Libel, Google and a cause worth supporting


3:10 pm - April 23rd 2009

by Unity    


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There are many things that are very wrong with English libel law but, arguably, the one issue that should most concern bloggers is the chilling effect of the High Court’s despicable ruling in Godfrey vs Demon Internet Services, under which ISPs and other providers of online services are treated as a publisher, for the purposes of litigation, irrespective of whether or not they had any kind of involvement in publishing the allegedly libellous material.

The problem this creates for bloggers is simply that this makes UK-based ISPs and online services, in particular, a stupidly easy target for any crook, quack or and shyster with an interest in suppressing information about their dubious and, in some cases, unlawful activities. A mere threat of litigation is too often all it takes to propel a service provider into removing content from a blog or forum, regardless of whether the complaint has any kind of merit at all and, as Craig Murray, Tim Ireland, bob Piper and Boris Johnson found, it can even lead to the termination of an entire hosting account, resulting in sites being taken down which had nothing whatsoever to do with the complaint that the ISP received.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with Google’s Webmaster Tools and came across a rather curious stream of messages from Google, which appear to have started last November:

For legal reasons, we’ve excluded from our search results content located at or under the following URL/directory:

  • http://ministryoftruth.me.uk/2008/07/28/questions-for-j-mark-brewer/

Removed from:

  • *.google.uk

Cause: We were requested to remove this URL from our search results in order to comply with local law.

The message also provides a link to a web page at the Chilling Effects Clearing House to which Google sends any cease and desist notices and other legal threats it receives, as a matter of policy, although five months on from this complaint, the only additional information this page provides is this:

Notice Unavailable

British Defamation Complaint to Google

The cease-and-desist or legal threat you requested is not yet available.

Chilling Effects will post the notice after we process it.

Google has received a legal complaint and submitted it here to the Chilling Effects database, as described in Google’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act policy. In response to the complaint, Google may have removed content from a search results page or hosted page.

The back story here starts with a cease and desist notice sent by J Mark Brewer, a Texan lawyer, to a British blogger and cartoonist, Dave Walker.

Dave had been following and publishing material relating to the demise of the vast majority of Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge’s (SPCK) bookstores, which has been taken over by a UK registered Orthodox Christian charity, the St. Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), a couple of years earlier. Brewer, and other members of his family, were the registered trustees of SSG and had, to put it mildly, royally stuffed up what was once a familar and, in Christian circles, well regarded chain of specialist bookstores, ran the whole operation into an mountain of debt and were, by the time I picked up on the story via Matt Wardman, trying to dodge their liabilities by filing, illegally, for bankruptcy in a Texas bankruptcy court. If this is the first time you’ve run into this particular story, then Matt has a clear synopsis of this issues leading up to Dave Walker getting stiffed with a C&D notice and if you’re interested in the full story, which is ongoing thanks to the efforts of a committed group of Christian bloggers, then look no further than the excellent SPCK/SSG blog (and start here).

You may be wondering, at this point, why an atheist like me should get involved in a ruck over a chain of Christian bookstores, to which I can only say that, the libel threat to Dave Walker aside, I’m very much of the view that bookstores are a good thing in their own right and that a bunch of honest people getting the shaft, from suppliers to former employees, many of whom were laid off with wages still owing to them when the chain folded and the Brewer’s started cherry-picking and asset-stripping the chain to maintain a few of the most profitable stores, is unequivocally a bad thing. I don’t much like people who go round shitting on the little guy and that, plus a bit of good old fashioned solidarity – many of the staff who lost their jobs were members of USDAW – was reason enough for me to take a look.

The upshot of all this was that, via a very helpful source, I managed to acquire most, if not all of the documentation that Brewer filed with the bankruptcy court and establish, amongst other thing, that the entity that he was seeking bankruptcy for wasn’t a US registered company, as the papers claimed, but a UK registered charitable trust.

Now here’s a curious thing.

The article that Google have deindexed following Brewer ‘s complaint of defamation is nothing more than a copy of a set of questions I emailed to him just before his backruptcy application was considered by the Texas bankruptcy court, in July, and, as you may well imagine, I didn’t get a response from Brewer at the time, not at any point since – not even a cease and desist notice. There is a very good reason for this – everything in that particular article is either substantially true or fair comment and the proof of that was published at the Ministry only a matter of a month or so later in a follow-up article which record the fact that Brewer’s application for bankruptcy had been dismissed with prejudice after the court found exactly what I had also found, that Brewer had supplied the court with false information about the legal entity for which he seeking bankruptcy protection.

Brewer was, subsequently, sanctioned by the Texas Court for his misconduct, which the motion for sanctions described as a ‘fraud on the court’:

Mr. Brewer and his firm engaged in a concerted scheme to mislead this Court and to file a bad faith bankruptcy case. Mr. Brewer’s action in failing to disclose the true name of the Debtor and the cancellation of its contract and assignment of those rights to another closely held company of Mr. Brewer is a fraud on this Court. A “fraud on the court” is an intentional act by an officer of the Court to deflect the Court from knowing all of the facts necessary to make an appropriate judicial decision on the matter before it…

…Brewer’s failure to properly identify the Debtor, his conflicts in representing the Debtor while simultaneously being its chairman, and his position in ENC and St. Stephen the Great Registered Charity are all matters of significance that should have been disclosed, but as the docket and pleadings in this case reflect, none of these key events was disclosed. Further, at the initial status conference Mr. Brewer failed to inform the Court that there was no longer any business of the Debtor to reorganize because of the cancellation of the agreement to operate the bookstores and the assignment of those rights to ENC.

Nevertheless, and despite there being clear evidence to refute Brewer’s claim of defamation actually published on the same blog as the ‘offending’ set of questions, Google bottled it in the face of a dubious legal threat and deindexed that particular page, some three months after the follow-up article which validates every single question in that particular post, and this all done is what, had I not decided to experiment with Google’s webmaster tools, would have been complete and utter secrecy.

I’ve now emailed Google to ask what needs to be done in order to get this particular page back into their index, after all this remains very much a live issue.

Brewer’s actions spawned over 30 claims to the Employment Tribunal Service, many of which are still ongoing.

There remain any number of small suppliers who are still owed money by Brewer, who had the nerve to claim that he tried to file for bankruptcy in the US because the charity couldn’t afford to go into insolvency proceedings in the UK.

There is an ongoing investigation by the Charity Commission.

And there’s a committed and dedicated group of people out there who are working away to try to obtain a little justice for the former employees and suppliers who’ve been shafted and to try to rescue something from this whole debacle and keep at least part of the former SPCK chain alive or, failing that, support new booksellers to step into the breach left by the demise of most of the chain.

Okay, to be honest, the Google thing is no more than a minor irritation, but it gives me a good excuse to flag up the work of the SPCK/SSG group. They’re good people, this is a good cause and they deserve altogether far more support than they’re actually getting at the moment. So, while I wouldn’t usually shill for links and Googlejuice, on this occasion I’ll make an exception – if you’re reading this, you have a blog and you’re stuck for something interesting to write about then think about giving the SPCK/SSG campaign a mention and helping to raise their profile.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments


Unity: thank you. Truly astonishing: are Google complete wimps? Have cross posted an excerpt:
Ask No Questions: Google De-index Unity’s Questions for J Mark Brewer

I’ve cross-posted the excluded piece.

3. Asingleblog

I’m astonished. Plain astonished.

Slightly off to one side: I used to work for Demon. Godfrey was still mail-bombing Demon employees across the company with vituperative novellas every few months six or seven years after the case. The case was ridiculous, the decision was appalling and the man is a waste of skin.

Regarding what you’re actually talking about; does this hook in at all to the ‘libel tourism’ issue that was being argued about recently?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. DonaldS

    If you’re interested in Google and/or UK (digital) libel law, you’re going to want to read this: http://bit.ly/OzQ7B

  2. DonaldS

    If you’re interested in Google and/or UK (digital) libel law, you’re going to want to read this: http://bit.ly/OzQ7B

  3. mattwardman

    Article at Ministry of Truth (wrongly) removed from Google, prob due to legal machinations. Full story: http://bit.ly/N1DcH

  4. mattwardman

    @davidmkeen Report pending. Have J Mark Brewer to swat again first. http://bit.ly/N1DcH

  5. Richard Rothwell

    RT: @mattwardman: Article at Ministry of Truth (wrongly) removed from Google, prob due to legal ploys. Full story: http://bit.ly/N1DcH

  6. Ask No Questions: Google De-index Unity’s Questions for J Mark Brewer « SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

    […] Unity’s latest Liberal Conspiracy column, Libel, Google and a cause worth supporting: Recently, I’ve been experimenting with Google’s Webmaster Tools and came across a rather […]

  7. mattwardman

    Article at Ministry of Truth (wrongly) removed from Google, prob due to legal machinations. Full story: http://bit.ly/N1DcH

  8. mattwardman

    @davidmkeen Report pending. Have J Mark Brewer to swat again first. http://bit.ly/N1DcH

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  11. Questions for J Mark Brewer: SPCK Bookshops Asset Stripping. Ministry of Truth cross-post. « SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

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