International Herald Tribune
Alisher Usmanov, a billionaire born in Uzbekistan, was angry about what Craig Murray, a former British envoy, wrote about him. (AP Photo)
Bloggers beware when you criticize the rich and powerful
By Doreen Carvajal
Published: October 7, 2007
PARIS: When a billionaire born in Uzbekistan and an outspoken former British ambassador clashed over a scorching blog, the first outcome was the Internet equivalent of a smackdown.
The daily Web log, or blog, of the former U.K. ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, vanished after Murray's British Internet provider received a flurry of ominous legal letters demanding the removal of "potentially defamatory" information about Alisher Usmanov, a mining mogul with a rising stake in the English soccer club Arsenal.
Two weeks later, Murray is not blogging, but his blistering opinions are about to surface again through a Dutch Internet provider that offers refuge to controversial bloggers in the United States and in England, where libel laws are more lax. And with that journey, Murray has stirred support and a common outrage among bloggers and Internet service providers who complain that chilling demands from companies are becoming more frequent in a number of countries.
"I'm personally predicting that the next growth area is not censorship of bomb-making Web sites," said Richard Clayton, a computer security researcher at Cambridge University and part of the OpenNet Initiative that tracks Internet filtering around the world, "but complaints about defamation and civil suits."
Murray's odyssey began in early September when he posted a pejorative description of Usmanov on his blog.
Schillings, a London law firm specializing in media entertainment, then fired back for Usmanov with legal warnings to Fasthosts, the blog's Internet service provider, demanding elimination of the posting within 24 hours.
More letters followed and by the fourth complaint, Fasthosts simply deactivated the Web site – along with two other servers, shutting down more than a dozen other sites, including that of a British member of Parliament.
"It's extremely scary that this can happen, because they can take down something without anything being tested in court, without any legal sanction at all except a letter from a high-priced lawyer," Murray said in an interview. "I'm very happy to have this tested in court. Why don't they do that? Because that will bring together people who know the truth of the matter."
After his blog was silenced, a number of other bloggers with views ranging across the political spectrum started organizing a coalition to seek legislative protections, according to Tim Ireland, an online marketing consultant whose blog also vanished when the servers were shut down.
The Internet Service Providers Association, or ISPA, the leading trade group for British ISPs, is also hosting a meeting of its members this month to debate the issue.
"The threat is and always has been money," Ireland said. "Might makes rights. We have to take away at least one aspect in U.K. libel law that gives an unfair advantage to people who are cashed up."
In the meantime, Murray's accusations, which were also part of his memoir, "Murder in Samarkand," continue to spread online to other blogs, pointing out the potential perils of trying to squelch information.
Rollo Head, a spokesman for Usmanov, said the businessman and his advisers remained content with the tools used to challenge damaging and misleading information. "We are very comfortable with the strategy that we pursued with regard to the Web site," he said.
Usmanov hired Schillings, which specializes in "reputation protection" and boasts about being lawyers to the stars. Harriet Campbell, a solicitor there, declined to discuss the impact of the firm's strategy, saying in an e-mail message that, "like any professional law firm, Schillings does not comment on its instructions or approach to its current client matters."
But on its Web site, the law firm freely offers a tip sheet to challenge online critics across national borders, describing a client and wealthy chief executive who was accused of unethical behavior and financial crimes on a U.S. Web site.
In that case, the British firm employed similar tactics. It contacted the Internet provider, "advising them that even though the allegations had physically been posted in the U.S., they were defamatory under U.K. law as they could be accessed here."
The provider removed the material, according to Schillings, and "once the source was outed and starved of publicity, he quickly settled to avoid a defamation claim."
Companies in the United States, Canada and Australia have moved against bloggers to remove copyrighted material with takedown complaints or have demanded removal of critical comments posted by blog visitors.
But British bloggers are particularly vulnerable to defamation complaints because of a previous court ruling that found that Internet providers qualified as publishers of libelous material if they did not react when alerted about a problem.
The result is that Internet providers are forced to weigh who is telling the truth.
"It's something that the ISPs are having to manage as part of managing their business," said Brian Ahearne, a spokesman for the ISP trade group. "It's not something that the ISPA wants to be involved in, and they shouldn't have to be judge and jury on this."
Some law firms have taken an even more direct approach, targeting bloggers with brisk legal warnings.
Richard Brunton, a Scottish writer with two blogs, said he started receiving takedown notices last April from a leisure industry firm in the United Kingdom that was irked by comments posted by visitors to his blog, where he reviews products from video games to bamboo flooring.
Brunton said it appeared that some disgruntled employees had posted comments with specific references to company employees. So he eliminated them, he said, but then received legal letters about critical comments posted by writers describing personal experiences with the company.
Brunton and the British blogger, Tim Ireland, said that companies appear to be galvanized into action about critical commentary when blogs surface in Google's top results for a search word. Such was the case for Murray's caustic comments about Alisher Usmanov, which emerged in the top 10 searches of the billionaire's name.
"People have learned a lesson for the future," Ireland said. "That's why we are standing up. It could be anyone next time."