Bloggers defy Britain's tough libel laws.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 10 2007 7:38 AM

Civil Disobedience on the Web

British bloggers stand up to threats of libel lawsuits.

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The next case is more telling for the breadth of its reach and the greater uproar it entrained. It involves Uzbek-Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, No. 142 on Forbes' list of the world's richest people, who has acquired a stake in British soccer team Arsenal. Usmanov is one shady character: In the 1980s he was jailed for a variety of crimes, including fraud, but he was granted a full pardon—and reclassified as a Soviet political prisoner—upon Mikhail Gorbachev's assumption of the premiership.

It turns out a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan is a prominent blogger named Craig Murray, who knows a little too much about the country and its émigré oligarchs. On Sept. 2, Murray wrote an unflattering post about Usmanov after the latter purchased a minority stake in Arsenal and declared his intent of increasing his share to 25 percent. Usmanov then hired the powerful British law firm Schillings—which specializes in new media and defamatory law, and even boasts a how-to guide on its Web site for handling the "Internet attacker"—to threaten not Murray directly but rather his ISP, Fasthosts. After a series of complaints and angry letters, Fasthosts shut down Murray's site in addition to several others, one of whom linked to Murray's post.

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Well, just you try Googling "Alisher Usmanov" today. Within hours of the takedown, a phalanx of bloggers assembled to show solidarity with the affected bloggers.  Chicken Yoghurt has a frequently updated "public service announcement," including a list of blogs covering the story. Tim Ireland, author of one of the yanked Fasthosts sites, re-created his blog as an "All Usmanov, All the Time" portal featuring a meticulous timeline of events and reprinted legal correspondence. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, David T at Harry's Place took this opportunity to comment on blogging Davids vs. the legal Goliaths.) There are even banners and "blog buttons" available elsewhere that make Usmanov look like a robber baron (to put it charitably). One Scottish blogger, Mr. Eugenides, phrased it best:

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

Today, I know that he's a [snip!—Mr E lawyers], a fat [snip!—Mr E lawyers] who was imprisoned for [snip!—Mr E lawyers] and even, it is whispered among his fellow Uzbeks, the perpetrator of a particularly vicious [snip!—Mr E lawyers]. And this is all directly because of his decision to legal up, and his lawyers' decision to bring out the elephant guns.

The two episodes prove there's another law that plutocrats should heed before filing complaints: the law of unintended consequences. David Warner at AOL Fanhouse calls it the "Streisand Effect": In 2003, Barbra Streisand sued a photographer who had posted an aerial photo of her California house on the Internet as part of a study of coastline erosion (Babs' joint was one of 12,000). Yet Streisand's lawsuit generated exactly the kind of attention she looked to curtail, and within days, her beachfront real estate had multiple browser listings. 

In the age of Web 2.0, spurned, libel-threatening parties are begging to attract the attention they are trying so hard to avoid. Public figures with hefty retainer fees should take a lesson: In cyberspace, everyone can hear you sue.

Michael Weiss is the director of communications at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank that promotes democratic geopolitics. He is also the spokesman for Just Journalism, which examines how Israel and the Middle East are portrayed in the U.K. media.

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