Atos had CarerWatch forum suspended over a five month old link

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I hope that by now you are all aware that Carer Watch had their support forum suspended by their server host after Atos made threats to the host regarding libel action. I wrote about this in my previous blog post.

Carer Watch have at last received a reply from Atos as to exactly which messages were considered libellous.  You can read the message from Atos and the response on their blog. The reply is baffling. The message in question is dated March 23rd, 8:51 pm – that is, over five months old. Not only that, but the message does not even contain anything considered libel, but merely a link to an article on a different website entirely. That article is still there, even though Carer Watch’s forum is not.

This whole situation raises several problems. First of all, a hyperlink to an article is not and should not be considered libel. It is merely pointing people to that article. If libel action is necessary, it should be aimed at the article containing libel, not at the sites linking to it. The legality of hyperlinks to libellous articles has not yet been settled.

Secondly, the Carer Watch forum is a private discussion forum. As such, messages posted within are available only to members. This is very different from publishing something on a public-facing websites. It is the equivalent of conversation, not of publishing. We must also ask, how were Atos made aware of the message that they have deemed libellous? Did an employee of Atos deliberately sign up to the Carer Watch forum to look for such messages? If that is the case, then that raises all sorts of questions over the behaviour of Atos. Who else are they spying on? Atos is a private company, but contracted by the government. Atos has power but not responsibility such as to the Freedom Of Information act.

Thirdly, the forum was suspended not by any court order or judicial oversight, but merely by sending a threatening letter to the hosts of the forum. It is an unfortunate fact that when faced with a letter from lawyers, most internet providers and server hosts would rather switch off the (potentially) offending website rather than ask for proof or give their customer any chance to fight the accusation. In the case of Carer Watch the letter from Atos was not passed on to them, and in fact they had to fight to find out what they were even being accused of. It is not acceptable that a whole group can be silenced, and prevented from associating with each other merely at the whim of a letter from a lawyer and an uncaring internet provider.

This situation is by no means unique to Carer Watch; websites are taken down like this all of the time. This issue is a small part of the larger problems surrounding libel and the issue of libel reform has become very important. I urge you to visit libelreform.org and read more about these problems, and sign their petition.

  • Sunshins Meadows

    It is importnat we know this like this are happening. The information Jason gives in his comment makes sense. I posted a link to this blog over on the Carer’swatch thread on Ouch Too.

  • http://james.cridland.net/ James Cridland

    Very interesting blog post.

    Of note: Rackspace’s Acceptable Use Policy mentions nothing about libel, but says that they can suspend service or even delete data if a Rackspace user posts anything that they (Rackspace) deem is defamatory. I’ve asked them to comment further.

  • http://twitter.com/cactusjack01 Ian

    Most hosts make you agree to terms which preclude publishing links to libellous or illegal content. In that respect the hosting company acted correctly. I can see that Atos abused this fact though by reporting an apparently innocuous link to a website that was not libelling Atos.  

  • http://twitter.com/cactusjack01 Ian

    Most hosting services make you agree to terms that preclude the publishing of links to material that may be illegal or libellous. In that respect the hosting company acted according to their (probable) Terms and Conditions.  I can see however that Atos abused this (knowing full well what would happen as they are an IT company) by calling into question an old innocuous link to a site that (apparently) was not libellous towards Atos anyway!  Sadly this sort of abuse is rife commercially and is used to gain financial advantage over competitors. The fact that Atos’s major contracts with the DWP is due to be reviewed by Ministers in October would of course have nothing to do with it would it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=37105376 Jonathan Davies

    Reputation Management 94: How not to do it.

    Step 1) Threaten small-time blogs with a tiny readership with libel action unless they withdraw allegations.
    Step 2)  Use legal clout to close down a discussion forum with a closed and limited membership .
    Step 3) Watch impotently as The Guardian republishes all the allegations in full and calls for ATOS’s head in CiF.
    Step 4) Profit!

  • http://twitter.com/PenguinGalaxy Alice Sheppard

    I strongly suspect the post in question was simply an excuse to get rid of these dangerous people (dangerous as in: good, hardworking, powerless, necessary. Quite unacceptable you know :P). It’s rather like the scientologists reporting John Dixon for a tweet he’d written several months previously. In other words, I suspect they see carers being able to communicate with each other as a threat.

    Wonderful analysis and I am so glad people are being kept up to date. Carers and indeed sick and disabled people are very little in the public eye, which is already wrong enough. I hope this case backfires and highlights an awful lot Atos presumably doesn’t want highlighted. (Atos, if this suggestion is libellous to you, please blame me and not the blog author. Thank you.)

    (PS please delete all but one if this comes out several times, I’m having a hard time posting!!!!)

  • http://twitter.com/cactusjack01 Ian

    ATOS = Always Takes Offence at Small groups (that oppose their assessments)

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