A new threat to media freedoms

Writers of the world, beware.  A new threat to our free­dom of speech is loom­ing and, for once, I am not inveigh­ing against the Offi­cial Secrets Act.  

Over recent years the UK has rightly earned a pun­gent repu­ta­tion as the libel cap­it­al of the world. And now it appears that this won­der­ful prac­tice is going “off­shore”.

How did this whole mess begin?  It turned out that someone in the Middle East could take excep­tion to a book writ­ten and pub­lished about them in the USA.   US law, some­what sur­pris­ingly con­sid­er­ing its cur­rent par­lous state, provided no route to sue.   How­ever, some bright leg­al spark decided that the UK courts could be used for redress, provided the offend­ing book had been sold in the UK — even if only a hand­ful of second-hand books had been sold over Amazon​.co​.uk — and Mr Justice Eady helped the pro­cess along mag­ni­fi­cently.  

And so was born the concept of “libel tour­ism”.  Satir­ic­al cur­rent affairs magazine Private Eye has long been cam­paign­ing against this, oth­er UK news out­lets gradu­ally fol­lowed suit, and the UK gov­ern­ment is finally tak­ing steps to rein in these egre­gious, if luc­rat­ive, leg­al prac­tices.  

3_wise_monkeysBut, hey, that’s pre­cisely when your off­shore crown depend­en­cies, oth­er­wise known as Brit­ish tax havens, come into their own.  The UK has for years turned a blind eye to the dubi­ous fin­an­cial prac­tices of these islands, the most geo­graph­ic­ally con­veni­ent being the Chan­nel Islands and the Isle of Man, where the atti­tude to self-reg­u­la­tion makes the prac­tices of the Square Mile look pos­it­ively Vestal.

Now it appears that Guern­sey is look­ing to become a hub of anoth­er luc­rat­ive off­shore prac­tice: libel tour­ism.  

Guern­sey has its own par­lia­ment — the States —  and can make its own laws.  So as the libel door closes on the UK main­land, a firm of off­shore tax law­yers has iden­ti­fied a won­der­ful busi­ness oppor­tun­ity. 

Jason Romer is the man­aging part­ner and intel­lec­tu­al prop­erty spe­cial­ist at the large “wealth man­age­ment” leg­al firm Col­las Cri­ll.  Accord­ing to his firm’s web­site, he also, coin­cid­ent­ally, sits on the island’s Com­mer­cial IP Steer­ing Group and the Draft­ing Sub-Com­mit­tee, and is thus con­veni­ently on hand to steer the new legis­la­tion through the States.

Hogarth_judgeAlso coin­cid­ent­ally, he appears to be an enthu­si­ast­ic advoc­ate of Eady’s infam­ous “super-injunc­tion” régime which has had such a chillingly expens­ive effect on the Brit­ish media in the last dec­ade.

So, if this law is passed, any­one, any­where around the world will be able (if they can afford it) to register their “image rights” in Guern­sey.  These rights can even last indef­in­itely after the ori­gin­al owner’s death.

This means that any­one, any­where, who feels that their “image” has been inap­pro­pri­ately reproduced/copied/pirated — the cor­rect leg­al ter­min­o­logy is hazy —  can then sue through the Guern­sey courts for redress.  This could poten­tially be a power­ful new glob­al tool for the sup­pres­sion of free speech.  As pub­lic out­cry swells inter­na­tion­ally against the US IP laws, SOPA and PIPA, and across Europe against the utterly undemo­crat­ic ACTA, this new law is a giant leap pre­cisely in the wrong dir­ec­tion.  

Guern­sey, my island of birth, has changed out of all recog­ni­tion over the last thirty years.  Ever since the 1980s infest­a­tion of off­shore bankers and trust fund law­yers, it has been tar­mac-ed over by greed and social divi­sion. Before then it was proud of its egal­it­ari­an­ism, Nor­man-French her­it­age, beau­ti­fully ana­chron­ist­ic pace of life, and an eco­nomy based on toma­toes and tour­ism.

Now, if this law is passed, it will be known for its eco­nomy based on rot­ten fin­an­cial apples and off­shore libel tour­ism.

I just wanted to get that out of my sys­tem now — while I can still freely express my thoughts and before the island can sue me for dam­aging its “image rights”.… 

Judicial rendition — the UK-US extradition treaty is a farce

Some­times I sit here read­ing the news —  on sub­jects in which I take a deep interest such as the recent police invest­ig­a­tion into UK spy com­pli­city in tor­ture, where the police decided not to pro­sec­ute — and feel that I should com­ment.  But really, what would be the point?  Of course the police would not find enough con­crete evid­ence, of course no indi­vidu­al spies would be held to account, des­pite the fact that the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment has already paid massive set­tle­ments to the vic­tims.

BelhadjNow there are reports that the police will be invest­ig­at­ing MI6 involve­ment in the extraordin­ary rendi­tion and tor­ture of two Liby­ans.  The case appears bang to rights, with doc­u­ment­ary evid­ence that high-rank­ing MI6 officers and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters were involved in and approved the oper­a­tion.  Yet I’m will­ing to bet that the plods at Scot­land Yard will still not be able to find the requis­ite evid­ence to pro­sec­ute any­body. 

The inev­it­able (and prob­ably wished-for out­come on the part of the author­it­ies) is that people become so weary and cyn­ic­al about the lack of justice that they stop fight­ing for it.  And they can tem­por­ar­ily suc­ceed, when we suc­cumb to cyn­ic­al burnout.

But the case repor­ted in today’s Daily Mail, that of a young Brit­ish stu­dent facing extra­di­tion to the US des­pite hav­ing broken no laws in the UK, suc­ceeded in rous­ing my wrath. 

Richard_ODwyerThe hap­less 23-year old Richard O’Dwyer faces 10 years in a max­im­um secur­ity Amer­ic­an pris­on.  His crime, accord­ing to the US, is that he set up a UK-based web­site that provided links to oth­er inter­na­tion­al web­sites that allegedly hos­ted copy­right mater­i­al.

This case is so troub­ling on so many levels it is dif­fi­cult to know where to begin.  There are issues around the crack­down of US cor­por­ate copy­right law, issues around the inequal­ity of the uni­lat­er­al Extra­di­tion Act 2003, and his­tor­ic ques­tions of US hypo­crisy about extra­di­tion.

So let’s start with the unsup­por­ted alleg­a­tions against poor Richard O’Dwyer.  He is a stu­dent who built a web­site that col­lated a list of sites in oth­er coun­tries that host films, books and music for free down­load.  O’Dwyer did not him­self down­load any copy­righted mater­i­al, and the web­sites he linked to were appar­ently with­in jur­is­dic­tions where such down­loads are not illeg­al.  Provid­ing a sign­post to oth­er leg­al inter­na­tion­al sites is mani­festly not a crime in the UK and he has nev­er been charged.

How­ever, over the last couple of dec­ades the US enter­tain­ment lobby has been fight­ing a vicious rear­guard action against copy­right infringe­ment, start­ing with the music, then the film, and now the pub­lish­ing industry.  The lob­by­ists have proved vic­tori­ous and the invi­di­ous SOPA and PIPA laws are soon to be passed by the US Con­gress.  All well and good you might think — it’s one of those mad US issues.  But oh no, these laws have glob­al reach.  What might be leg­al with­in the UK might still mean that you fall foul of US legis­la­tion.

Gary_McKinnon2Which is where the Extra­di­tion Act 2003 becomes par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing.  This law means that any UK cit­izen can be deman­ded by and handed over to the US with no prima facie evid­ence.  As we have seen in the appalling case of alleged hack­er Gary McKin­non, it mat­ters not if the “crime” were com­mit­ted on UK soil (as you can see here, McKinnon’s case was not pro­sec­uted by the UK author­it­ies in 2002.  If it had been, he would have received a max­im­um sen­tence of 6 months’ com­munity ser­vice: if extra­dited he is facing up to 70 years in a US max­im­um secur­ity pris­on).

The UK gov­ern­ment has tried to spin the egre­gious Liby­an cases as “judi­cial rendi­tion” rather than “extraordin­ary kid­nap­ping” or whatever it’s sup­posed to be.  So I think it would be accur­ate to call Gary McKinnon’s case “judi­cial rendi­tion” too, rather than bor­ing old extra­di­tion.

Richard O’Dwyer appar­ently didn’t com­mit any­thing that could be deemed to be a crime in the UK, and yet he is still facing extra­di­tion to the US and a 10 year stretch.  The new US laws like SOPA threaten all of us, and not just with judi­cial rendi­tion. 

As I have men­tioned before, digit­al rights act­iv­ist Cory Doc­torow summed it up best: “you can’t make a sys­tem that pre­vents spy­ing by secret police and allows spy­ing by media giants”.  These cor­por­ate inter­net laws are a Tro­jan horse that will threaten our basic civil liber­ties across the board.

So now to my third point.  The hypo­crisy around the Amer­ic­an stance on extra­di­tion with the UK is breath­tak­ing.   The UK has been dis­patch­ing its own cit­izens off at an alarm­ing rate to the “tender” mer­cies of the US judi­cial sys­tem since 2004, with no prima facie evid­ence required.  In fact, the leg­al proof required to get a UK cit­izen extra­dited to the US is less than that required for someone to be extra­dited from one US state to anoth­er. 

The US, on the oth­er hand, delayed rat­i­fy­ing the law until 2006, and the bur­den of proof required to extra­dite someone to the UK remains high, so it is unbal­anced not only in concept but also in prac­tice.  And this des­pite the fact that the law was seen as cru­cial to facil­it­ate the trans­fer of highly dan­ger­ous ter­ror­ist sus­pects in the end­less “war on ter­ror”.

Why has this happened?  One can but spec­u­late about the power of the Irish lobby in the US gov­ern­ment, as Sir Men­zies Camp­bell did dur­ing a par­lia­ment­ary debate about the Act in 2006.   How­ever, it is well known that the US was remark­ably coy about extra­dit­ing IRA sus­pects back to the UK to stand tri­al dur­ing the 30-year “Troubles” in North­ern Ire­land.  We even have well-known apo­lo­gists such as Con­gress­man Peter King, the Chair­man of the Home­land Secur­ity Com­mit­tee attempt­ing to demon­ise organ­isa­tions like Wikileaks as ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tions, while at the same being a life-long sup­port­er of Sinn Féin, the polit­ic­al wing of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA.

UK_poodleThe double stand­ards are breath-tak­ing.  The US dic­tates an extra­di­tion treaty with the UK to stop ter­ror­ism, but then uses this law to tar­get those who might poten­tially, tan­gen­tially, minutely threaten the profits of the US enter­tain­ment mega-corps; and then it delays rat­i­fy­ing and imple­ment­ing its own law for poten­tially dubi­ous polit­ic­al reas­ons.

And the UK gov­ern­ment yet again rolls over and takes it, while inno­cent stu­dents such as Richard O’Dwyer must pay the price.  As his moth­er is quoted as say­ing: “if they can come for Richard, they can come for any­one”.