The Irish Red Cross vs The Internet

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4 August 2010 | 0

Last year at ther first Dublin Web Summit WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg made a grand statement that I wholeheartedly disagreed with. When asked about the role of blogging in society he said, almost offhandedly: “if Deep Throat was around now he wouldn’t be talking to the Press, he’d be writing a blog.”

I disagreed in the strongest possible terms. The professional media, bound by legal accountability and professional standards, remains a vital filter between facts and conjecture presented coherently to an audience seeking trusted sources. What has changed is that via blogs the general public now has access to the same raw data as journalists – should they bother sift through them looking for a story lead.

A current case in point is the ongoing legal action undertaken by the Irish Red Cross (IRC) against a blogger(s) involved in what it argues is an attempt to defame the organisation by publicly attacking its internal governance. An analysis of the merits of the blog’s content is far beyond the scope of this piece (see reports in The Sunday Business Post, Daily Mail, The Village, RTE and The Irish Times); the interest from the perspective of new/social media is the means the IRC has employed to establish the identity of the writer(s) and what they intend to do about the disputed blog. The options are twofold: meet in open debate or begin defamation proceedings with the possibility of being awarded punitive damages.

The IRC’s legal action adopted a two-pronged approach, targeting the service providers associated with the blog: UPC and Blogspot (owned by Google). Following a court order UPC was obliged to present the billing details of an account holder supposedly associated with the blog. In accordance with the ruling UPC agreed to comply with the order, thus ending the action against it.

 

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The second action, against Google Ireland, has since been redirected to its parent company (and owners of Blogger) Google Inc. in California, on which the ‘offending’ blog was hosted. The success of this action, taken against a multi-national corporation in a foreign jurisdiction where freedom of expression is one of the founding virtues, is less certain and likely to incur significant legal costs.

For all the effort the IRC is putting into its actions the endgame is actually quite modest. According to a statement released on the IRC website, that the blogger(s) lose their anonymity and have their blog shut down is “a matter of essential fairness” and would constitute totaly victory. This would entail the naming of the authors and the shutting down of the blog in question. Which is all fine and good, if the blog was a printed publication with pockets deep enough to shoulder some kind of financial burden.

Whatever about the merits of the IRC’s case there are several ways that users can maintain blogs without divulging personal data. The easiest way would be to post from various locations such as Internet cafes or different Wi-Fi hotspots. Secondly, and slightly more technologically adept, would be the use of a VPN (virtual private network) or a proxy server to mask their network address. Simple tactics to be sure but, combined with using a service based in the US, up to the task of dealing with the current action.

The IRC would also be doing well to remember another contribution of the Internet to public discourse: the Streisand Effect. Defined as the application of a disproportionately aggressive legal response to a minor issue, thereby giving credence, exposure and public sympathy, the IRC should have known that going after a blog only of interest to members of its organisation would draw attention to its critics, bringing it under scrutiny from the general public and, even worse, other bloggers. The decision to beat one’s foe through the courts through costly action rather than in public with hard facts cheaply gathered is hardly great PR either. From a social media perspective the way to win the battle is by winning the debate, not in seeking punitive damages against individuals unable to meet any such obligation.

How the case of the IRC versus the little blog who could pans out will have great implications, not only for the preservation of anonymity on the Web, but for how corporate entities deal with criticism from outside the ‘Fourth Estate’ (or perhaps even with it). In the absence of a commercial body such as a newpaper with legal departments and pockets deep enough to defend its staff and principles can bloggers maintain a presence based on the use of services based abroad or the increasingly devoid notion that the Web is a kind of Wild West where the likes of 4chanrubs shoulders with the New York Times or Huffington Post?

So, in light of the above and Mullenweg’s original assertion, do i think a whistleblower like Deep Throat would keep a blog? I maintain someone sitting on that kind of powder keg would not. But this rather more more modest controversy might throw some light on what would happen if he did.

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