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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

You know, 20 years ago "America's Most Wanted" first hit TV screens and the armchair vigilante was born. Today you can be Aeron chair vigilante and fight crime online.

Tony Ganzer of member station KJZZ has this story of how a shop owner in Mesa, Arizona turned to YouTube.

TONY GANZER: The Big Sticks Cigar Shop in Mesa is pretty cut and dried. A news program plays on a flatscreen TV bolted to the wood-paneled walls. There's a pool table and glass cases full of lighters and expensive watches. Owner Bob Guertin built the place himself from the ground up.

Mr. BOB GUERTIN (Cigar Shop Owner): My cigar lounge is a smoking environment that you can come in and shoot a game of pool, play some cards, some dominoes, chess, checkers.

GANZER: It wasn't the checkers that gave Big Sticks headlines last month though. Guertin's shop has a high-quality video system which clearly recorded the faces of a shoplifter and his accomplish. The thief can be seen looking up, searching for a camera on the ceiling before clumsily grabbing two expensive Seiko watches.

After filing a police report, Guertin began handing out fliers with suspect pictures on them and moved to put the surveillance tape on the video-sharing site YouTube in hopes of...

Mr. GUERTIN: Making him famous, embarrassing him, maybe even getting him - getting him to turn himself in, which didn't happen.

GANZER: Guertin offered a $1,000 reward to encourage tips about the theft. Since posted, the shoplifter video has been viewed more than 30,000 times. Police caught the thief late last month after the watches were spotted in a pawnshop down the street from Big Sticks. It's not clear what effect YouTube had in the case being solved, but Guertin's video highlights a new form of cyber vigilantism.

Professor JOHN PALFREY (Harvard Law School): I do think that there's a trend of seeking a form of distributed justice.

GANZER: John Palfrey is executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. He says the Internet has made Web users part of a distributed justice system where many users act as judge and jury - in cyberspace, anyway.

Prof. PALFREY: It provides an avenue to get more information about who might have done this thing and a higher chance, in their view, of bringing that person to justice.

GANZER: Palfrey says there is enormous power in being able to spread information over the Internet. But there is a problem. If someone is falsely accused or defamed, there needs to be due processed.

Prof. PALFREY: I think we have to remember that checks and balances are needed in the law enforcement system and make sure that those are built into any widespread deployment of distributed justice.

GANZER: Even without checks and balances, the handful of crime videos that have made it to YouTube seem to be popular online, though their popularity may be related to their novelty.

Steve Corman is a communications professor at Arizona State University.

Dr. STEVE CORMAN (Arizona State University): If it really got to be a popular thing where there were thousands and thousands of these videos out there, it's a little hard to imagine people sitting there all day looking at crime clips on YouTube.

GANZER: Corman says people get a kick out of watching criminals in action, and without the novelty the videos may lose their effectiveness. It seems for now users are still interested. A man in New Zealand recently posted a video about his stolen laptop which was viewed more than a half million times.

For now shop owner Bob Guertin is still interested in posting his surveillance tapes online. And he says he'll definitely post videos again.

Mr. GUERTIN: Don't wrong me. I will get you.

GANZER: For NPR News, I'm Tony Ganzer in Phoenix.

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