One has grown used, by now, to the idea that Web hosting companies are “risk averse”.
“Risk averse” here encompasses a whole spectrum of averseness. Some, like Netcetera, appear to be utterly gutless.
It’s not just that Netcetera seem to be worried about things that might cost them money, like lawsuits. While one might disagree about what level of risk an Internet Service Provider (ISP) ought to be prepared to accept, you can understand that they worry about being found liable in a hefty defamation lawsuit. Although in the US the law has now put some limitations on the liability of the ISP (see e.g. here) , the legal situation in the UK is much less clear, the defamation laws are notably more plaintiff-friendly, and an ISP has been found liable at least once, in the case of Godfrey_v.Demon Internet.
So if there was any REAL issue of defamation and hence likely flying writs, perhaps you could see the ISPs point of view. A bit.
But…. what if the shout of “defamation!” is so completely, utterly fatuous that it carries zero real threat of a lawsuit?
Say, for instance, when the likely “plaintiff” does not have a leg to stand on (because everything written about them is demonstrably true), has no reputation to speak of to be defamed, is highly unlikely to have the money to fund a legal action even had they grounds for one, and makes statements so eye-wateringly, flagrantly and grandiosely crazy that their bogusness screams out of every syllable?
Well, you would think this would be a no-brainer. There is no real risk of a credible lawsuit.
Regardless of whether the person debunking such claims is performing a public service – and I would argue they are – or making “fair comment” – one of the recognised legal defences to a defamation suit in UK law – there is surely no credible risk of the net hosting company having to defend an expensive legal action in such a case.
WWND – What would Netcetera Do?
So what would a net hosting service do?
The answer is now in – sort of. We still don’t know what all of them would do, but we DO know what Netcetera did.
They told Le Canard Noir, inventor of the noted quack-busting software The Quackometer and the website of the same name, that they would be taking down his site.
All of it.
The occasion of this was a frankly laughable threat from disbarred doctor Joseph Chikelue Obi., who runs a series of bizarre Alt Health websites promoting himself and the ”Royal College of Alternative Medicine” he seems to have set up (based in Ireland, where there is no Royal anything). The Quackometer had run a couple of stories on Obi, debunking and poking fun at some of his claims.
The issue here is not Joseph Chikelue Obi per se. It is quite easy to find information about Obi the man and his history on the Internet, for instance here and here. [For a taste of Obi’s own style you can read any of his websites, or peruse his two e-Letters to the British Medical Journal here.]
The issue here is Netcetera.
Netcetera simply told Le Canard Noir:
Thanks for your comments. We do not wish to be in a position where we could be taken to court, and incur the loss of time and expense that would involve. Consequently Netcetera have decided to suspend the Quackometer website, with reference to our Acceptable Usage Policy, the first part of which is quoted below. The full policy can be found on our website http://www.netcetera.im/SiteInfo/AUP/
“Acceptable Usage Policy
This policy is subject to change, without alternate notice, so please check regularly for updates. This policy is in addition, and considered part of Netcetera’s Terms and Conditions. Netcetera will be the sole arbiter as to what constitutes a violation of this provision.
1) Web Hosting
1.1) Netcetera reserves the right to suspend or cancel a customer’s access to any or all services provided by Netcetera, where Netcetera decides that the account has been inappropriately used. Netcetera reserves the right to refuse service and /or access to its servers to anyone.”
So there you have it. Le Canard Noir has “inappropriately used” his account. By using it to draw attention to ridiculous claims from all kinds of people,most of whom are seeking to make money off the public.
Note the first sentence: ”We do not wish to be in a position where we could be taken to court and incur the loss of time and expense that would involve”.
But as we have already discussed, the likelihood of a real legal action here was clearly minimal. If ever there was a threat to sue that was empty, this was it.
An obvious alternative reading of Netcetera’s statement would be “Our criterion for dumping you is that you have put us to some inconvenience, however small.”
Like having to read a letter. Or having to spend 30 minutes online to check out Joseph Chikelue Obi and see just how ludicrous the idea was that he would really hit them with a major lawsuit.
Where does this leave the bloggers?
Now, this action by Netcetera strikes bloggers as a betrayal of everything they think the Internet, and blogging, is about
Most bloggers would, I think, tell you that blogging is about freedom of expression.
Bad Science Bloggers, like Le Canard Noir, tend to think what they do is about putting some rational discussion of science-based issues, and scientific evidence, into the public domain. And they also usually feel they are trying to do some good, in a small way, by exposing sloppy thinking, bogus science, and even outright fraud.
It is worth noting, by the way, that NO Bad science blogger has suggested that Joseph Chikelue Obi’s various sites should be taken off the air, unless his sites were to be shown actually to be fraudulent.
In a free-speech society, it is Obi’s right to say what he wants on his sites – short of making fraudulent claims designed to bilk people, in which case it would become a matter for the police and Trading Standards.
But equally, it surely should be – is – other people’s right to point out if the claims made are unsubstantiated, and if the organisations are not what they appear to be.
This is the kind of thing investigative journalists used to do, back when there were investigative journalists. They would probably have called it “a matter of public interest”.
However, net hosting companies, it seems, don’t care about any of this. They are not newspapers. They are businesses, and they are in it to make money. Full stop. That other stuff about freedom of expression, or the communication society – they couldn’t give a stuff. Not our problem, mate.
Not a great surprise, perhaps, but still disappointing. It leads one to wonder how long an unfettered Blogosphere can last if everything that anyone objects to is to be instantly taken down.
Bloggers bite back?
So do bloggers have any recourse against being taken off the air?
Well, the most obvious recourse is to move to another net hosting company. The Quackometer, I confidently predict, will be back.
The second, and perhaps more powerful recourse, is to spread the word about their net hosting provider experience. As widely as possible.
After all, net hosting companies need customers and visitors, so they probably do need bloggers, and they certainly need popular sites on their servers. Bloggers almost certainly do not generate much direct revenue, but their visitors generate traffic on the net host’s servers. The net host may be selling ad space, in which case more visitors – more traffic – means money. In addition, a high volume of traffic to your servers might be part of persuading big paying customers that your hosting service is where they want their site to be.
Conversely, being the Net Host that never stands by the bloggers might have a downside. It could lose you customers, and friends. It is a fair bet that Netcetera has a lot less friends in the Blogosphere tonight. I shall be following reports of Netcetera’s fortunes in the coming months, as they say, with interest.