Big company uses law to suppress protest (no surprise in England)

This is called, in the US anyway, a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation. I call it ‘legal terrorism’ because the whole point of it (and the company does not necessarily have to have any chance of winning its case) is to deter people from speaking out through the threat of legal costs and the general disruption and anxiety of being involved in a lawsuit. This is especially significant in England because the cost of legal representation is so high, and the laws are so much on the side of the plaintiffs, that even the mainstream media give into lawsuits that have no merit, particularly libel cases. Some US states have provided legal channels to strike down SLAPPs as SLAPPs deter people from exercising their rights of free speech.

George Monbiot has more on this here, and also points out that the public can inflict unintended consequences on companies that do this.

Kill an oppressive injunction – pass it on

From The Guardian web site on 12 October 2009:

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.

Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.

You can look it up in the parliamentary Order Book online, Questions for Oral or Written Answer beginning on Tuesday 13 October 2009, no. 61:

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

Here is the background from the Guardian, and here is the same story covered by BBC Newsnight. These two defied Trafigura’s attempts to suppress the truth.

Updates: This is a link to the so-called Minton Report about the toxicity of the waste that was apparently dumped in Ivory Coast by contractors hired by Trafigura. It appears to be this information that Trafigura does not want people to know, but it is now in the public domain.

Petition to Number 10 here.

Carter-Ruck backed down.

Legal risks of a proxy

[BPSDB] It seems a good idea to run a proxy like Squid or (perhaps better) an anonymizer like Tor (because Squid is not anonymous) to give internet access to users in other countries where the internet is not free.  It’s something you can easily do with a small investment of time and some of your spare bandwidth. But you should be aware that not only Iranian or Chinese dissidents may use your server. Your local plods may note that something nasty is coming from your IP address, as happened to this man who found he was inadvertently distributing child porn or this one who found he was liable for a bomb threat.

The law currently appears very uncertain in the UK over the liabilities of server administrators for what passes through their systems. So far it seems that no-one has been convicted of anything in the UK arising from the use of an anonymizing server, but be aware the police are unlikely to have much expertise in this area, and you may lose your equipment for some time while they try to pin a terrorist or child porn charge on you. In the current authoritarian atmosphere it is most likely that any legal doubts will eventually be settled against the admins.

In accordance with my theory that all authoritarians have more in common than their superficial political differences, note that if you are arrested (even if not convicted) while trying to assist dissidents in authoritarian countries you will lose your eligibility to visa waiver if you visit the USA.

Simon Singh and the back quacks

[BPSDB]I’d like to support Simon Singh in his current legal difficulties but I have no intention to join Facebook. (I did start signing up once but I read the terms and conditions and changed my mind.)

If there are some who don’t know what this is about, Dr Singh is a victim of the broken libel laws of England. He wrote an article criticising chiropractors for the following claim by the Brtish Chiropractic Association (BCA): “There is evidence to show that chiropractic care has helped children with the following symptoms: Asthma Colic, Prolonged crying, Sleep and feeding problems, Breathing difficulties, Hyperactivity, Bedwetting, Frequent infections, especially in the ears”.  Dr Singh and his colleague Edzard Ernst studied the evidence thoroughly and found none that supported the claim.

However, the BCA did not withdraw the claim (although the original leaflet is no longer on the BCA website) and did not produce any evidence for the claim. Instead, it sued Dr Singh for libel.

The BCA has put out a highly misleading statement. The BCA has not been “vindicated” as the trial has not yet taken place (and may yet not happen). It is important to remember that damages in a libel case are awarded as compensation for loss of reputation. The BCA has not been awarded damages, only costs of the hearings so far.

What has happened is that the judge has put an obstacle in Dr Singh’s way by insisting that, to win his case, he must prove something that he didn’t mean in the first place (and apparently, even the BCA did not claim that he meant it). He has to prove that the BCA dishonestly promotes unproven treatments. Jack of Kent has further details from a lawyer’s point of view.

The English libel law is a litigant’s delight, but reputation is not only a matter of the law. It is likely that the BCA will come to regret its actions. The fact is that they made the claims about chiropractic (even though they have taken the document off their web site) and they have failed to provide any evidence to support them, opting for legal action instead. Suppose that the BCA  had come forward with evidence. I am sure that Dr Singh would have withdrawn his criticism graciously, and if he had not, there might then have been grounds for a libel action.

As it is, going straight to law (or threats of legal action) without first publicly answering criticism may well become widely thought of as a distinguishing mark of the quack, especially when the matter is one of scientific evidence. See Quackometer and the Society of HomeopathsDavid Colquoun and Ann Walker, and Ben Goldacre and Matthias Rath – if you follow these issues through, you will see that the quacks lost in each matter. A legal ruling can offer only a monetary remedy, but trying to suppress criticism sets in process a whole series of consequences which may never have been intended.

And as far as I’m concerned, the BCA has demonstrated its lack of integrity, and also why you should never touch a chiropractor with a bargepole – or, rather, never let them touch you.