UK Law Firm Sets Up Special Team To Hunt Down Anonymous Commenters

from the free-speech-is-for-suckers dept

Stephanie Migot writes in to let us know how UK law firm Wragge & Co has decided to set up a special “cyber tracing” team, whose job it will be to scour the internet for anyone making negative anonymous comments about any of their clients and then take action. Of course, the law firm says it’s really looking for people leaking confidential information (such as disgruntled employees), but, as you probably know, defamation laws in the UK are significantly more draconian than those elsewhere. Thus, the line is a lot more blurry, and will almost certainly lead to these sorts of activities targeting mere criticism and complaints, rather than true defamation. The unfortunate end result is a series of chilling effects on any concept of free speech.

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Comments on “UK Law Firm Sets Up Special Team To Hunt Down Anonymous Commenters”

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43 Comments
Sheinen says:

Not the clients, the management. But they are a bunch of lawyers so it’s about as surprising as a polo having a hole – a shock to a stranger, but if you’ve seen one you knew it was coming.

I fucking hate this country. I didn’t choose to be born in to it, but I have to put up with Cameras EVERYWHERE, Police who do F.A. for fear of reprimand, a PM whose a talentless gimp and signs away the whole countries legal system without even asking us and now this! It’s shit!

Oh, I almost forgot – Fuck you Mandelson! No-one likes you! You were fired 3 times from government! Who the fuck keeps letting that douche back in?!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: subject

No, the only chilling effect would be on dishonest or libelous free speech. If you are expressing an opinion you can back up, you won’t have an issue. If you are calling someone a wanker without the proof to support it, then you are on the hook. Free speech isn’t an absolute.

I bet that doesn’t apply to everyone, does it? Like gov’t officials? What happens to the PC or prosecutor who accuses someone of a crime and then can’t prove it? On a larger scale, I seem to remember those in the British gov’t accusing the Iraqis of having certain weapons of mass destruction. Couldn’t prove that one either, could they?

Pete Austin says:

Insults != Libel

@name. You don’t need proof to insult someone gratutiously, only if your comment might be understood factually. So I can call these lawyers “pond scum”, as it’s clear I don’t mean that factually, but I can’t call them “money-grubbers”, because that suggests people who would put their greed ahead of the public interest. See how it works, dick-head?

William says:

Re: Insults != Libel

@Pete, I hate to break it to you but he is right.

We left because of a GOVERNMENT that didnt respect us, not the people. Imagine how many friends those people more than likely left behind?

The Lawyers Are Pond Scum, as are their clients.. However It’s the Government that allows them to go along with this, what do you think they are going to do tar and feather them publicly? maybe be drawn and quartered? No there going to receive a government sanctioned defamation summons and law suit.

Really Before you Flame him, even thought he did sound like a troll in the way he expressed it, at least think of the general meaning behind what he said.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Insults != Libel

So I can call these lawyers “pond scum”, as it’s clear I don’t mean that factually, but I can’t call them “money-grubbers”, because that suggests people who would put their greed ahead of the public interest.

Suggests? “Pond scum” suggests the same thing as “money grubbers” to me. See how it works, dick-head?

Stephanie Migot (user link) says:

Reputation Management?

I wasn’t actually sure if Techdirt would follow this up, so thanks!

I think that what the clients of Wragge & Co are trying to do is a cack-handed form of limiting bad PR. In the past, complaints about them wouldn’t have circulated as quickly or as widely, whereas today they can be pinged back and forth online in an instant.

Businesses are running scared, but rather than engaging directly, and maybe improving their level of customer service, they’re sending out the legal attack dogs instead.

I don’t buy the “confidential information” fudge for an instant. It’s a respectable excuse for boorish behaviour.

Stephanie Migot (user link) says:

Re: laws on the intarwebs

Under UK law, if you make a statement that somebody considers libellous on the internet, and they can prove that somebody in the UK read your statement, it is considered “published” and they can take you to court.

Anyone, anywhere can sue in the UK courts for libel if they convince a judge that statements against them would have been seen by somebody in the UK. British courts are the libel capital of the world. The situation is completely ridiculous.

1DandyTroll says:

Re: laws on the intarwebs

Not at the moment, but with the ratification of the lisbon treaty, you might. It will come down to the interpretation of the new harmonized set of laws, it wouldn’t be criminal charges since the rules governing that is pretty straight forward and limited to serious crime, but the civil side is, as usual, rather murky.

Personally I think that the EU government wont accept pesky cross border civil suits. And I think that the government of England will try hard to keep things on the up and up, at least for some years to come. They was caught red handed bugging the european parliament after all.

But in a few years, it’s anyones guess.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: laws on the intarwebs

> and they can prove that somebody in the UK
> read your statement, it is considered “published”
> and they can take you to court.

They can take me to court, they can even get a default judgment when I completely ignore them and don’t show up, but good luck collecting on that judgment from me if I’m not in the UK.

They’d have to apply to an American court to have the judgment enforced and the American court will determine whether such a sanction is valid under American law. If the comment was made by an American citizen, in America, then the 1st Amendment is in full effect and if the libel laws in the UK sanction speech which would be protected in America, then the American court will refuse to enforce the judgment.

It’s the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.

Anonymous Poster says:

Re: Re:

Because one of the fundamental principles of the Internet is its ability to allow you to comment without revealing your identity. For instance, I post here on Techdirt anonymously, and I trust Techdirt not to hand out what few details they have about my identity to someone without a very good reason.

If anonymous commenting was disabled and I was required to give out your real name in order to comment, I wouldn’t be nearly as apt to comment on stories such as this out of the fear that the law firm in question could track me down and sue me for saying that they’re a bunch of jackasses who should be considered true enemies of freedom of speech and expression.

In other words, knowing I can’t comment anonymously leads me to avoid commenting altogether out of fear of legal action; hence, a chilling effect on my ability to speak my mind freely.

You think anonymous commenting and information spreading isn’t important? Try saying that to Wikileaks.

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

Wragge & Co are Wanking Pond Scum and I have Photos to Prove it

Free speech isn’t an absolute.

And neither is the willingness of a population to be governed under any specific set of laws or “civil” precedents an absolute.

Unabashedly marketing a service such as this speaks very poorly to the state of things today.

Corporations are not individuals with feelings. The over-entitled, puerile wankers running this disgusting program would do well to “drop it” when it comes to vitriolic comments without criminal content or intent.

Pete Austin says:

Insults != Libel

@William: Sorry, I’m reasonably correct about UK Law. General insults such as “wanker” or “pond scum” aren’t libel. Search for “slander vulgar abuse” (without the quotes)
http://www.google.co.uk/#hl=en&q=slander+vulgar+abuse+uk&meta=&aq=f&oq=&fp=9cff3232a59d5ab3

For example, here’s a relevant quote by Mr Justice Eady, discussing Internet comments
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/sep/08/wallstreetjournal.pressandpublishing

‘Eady ordered a stay on a number of libel actions brought by the chairman, and said many comments would have a defence in slander as “mere vulgar abuse”.’

Beta says:

Opportunity!

This could be a wonderful way to test anonymizing (“anonymising”?) services. I have a friend post through a remailer or web proxy or something, saying that I’m a corrupt, adulterous, client-defrauding cross-dressing gay cannibal, then I hire Wragge & Co to find the source. If they fail, then the channel must be reasonably secure. (Then I publish the results and put the cyber-tracing team out of business.)

DISCLAIMER: ‘WE WOULD LIKE TO APOLOGIZE FOR THE WAY IN WHICH POLITICIANS ARE REPRESENTED IN THIS PROGRAMME. IT WAS NEVER OUR INTENTION TO IMPLY THAT POLITICIANS ARE WEAK-KNEED, POLITICAL TIME-SERVERS WHO ARE CONCERNED MORE WITH THEIR PERSONAL VENDETTAS AND PRIVATE POWER STRUGGLES THAN THE PROBLEMS OF GOVERNMENT, NOR TO SUGGEST AT ANY POINT THAT THEY SACRIFICE THEIR CREDIBILITY BY DENYING FREE DEBATE ON VITAL MATTERS IN THE MISTAKEN IMPRESSION THAT PARTY UNITY COMES BEFORE THE WELL-BEING OF THE PEOPLE THEY SUPPOSEDLY REPRESENT NOR TO IMPLY AT ANY STAGE THAT THEY ARE SQUABBLING LITTLE TOADIES WITHOUT AN OUNCE OF CONCERN FOR THE VITAL SOCIAL PROBLEMS OF TODAY. NOR INDEED DO WE INTEND THAT VIEWERS SHOULD CONSIDER THEM AS CRABBY ULCEROUS LITTLE SELF-SEEKING VERMIN WITH FURRY LEGS AND AN EXCESSIVE ADDICTION TO ALCOHOL AND CERTAIN EXPLICIT SEXUAL PRACTICES WHICH SOME PEOPLE MIGHT FIND OFFENSIVE.
WE ARE SORRY IF THIS IMPRESSION HAS COME ACROSS.’
(With meta-apologies to Monty Python)

Kevin Carson (user link) says:

A law is only as “draconian” as it is enforceable. As with “three strikes” legislation, this will just hasten the day when everyone uses an anonymizer and tells the government to fuck off.

The old unidirectional broadcast culture is gone, never to return. And the network culture treats both censorship and police state surveillance as damage, to be routed around.
Those pigs are only wasting their money and time developing their surveillance software and playing whack-a-mole with disgruntled employees. They’re about to learn the utter worthlessness of their police state technologies, and the beautiful power of the words “HELL, NO!”

To put it simply, they can’t shut us up, no matter how bad they want to. The 20th century was the age of large, bureaucratic organizations. By the end of the 21st, there won’t be enough of them left to bury.

Steve says:

Prediction: Actions like this drive people in droves to sites and programs that hide your IP address. Then they start suing THOSE entities for the identity of posters. They really DO believe that the internet can be bullied into submission. I weep for them on the day that the internet on the whole has had enough and decides to hit back. They just don’t see it for what it is. It’s like the smallest nation on the earth fucking with the only one that has nuclear weapons. Sooner or later your going to piss them off enough to light you up and then maybe they’ll see that it’s the community that runs the show around here not the other way around.

DB (profile) says:

Assumptions & Legitimacy

I’ve only heard about UK libel laws — as much from the Leon Uris book as anything else. But there also seems to be a tone that anonymous posters should be permitted to say anything they want. As I understand it, libel only applies to statements of fact, and not opinion, and truth is still a defense. If so, anonymous, or identified, posters are free to state opinions — not facts — and if facts are posted, then stick to the truth. If the posting is just a rant, I don’t see that it accomplishes much.
For whistleblowers, I don’t know enough about UK law. Certainly there have been abuses. Scientologists, for example, filed a bunch of lawsuits when their procedure manual became public. I don’t remember how it ended on the copyright issue, but they couldn’t claw back the truth.
And what about nuts? It may be bad PR to file a lot of suits (look at the record industry) but there are certainly some boneheaded rumors out there. Procter & Gamble is satanist because of their logo? Hogwash, promulgated by nuts, but persistent. Urban legends abound and if they cause harm to a reputation, I don’t see a huge problem in gathering facts using proper means. As to what they do with the facts, it sounds like everybody’s guessing. There may be dozens of reasons to decide to not sue, but until you have the background facts, you don’t get to that decision.

esees (profile) says:

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Hard To Do says:

Is it feasible ?

The concept may find some takers but as things stand this is in my view a technically infeasible service for the most part.

Tracing these commentators is very hard, even if they operate consistently from one place. It takes a whole team. It needs the assistance of the forum websites, blog operating companies, ISPs, and law enforcement authorities. In some countries (India for example) police are ready to help (formally or informally) but in others (UK,USA) they are not helpful to private parties.

Assume for the sake of argument that commentators and bloggers could be found and summoned to court; is that the end of the story ? Far from it ! Serious technical problems remain to be solved about internet comments and how they can be fingerprinted and traced reliably.

A blogger who has blogged his fighting of an Anton Piller search order even claims in his defense that “third party comments” do not pass through his computer: On Blogs and Searching for Evidence.

As these type of arguments become common, it may be worthwhile for large companies to sign on for some such “insurance cover” …. that is probably why such services are becoming popular, but the efficacy is not yet demonstrated.

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