Via WhiteCoat Underground, I’ve learned of a most disturbing development.
Remember Le Canard Noir? He’s the skeptical blogger whose Quackometer was one of my favorite websites and tools for identifying pseudoscience and quackery caused him to run afoul of the Society of Homeopaths and a highly dubious practitioner named Joseph Chikelue Obi, both of whom tried to get his Internet service provider to boot him off of its servers using vacuous legal threats of libel actions? Both led to an outcry from the medical and skeptical blogosphere in the form of many, many copies of the offending text being reposted on dozens, if not hundreds, of blogs. Bloggers don’t take well to bogus threats of libel suits being used to stifle free speech.
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 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.”
We will prevent public access to the site as of noon today 18th February 2008. You will be able to access the content to be able to transfer it to another host if you so wish.
We will hold the content available to you for 30 days, and then we will remove it from our servers.
And so, “Dr.” Obi wins–for now. I don’t know about the U.K. (although the U.K.’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws are a problem), but in the U.S., such cowardice would be truly bizarre, given that it’s now actually very hard to sue an ISP for defamation because of precedent set by Barrett v. Rosenthal ruling over the Communications Decency Act. ISPs are treated much the same way as telephone companies: as conduits for others to use, which means that they can’t be sued (at least not easily) for what is hosted on their servers. Given even that, ISPs are so risk averse that even the small possibility of a suit will scare them off, and quacks like “Dr.” Obi take full advantage of that. As Le Canard Noir put it:
Exerting pressure on Obi is futile. He is not the story. The story is about ISPs, web hosts and their duty to their clients.
Web Hosting for blogs like mine is not a lucrative business. It is a commodity. Little profit and little incentive for hosts to keep business or do anything rather different. Netcetera took 10 quid off me a month and I ran about half a dozen web sites from them. The profit for hosts is elsewhere – corporate, services etc. But this leaves simple punters like me very vulnerable. The law needs examining. Would WHSMiths be liable if a newspaper printed something libelous. Would a library? Or are they just conduits? Should they inspect every page on their sites? The government appears to think that is reasonable.
All I can say to those of you who support free speech on the Internet and have blogs: Blog it, people! Make Netcetera feel the heat. If you have your Internet connectivity through Netcetera, seriously think about finding another ISP.