Posts

Putting The Genie Back In The Bottle

Trouble in the Brit blogosphere. A number of leading blogs have been taken down due to the threat of legal action by an Uzbek billionaire who claims he was being libelled. Alisher Usmanov recently bought shares in Arsenal football club, … Read More

By / September 21, 2007

Trouble in the Brit blogosphere. A number of leading blogs have been taken down due to the threat of legal action by an Uzbek billionaire who claims he was being libelled.

Alisher Usmanov recently bought shares in Arsenal football club, one of the top four teams in the English Premiership, and is looking to extend his shareholding. It's been alleged in several quarters that if they choose to dine with this guy, ‘the Gunners’ should be supping with a very long spoon. The Guardian takes up the story:

Schillings, the lawyers acting for Usmanov, have been in touch with several independent Arsenal supporters' websites and blogs warning them to remove postings referring to allegations made against him by Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan.

Usmanov was jailed under the old Soviet regime but says that he was a political prisoner who was then freed and granted a full pardon once Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as president. Schillings have warned the websites that repetition of Murray's allegations were regarded as "false, indefensible and grossly defamatory".

It appears that m'learned friends' intervention has had the desired effect. Murray edited his posting, but insisted that his allegations were true and that he would take his chances in court. He hasn't been given the chance. Rather than suing him for libel, as is Usmanov's right, his lawyers went directly to the webhosts. And in the face of a flurry of threatening letters from Schillings, the webhosting company caved.

A number of ‘offending’ blogs have had the plug pulled, including Tim Ireland’s Bloggerheads and Craig Murray himself. Both of them had published comments about Usmanov which prompted him to reach for the phone to his lackeys at Schillings. Worse, and particularly stupidly, a whole network of unrelated political sites hosted on the same server have also been taken down, among them prominent Tory MP and London Mayoral frontrunner Boris Johnson, none of whom were involved in any way.

More from DavidT at Harry's Place:

Bloggers cannot operate if they are bullied by rich plaintiffs. Defamation law in the United Kingdom is both farcical and unfair, and is in desperate need of fundamental reform. Errors on blogs can easily be remedied: particularly where they permit open commenting (a libel risk in itself) which allows postings to be criticised, facts corrected, and arguments opposed. I know what it is like to be at the receiving end of a well funded threat of defamation proceedings, and it is no fun at all. It is outrageous that the law of defamation should be used to break bloggers: like butterflies upon wheels.

That's entirely right. This ugly development demonstrates that blogs are vulnerable to big bullies with bigger sticks. We can't defend ourselves the way a magazine or newspaper can. There's no legal budget for us to dip into. And let's be clear on this point; these blogs are down not because Usmanov has been libelled, but because he says he's been libelled, and has a room full of paid monkeys sitting at typewriters firing off theatening letters to that effect.

In the US you have a First Amendment right to free speech. This has the effect, among other things, of making it rather harder to bully the little guy into silence. In Britain we have no such protection. As most of us use US-based blog platforms such as Google-owned Blogger, it’s unlikely that a thug like Usmanov would succeed in shutting us down if he didn’t like what we were writing (he could still sue us for libel, of course, but that’s a slightly different matter). But if a foreign businessman can have a whole network of blogs taken down in their entirety with just the threat of legal action, we're all in trouble. Next time, who's to say it won't be a politician? And then where does that leave us?

But Usmanov's problems are far from over. US sports blogger David Warner sums up Schillings' problem nicely:


It appears Schillings has fallen victim to something our pals at Techdirt like to call "The Streisand Effect." Back in 2003, Barbra Streisand sued a photographer in an attempt to remove an aerial photo of her California home from the Internet, despite the fact that the photo was part of a publicly funded coastline erosion study and wasn't even labeled as her home. As a result, photos of her house were published all over the web within days. [...] for all their claims that Murray is libeling their client, Schillings has not actually sued Murray for libel. They have told anyone who will listen that Murray's book, Murder at Samarkand, is defamatory against Usmanov, but it's been out for more than a year, and they have never taken any legal action against Murray. Instead, they seem more focused on getting any mention of Murray and his allegations against Usmanov removed from the web — and as the Streisand Effect teaches us, that's pretty much impossible. If Murray's goal was to make Usmanov look like a thug, then mission accomplished.

I knew nothing about Alisher Usmanov this time yesterday; a rich businessman trying to increase his stake in a football club. So what? They're ten a penny, if you'll pardon the phrase.

Today, I know that he's a [snip! - Jewcy lawyers], a fat [snip! - Jewcy lawyers] who was imprisoned for [snip! - Jewcy lawyers] and even, it is whispered among his fellow Uzbeks, the perpetrator of a particularly vicious [snip! - Jewcy lawyers]. And this is all directly because his decision to legal up, and his lawyers' decision to bring out the elephant guns, led me to find out what all the fuss was about in the first place.

Letters are being written to the football authorities, questions asked in Parliament, and the original allegations are spreading through the internet like wildfire. Google his name and see what I mean. Tomorrow it'll probably be in some of the national papers. The stench around this guy's name continues to grow. Hundreds of Arsenal fans who yesterday only knew about his deep pockets are now going to start wondering if this is a fit and proper person to involve himself in the running of their famous old club. This may yet backfire horribly for old Alisher.

The website of Schillings, Usmanov’s lawyers, has a page boasting a case study in how to neutralise "the internet attacker". Oops.

Tagged with: