The perils of hosting political content in the UK
The above article is about how ATOS, the French company hired by the British government to conduct disability assessments, has used legal threats to get a carers’ forum, Carer Watch, shut down for supposedly defamatory content. For some background on this, see Amelia Gentleman’s article in the Guardian from February; she had spoken to some of those who received these assessments and were found able to work when they were clearly not. It’s also been reported that ATOS prevents any recording of the assessments that a patient might be able to conduct on their own, so patients (term used as the assessments are conducted by doctors and nurses) cannot challenge what the doctor says about them, and cannot help defend this action.
I’ve not written about the ATOS issue here as many others have covered it adequately and I won’t start now; this is more about the dangers of hosting political content of any sort in the UK. Put simply, if you are running a web hosting service in the UK, you are liable for any defamatory content that is on your servers, exactly as if you were a newspaper owner. The customer is probably paying you a small amount, say £5 a month, so you can afford to lose their business more than you can afford the costs of legal action; the plaintiff will find it easier to sue you than your customer, who is unlikely to have the means to pay and may well have given you a false name and address. So, from the customer’s point of view, it would only take one lawyer’s letter to get your site shut down, at least temporarily until you remove the “offending” content. Remember, it does not matter to your host if it is true.
A few years ago I wrote an article about things that had gone on at my old school, and I received an anonymous complaint from an old boy or staff member demanding that I either delete the whole entry or give him my name and address so he could sue me for libel. I refused, and asked him which part of the article offended him, but he refused any further details. He then contacted my web host, which is in the USA, and asked them for my address. I wrote to them and told them not to give them the details, as he probably intended physical violence, not legal action (he could easily have published my new address to the school Facebook forum, for example). However, the host told me that they would not hand over my personal details to a third party anyway, and told the complainer that their customer was “exercising her freedom of speech” (why they thought I was female, I don’t know — they do have my name). When this man found he could get no answers out of me or the host, he slunk away.
Of course, hosting in the USA has its own risks, particularly if your site might be open to criminal liability, but it offers much more robust protection against frivolous defamation or copyright suits than the UK or any other Commonwealth country. In the UK, all it takes is a letter for ATOS, a Russian oligarch or the abusive staff member at your old school to censor anything you might need to say about them, and anything else along with it.
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- Why are St Andrew’s passing the buck?
- On responding to anti-vaxxers