Thursday, May 18, 2006

Censorship: Law Firm Carter-Ruck Attack Internet Freedom



Freedom of speech on the internet? Forget it – if a recent vendetta involving libel lawyers Carter-Ruck goes their way. The firm was upset by negative comments made by a former client who held a grudge due to having allegedly been pressurised by his own lawyers to accept miniscule damages in a case against the Telegraph so that they could walk away with hundreds of thousands of pounds in cost awards. Instead of writing to their former client, however, the libel lawyers went for the jugular and threatened his internet service provider with legal action should they not remove the offending material immediately.

If anyone gets a demand from a law firm threatening legal action, what will their first reaction be? Will they ask themselves whether they have done anything wrong or whether the demands are justified? Unlikely. The first thing going through the mind of the recipient of a legal threat is whether they can afford being drawn into litigation. Law firms know this and use this weariness to their advantage.

Carter-Ruck objected to Adam King of Mathaba.net news portal calling them "greedy" and having "pressurised" and "screwed" clients. For months these allegations stood unchallenged, probably because they are rather meek and, as he asserts, he has proof to back them up in court. Then suddenly Carter-Ruck appear to have had a brainwave and decided to demand the removal of these allegations together with other material making reference to them from his internet provider, GreenNet.

GreenNet, according to their own promotional claim are "geared to the needs of non profit organisations, activists and people working for social change" and "dedicated to supporting and promoting groups and individuals working for peace, human rights and the environment, through the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT)". However, faced with the red letter from Carter-Ruck, they asked their client to comply with the law firm's demands.

Reluctantly he did so, but made an entry on his internal Wiki pages, informing his own network about what had happened. Unfortunately for him he used the words "unprincipled", "arrogant", "avaricious" and "sloppy" when referring to them, prompting them to send another letter to GreenNet to remove those Wiki pages, too. On the removed pages he placed a notice that they had been made temporarily unavailable due to censorship demands by Carter-Ruck. Carter-Ruck demanded that those notices be taken down also, since the claim that they had demanded censorship was in itself "defamatory".

One should think that the lawyers at Carter-Ruck never heard a word spoken in anger, given their sensitivities. Yet a simple search reveals that they were, and are, called much worth things by most respected publications. The main Wikipedia entry for the firm tells the story of a famous client who (if I understand it correctly) alleged that they told him "a string of lies" in order to enrich themselves to the tune of over forty thousand pounds by withholding information and giving him bad advice, making him loose his case. There is little chance that the firm will start libel action against Wikipedia since, unlike GreenNet, they are big enough to afford the legal costs.

The satirical magazine Private Eye also never gave in to demands to stop calling the firm's founder "Carter-Fuck". Instead they added the variety "Farter-Ruck" to their repertoire. Nor did the Guardian worry when it called Carter-Ruck a "dedicated liar", his letters "menacing" and his fees "exorbitant" in a most damaging obituary written by one of the law firm's former partners. Two year's ago, in Adam King's case against The Telegraph, even the Court of Appeal in London called Carter-Ruck's fees "extravagant" and demanded them to be capped in future cases.

To be certain that you will never be liable to pay damages for libel, you should 'refrain from writing, printing or publishing or distributing any written matter of whatsoever nature', says GrumpyOldBookman in his blog entry about the law firm where he doesn't mince his words either. But then blogger.com owners Google are a little bit too much to chew for the litagatious lawyers. Reassuringly, my own blog is not hosted by GreenNet!

There are wider implications, however, in the fact that this infamous law firm with its apparently dreadful reputation can go and demand from an ISP to remove content without having to provide any evidence that such content breaches any of its rights or the law of the land. The freedom of expression on the internet is at stake, and soon we won't even be allowed to tell "lawyers' jokes". Others watching the supine and spineless response by GreenNet will take heart. Next time anybody is going to complain about any practice by any company on a website or forum, the company will demand unfavourable comments to be removed by their ISP. Maybe this is the new market Carter-Ruck is hoping to make a killing on.

Groups and organisations supporting and campaigning for free expression on the internet need to pick up the baton and test the law in this case. Carter-Ruck's unjustified demands are a little like asking a telephone company to cut off the line to one of their clients because they didn't like what he said to them over the phone. No libel firm should be allowed to threaten an ISP without even having approached the author of the content first. ISPs cannot judge the veracity of statements made on web pages, nor should they have to. If this attack on internet freedom goes unchallenged, it heralds the death of alternative media.

2 Comments:

At 19 May 2006 at 02:07, Blogger Masher1 said...

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At 19 May 2006 at 19:04, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An article on ISPA describing the position of ISPs in the UK:
Defamation.

GreenNet however have done more than any other ISP in the UK would have done: they clearly did not yank the articles off the site but contacted the subscriber and gave him an opportunity to change them or delete the bits that offended the awful libel lawyers. Every other ISP would likely just have closed the account, or if for a major user or network, removed the pages that they were threatened about. I guess that they have little choice but to avoid taking chances of defending expensive legal actions, but should probably be supported by those organisations who claim to stand for freedom such as Liberty, who have the funds, so that an action could be defended if it is in the wider interest, as this one appears to be.

 

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