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.