David Hebditch and two other British journalists knew they were breaking the law when they posted a banned government report detailing a notorious ritual child abuse case on their Web site.
But they were answering a higher call. And they used the Web's seamless flow of information from one nation to the next to open what amounted to a protest in cyberspace.
So far, the Internet community has heard the rallying cry and responded, disseminating the report so widely that there's little the British government can do now to plug the leak.
Hebditch, Nick Anning, and Margaret Jervis all covered what was known as the Broxtowe case, England's most extensive child-abuse case at the time it began a decade ago, with charges that 10 adults had abused and sexually molested 21 children in their extended family.
The case also included charges that the children were subjected to satanic ritual abuse, and therein lay the controversy, Hebditch explained.
The report that he and the other journalists published on the Web last week was the summary of an inquiry conducted jointly by the Nottinghamshire police and director of social services.
The inquiry originally resulted in a five-volume, 600-page detailed report. It was then summarized and rewritten to protect the identities of the children involved.
Hebditch said the report was "very thorough, very long, and very damning." It outlines a bungled investigation that leads to the startling conclusion that the ritual abuse never took place, Hebditch said.
But the report never was published--until last week, when the journalists took it upon themselves to post the summary and then got help from Netizens to disseminate it broadly. In fact, Hebditch said, the report had been was banned not once, but twice.
Had the report been published when it was completed in 1990, Hebditch believes, the subsequent charges of satanic ritual abuse the Broxtowe case spurred could have been prevented.
"We got a whole chain of satanic abuse cases in the UK," he said. "Scores of children have been taken away unjustly from their families. All cases have been disproved. All proved to be totally baseless."
And that's why he and the others decided to publish it, in time for a three-part national documentary on child abuse.
"We thought we'd contribute to the debate," he said. "There seemed to be some people trying to rewrite history. We've had a copy of the report for some time, and we decided to put it on the Web.
"When we uploaded the document, we knew we were infringing on the Nottinghamshire County's copyright. However, we were very concerned that these cases keep arising. If it was published in 1990, there's no doubt in our minds that all these other cases would never have happened. We're claiming the moral high ground on this."
For staking that claim, they could face legal penalties, including jail time.
Today, Britain's high court issued an injunction against the journalists, ordering them to take the report and links to it off their site.
They complied. But not before the proverbial cat got out of the bag. Several sites, heeding the call of Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK), mirrored the report on sites throughout the Net. The British government has no jurisdiction to go after non-English sites.
As anyone who knows anything about the Internet can tell you, it's virtually impossible to get back what's gotten out. In fact, it is breeding by the minute, with mirror sites being created all the time.
"We wanted to make it readily available, particularly to social services departments and universities," Hebditch said. "We're very concerned there might be a new generation of social workers who might think there's something in all this."
"This is a document produced by a public body, using public money. It was always intended to be published, and I think the public is entitled to know. I admit we're breaching the copyright law. It's outrageous that we have a copyright to breach. There's no Freedom of Information Act in the UK."