian Angels. Mr. Olterman concedes that the group has no formal way to learn if its "tips" to authorities amount to anything. Even so, he said, the presence of CyberAngels monitoring activities appears to be a deterrent to certain behavior on line.

In at least one case, so far, the CyberAngels have stopped an adult from posting sexual content on a site for kids. Reading a posting from someone who claimed to be a 13-year-old student at a school in England, the CyberAngels used the domain name of the posting to contact the school, which discovered that the poster was actually a school employee.

Most of the time, however, the CyberAngels have no way of knowing whether law enforcement agencies, an Internet provider or organization has taken action, except by seeing nefarious activity slow down or stop. "We're bombing the ISP's with complaints," Olterman said, referring to Internet Service Providers. "That puts them under a lot of pressure to do something." And the CyberAngels are not limiting themselves to the net. They are also active on all the major on-line services worldwide.

"We have members on every service, every network, everywhere," Olterman said.

Members of the group have been patrolling the Internet and private on-line services informally for several years, but last year they decided to formalize the effort and ask for volunteers. The on-line group, based in Los Angeles, now operates independently of its parent organization, relying on 600 or so volunteers, each of whom puts in a minimum of two hours a week patroling the electronic world. Most of the participants are not affiliated with the Guardian Angels, but rather are heavy Internet users frustrated with the kind of activity they see going on, Olterman said.

The Guardian Angels have been criticized as self-righteous vigilantes, and the CyberAngels are likely to come under the same scrutiny. But many Internet advocates applaud their efforts as an example of the kind of "self-policing" the Internet needs.

"They're not trying to be a governing agency or anything that demands compliance from the Internet," said Ray Soular, chairman of SafeSurf, an organization created to devise a rating system for Internet sites, much like the one that exists for movies. SafeSurf, hosts the CyberAngels' site on its own home page. "They're trying to search out people who are doing something bad to other people and report them."

Soular said that the mere presence of CyberAngels on the Internet seemed to reduce the instance of malicious behavior. "Whenever they hang out for a while harassment in that area becomes minimal," Soular said. The CyberAngels have recently been "mail bombed" by Internet users opposed to their patrols, he added.

Lori Fena, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said she viewed the Guardian Angels' move to the Internet as a mirror of the physical world, where citizens have formed community watch organizations to protect themselves, rather than leaving their safety to law enforcement agencies.

The Guardian Angels organization started discussing the idea for CyberAngels last year after Curtis Sliwa, the founder and president of the Guardian Angels, announced his e-mail address on his daily radio talk show on CABC in New York. Immediately, listeners began bombarding his e-mail address with complaints about pornography and other crimes taking place on the Internet. Many of them were from parents seeking advice on what to do to protect their kids.

Eventually, the Web site will also include a section featuring the equivalent of "Wanted" posters and offering rewards for information about various known "cybercriminals."

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