7.4.3 Corporate control strategies

Most corporate efforts are directed at controlling or eliminating websites that they feel are detrimental to their prosperity, reputation or security. Again, the main focus for attack is the ISP. ISPs are peculiarly vulnerable to this type of strategy mainly because they are concerned about being held liable for publishing defamatory materials which, though not authored by them, nevertheless appear on a website hosted by them.

At least in the UK, ISPs have good reason to be nervous on this score because of a legal precedent established some years ago when a British academic complained of being defamed in a discussion group hosted by Demon internet (then a major ISP). For various (apparently plausible) reasons Demon did not take the offending group offline, and were then sued by the academic – and lost. Inexplicably, Demon did not appeal – with the result that an important precedent was set. This says that an ISP may be held liable if it refuses to take a publication offline after a complaint about defamatory content has been made.

The Demon precedent has provided the corporate world with a powerful tool for subjugating awkward websites. In essence, what happens is that a company's lawyers will write to the ISP hosting an allegedly offensive site and demand that it be taken offline, otherwise proceedings for defamation may ensue. Most ISPs, faced with such a letter, will probably comply. This is because they see themselves as commercial companies providing a service, not as publishers with an interest in protecting the right to free expression.

The implication is that while the Web may in principle offer unparallelled opportunities for free expression, in practice it is much easier to censor than people have supposed. And until legislation is passed granting ISPs the same kind of immunity as ‘common carriers’ currently enjoyed by telecom companies, they are likely to continue to be cautious, and freedom of speech on the Web is likely to suffer.

Give the Wookie what he wants.

(Said by Han Solo in the film Star Wars)

7.4.2 Government strategies

7.5 Lessons from the cases: controlling Napster and others