North America may have just seen its first major internet lynch mob. Last month, a pair of teenage brothers from Oklahoma put up a home video on YouTube of the younger brother pummelling their pet cat and then soaking it in their shower. Cat lovers surfing YouTube quickly discovered the video and spread the word about the feline's abuse in forums such as Catster.com. Pet owners quickly flagged the clip as violent and asked YouTube officials to take it down, which the site did within a day. But the cat lovers still had their whiskers up and many called to 'avenge Dusty', as the cat was later found to be named. Starting from the user name of the video's poster, people began to cross-reference big networking sites, including MySpace and Facebook. This yielded several 'suspects', as one member of the search mob termed it, and one of these was finally confirmed as the 'cat abuser' when photos of a home interior in an online album were found to match scenes in the video. And the younger of the brothers, 14, had apparently neglected to lie about living in Lawton, Oklahoma. E-mails and phone calls to a Lawton television news station and the area sheriff's office followed, leading to media coverage, an investigation, a cat rescue and a date in juvenile court for the two boys. And this all happened in less than a week. Did quick, firm, real-world legal action satisfy cyberspace's incensed cat lovers? Not really. Websites, YouTube videos and online forums went on to disclose the 14-year-old's home address, phone number and all sorts of other personal information. A 'hate group' on Facebook with more than 2,700 members lists his mother's and father's office addresses, mobile phone numbers and e-mails. Contact information was also given for officials in the younger brother's middle school and the local district attorney, and petitions are being circulated to try the boys as adults. (In Oklahoma, an adult can be sentenced to up to five years in prison and given a US$5,000 fine for animal cruelty.) These vigilante sites are actually now the only place online to find the original cat abuse videos, which are used in part to incite continued harassment. This kind of disregard for the presumption of innocence before trial has been seen before by Net users, especially in China where faith in the justice system is weak, but it is new in the US. Since at least 2001, so-called 'human flesh searches' - this is how the Chinese phrase ren rou cha is often translated - have been fairly common on the mainland. These days, the MySpace page linked to the video's poster's user name reads: 'The best thing about abusing cats is not the sadistic pleasure. It's shocking everyone online.' Great. So he's unrepentant. But beyond that, his new back-at-you tagline confirms something about the original video, which at a deeper level seems more about wanting attention than any real interest in sadism. Now, he's getting it and also discovering that the internet can be a much more conservative place than anyone ever supposed it would be.