THE MAIN PLAYERS
Alisher Usmanov: Uzbek billionaire, current owner of 21% of Arsenal FC.
Schillings: Lawyers for Alisher Usmanov.
Fasthosts: UK-based provider of web hosting.
Clive Summerfield: Reseller for Fasthosts and manager of two dedicated web servers provided by them.
Craig Murray: Former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan; site [www.craigmurray.co.uk] hosted by Fasthosts via Clive Summerfield.
Tim Ireland: Non-aligned political blogger; site [www.bloggerheads.com] hosted by Fasthosts via Clive Summerfield.
SUMMARY OF EVENTS
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On 02 September 2007, Craig Murray (the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan), wrote and published an article on his weblog [http://www.craigmurray.co.uk/] about Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born billionaire who had just bought a 14.58% stake in the English team Arsenal Football Club and announced his intention to increase his stake to 25%
Schillings, a London law firm claiming to specialise in 'media, entertainment, internet, new media and sports legal issues, particularly defamation law', issued a legal threat to Fasthosts demanding removal of the article within 24 hours.
This action bypassed the author of the article (Craig Murray) and the reseller for Fasthosts (Clive Summerfield) who managed two dedicated webservers, including one that hosted Craig Murray's website, and a few other personal, professional and/or political websites.
This was the first in a series of four complaints involving Craig Murray's website and the website of Tim Ireland [http://www.bloggerheads.com/]. Correspondence from Schillings was only shared with the reseller on that first occasion. From the second (minor) complaint onwards, Clive Summerfield and the clients involved had little to no idea exactly what content Schillings objected to and/or on what legal grounds they were making their complaint.
On the third complaint, relating to a post made by Tim Ireland on Bloggerheads.com that included a heavily-censored excerpt from Craig Murray's article, Clive was given a mere 15 minutes in which to remove the article in question. This deadline was met.
Upon the fourth complaint from Schillings (on 20 September 2007), which related not to any new articles written by Craig Murray, but to two older articles in his archives (one of which was almost two years old), Clive Summerfield immediately deactivated Craig Murray's website and told Fasthosts of his intention to begin a dialogue between Schillings, Murray and himself. Fasthosts were invited to take part in that dialogue.
Fasthosts responded by closing down not just Craig Murray's website, but the entire account. Both servers managed by Clive were removed from service resulting in the closure of the websites of Craig Murray, Tim Ireland, Clive Summerfield, Bob Piper (Labour Councillor for Sandwell), Boris Johnson (Conservative MP for Henley), and many other bystanders. Only two of the dozen or so websites involved published anything about Alisher Usmanov.
A backlash began amongst bloggers, starting at the website of Justin McKeating [http://www.chickyog.net/] and soon spread to the news media. It was at this time that Fasthosts issued a statement to the press saying:
"There were certain statements on one individual site which we asked were removed because they were potentially defamatory. The customer was repeatedly advised of the breach and upon failing to permanently remove the content in question their customer account was terminated, the unfortunate result being the possible downtime of other unrelated websites of which we understand boris-johnson.com was one."In reality, Clive Summerfield had done everything within his power to meet with demands that often came without explanation or documentation. Further, the fourth and final complaint not only appears to be on very shaky ground, it could in no way be construed as a failure by Clive Summerfield to meet with previous demands.
Since then, Clive Summerfield and Tim Ireland have issued a request to Fasthosts for all relevant Schillings correspondence, a retraction and/or correction of the above statement, an apology, plus a fair offer of compensation for all parties concerned:
Fasthosts did not reply to that request, and, at the time of writing, have also stopped taking questions from the press regarding this matter.
In effect, Schillings had a number of articles removed or edited with only the threat of legal action (as opposed to legal action itself).
The constant barrage of threats (of varying substance) was certainly a contributing factor to Fasthosts deciding that they were better off out of it... and it was this decision that led to the sudden and unexpected closure of the sites of Craig Murray, Tim Ireland, Clive Summerfield, Bob Piper, Boris Johnson and others.
Thursday 06 Sep 2007 (am) - Fasthosts receive takedown request from Schillings for a recent post by Craig Murray [Craig Murray - 02 Sep 2007: Alisher Usmanov, potential Arsenal chairman is a....]. Clive Summerfield, is given 24 hours to remove the item.
Thursday 06 Sep 2007 (pm) - Post removed and covering post put up [Craig Murray - 06 Sep 2007: Usmanov redux]. Immediate request made for a copy of the relevant correspondence from Schillings, which was later shared with Clive Summerfield.
Friday 07 Sep 2007 (am) - Schillings contact Fasthosts to request removal of phrase "less than salubrious" from covering post [Craig Murray - 06 Sep 2007: Usmanov redux]. Fasthosts contact Clive Summerfield by phone, amendment made within minutes. No relevant correspondence from Schillings is disclosed beyond this simple instruction.
Wednesday 13 Sep 2007 (am) - Fasthosts receive takedown request from Schillings regarding a post at Bloggerheads (a separate website hosted under same reseller account); [Tim Ireland - 06 Sep 2007: Alisher Usmanov: how will bloggers and Arsenal fans react as the screws tighten?]. This post includes highly censored passages from Murray's article, but the exact content that offended has yet to be determined (see below). Fasthosts email Clive Summerfield, and phone at 8:45am, giving 9:00am deadline!!! Tim Ireland strips post of all content before deadline, pending details and/or legal advice (sadly, no relevant correspondence from Schillings was disclosed beyond the demand for removal). Fasthosts mention their terms and conditions of service to Clive Summerfield, who confirms that his terms are in line with theirs and that his clients will be reminded of their responsibilities.
Note from Tim #1: I still don't know exactly what it was about my article that Schillings objected to, because Fasthosts failed to share the relevant Schillings correspondence with Clive or myself and - with this complaint (complete with a 15 minute deadline) - even failed to give us the scant details required to avoid making the same mistake again. In my view, the article was pretty benign and, ironically, primarily discussed the effect of blogs on search engines and the dangerous territory Schillings had come barging into. Here's what I had to say at the time:
I'm not sure what Usmanov expected when he took on this high-profile investment. Judging by the pre-emptive strike on mainstream media (as outlined in the extract above), Usmanov did expect some unwanted attention, but I'm sensing a distinct lack of awareness about the way crowds behave in this country.The post also included this screen capture, which is published here exactly as it was in the 'offending' post [Tim Ireland - 06 Sep 2007: Alisher Usmanov: how will bloggers and Arsenal fans react as the screws tighten?]. The following screen capture shows the top search result for 'alisher usmanov' on 06 Sep 2007:
Please note that this screen capture does not contain any sensitive material from Craig's recent article. A grab of the Yahoo result was also published at this time with sensitive information removed. Please also note that, while Google is responding to the recent inbound link to Craig Murray's latest article, it also chooses to display a much earlier article by Murray [Craig Murray - 30 Oct 2005: Craig Murray - Opposition leader tortured with drugs] as a potential result. To make this point clear; this search result was visible to most UK web users on 06 Sep 2007.
At some stage between the 6th and 20th of September, Google re-indexed Craig Murray's site in full. This meant that it no longer presented Murray's recent article [Craig Murray - 02 Sep 2007: Alisher Usmanov, potential Arsenal chairman is a....] in its cache; according to Google, the recent article they considered to be one of the most relevant to the query 'alisher usmanov' was gone, but the site many web users regarded to be relevant was still there. The algorithm chose to display the much earlier article by Murray [Craig Murray - 30 Oct 2005: Craig Murray - Opposition leader tortured with drugs] on its own instead.
It may have escaped Schillings attention early on, but as the lone result it could not be missed. The following is a screen capture of the top search result for 'alisher usmanov' from 20 Sep 2007:
There was no deliberate attempt by Craig Murray to publish a new article about Usmanov at this stage; Google simply chose to present an old one as a relevant search result... and not for the first time. Anybody looking at the page in question would be able to see the 30 Oct 2005 time-stamp quite clearly. If they were any doubt about the authenticity of its stated vintage, the main page of Craig Murray's weblog was actually captured and stored by the Web Archive project on the very day it was published (see URL for time stamp; 20051030 = 30 Oct 2005).
This article was later extended by 6 paragraphs, but probably almost immediately and certainly no later than 02 Sep 2006 and none of the additional content mentions Alisher Usmanov by name anyway.
The evidence clearly shows that this was a very old article by Craig Murray, and that no effort was made to republish it or even retro moderate it in a way designed to outmanoeuvre Usmanov's lawyers.
Keener minds with more expertise may want to cast an eye over this, but it was my understanding that you lose your chance to sue over libel or slander after a year; in this example, we're talking about nearly two years. Back to the timeline...
Thursday 20 Sep 2007 (am) - Email received from Fasthosts. They have suspended one of two servers managed by Clive Summerfield in response to a further takedown request from Schillings regarding two more of Craig Murray's articles/posts, one from June 2007 [Craig Murray - 01 Jun 2007: Russian Journalist Murders, and Gazprom], the other from Oct 2005 [Craig Murray - 30 Oct 2005: Craig Murray - Opposition leader tortured with drugs]. Neither of these articles had been mentioned in any previous correspondence that we were aware of. On the suspended server were the websites of Craig Murray and Tim Ireland. On the same server were the websites of Clive Summerfield and Bob Piper (Labour Councillor for Sandwell), who hadn't published a single word about Alisher Usmanov. The server is unsuspended following contact between Fasthosts and Clive Summerfield, who is unable to get hold of Craig Murray or anybody with editing access to the weblog; Clive instead uses his upper admin access to the now-functional server to halt Craig's site and Craig's site alone. Anyone trying to visit Craig Murray's website sees an Apache default page indicating that the server is up but that there is a problem with Craig's site.
Thursday 20 Sep 2007 (midday) - Email sent to Fasthosts by Clive Summerfield. Informs them that Craig's site is down and will remain down until the end of the day at least. Clive also states that he intends to try and get a dialog going with himself, Schillings and Craig. He asks Fasthosts if they wish to be included and makes mention of the BT/AOL case.
Thursday 20 Sep 2007 (pm) - Email from Fasthosts. States that they no longer wish to be involved and have terminated Clive's account with them. Both servers managed by Clive are now down resulting in the closure of the websites of Craig Murray, Tim Ireland, Clive Summerfield, Bob Piper, Boris Johnson (Conservative MP for Henley), and many other bystanders. At 2pm, Fasthosts inform Clive that he has 48 hours to get everything off the two servers.
Thursday 20 Sep 2007 (pm) - Clive given access to servers via "lights-out" console in order to perform backups.
Note from Tim #2 - For those who don't know, this is the equivalent of transferring a tanker load of water with the aid of a single teaspoon. Cheers, Fasthosts.
Thursday 20 Sep 2007 (pm) - Clive sends request to Fasthosts pointing out that it is impossible to download backups via "lights-out" within the 48-hour 'off the servers' deadline they have issued.
Thursday 20 Sep 2007 (pm) - Justin McKeating publishes the post that informs users of these websites of recent developments. Bloggers from the left, right, middle and basement begin to express their disapproval in notable numbers.
Friday 21 Sep 2007 (midday) - Fasthosts bring both servers back and re-enable Clive's account to allow him to backup content. At the same time they unwittingly bring up Craig's website, complete with offending posts!!! As Clive has already started backups and DNS propagation, and so stops all sites on both servers; this saves Fasthosts from the embarrassment of Craig's posts reappearing.
Friday 21 Sep 2007 (pm) - The Guardian reports:
Fasthosts Internet confirmed that Mr Johnson's site was disabled as part of a clampdown on a separate web address. "Where concerns are raised to us about a website, such as in this case, in accordance with our normal procedures, we will investigate the website content," (Fasthosts) said in a statement. "In this case, we examined a website for potentially defamatory material and communicated to the customer that they had indeed breached the terms and conditions for Fasthosts Internet hosting. The customer was repeatedly advised of the breach and upon failing to permanently remove the content in question. Their customer account was terminated, the unfortunate result being the possible downtime of other unrelated websites ... of which we understand boris-johnson.com was one." Responsibility for the content of websites lay solely with their owners and publishers, the company added. A spokesman for Mr Usmanov said he was not aware of any reason why Mr Johnson's website should have been taken down. "We only requested the removal of specific statements and postings with regard to one individual site" he said.-
Note from Tim #3 - The person who issued the statement for Fasthosts really should take a close look at our timeline and see if he/she wants to revise it. Also... *possible* downtime? Try very real downtime; they should know... they flipped the switch. Schillings also appear to be confused about he number of sites involved, but perhaps it's because they're busy calling "Your ball!"
Meanwhile, Clive and I were in no position to counter what Fasthosts had to say, as we were at their mercy until we retrieved the data. Fasthosts' statement appeared again the next day, and Schillings again called the ball for Fasthosts (albeit in a gentle manner)...
Saturday 22 Sep 2007 (am) - The Times reports:
Mr Usmanov’s spokesman blamed a technical glitch by the web host. “There were certain statements on one individual site which we asked were removed because they were potentially defamatory.” Fasthosts Internet said: “The customer was repeatedly advised of the breach and upon failing to permanently remove the content in question their customer account was terminated, the unfortunate result being the possible downtime of other unrelated websites of which we understand boris-johnson.com was one.”
Saturday 22 Sep 2007 (am) - Data recovery complete.
Saturday 22 Sep 2007 (4pm) - The deadline for server closure has passed. Clive notes that both Fasthosts servers are still live.
Note from Tim #4 - An error, or were we getting slack for the initial delay in providing a decent transfer facility, or because of the online attention and/or press we were receiving? One can't be sure A slightly different and tight-lipped line emerges from Fasthosts from Monday onwards, but this could easily have a lot to do with them speaking with a journalist who knows a thing or two about IT...
Monday 24 Sep 2007 (pm) - The Register reports:
Fasthosts said Murray's account had been terminated according to industry standard practice. It refused to say why unrelated websites had been hit by the takedown...Tuesday 25 Sep 2007 (am) - Clive informs Fasthosts that all backups are finished, and receives the following reply:
----- Original Message -----
From: Abuse Support Team [firstname.lastname@example.org]
To: Clive Summerfield
Sent: Tue, 25 Sep 2007 12:10:00 +0100
Subject: 1408052#[snip] Your email enquiry (PLEASE DO NOT CHANGE SUBJECT)
Dear Mr Summerfield,
Account Number: [snip]
Ticket Reference Number: [snip]
As you've completed retrieval of the data you require could you now instruct as us to how you would like to proceed with your account?
Fasthosts Internet Ltd
Tuesday 25 Sep 2007 (pm) - Clive informs Fasthosts that as all sites are moved, they can close the account.
Tuesday 25 Sep 2007 (pm) - We issue a request for a response to several issues, statements and developments that we considered unfair, unacceptable or untrue. Fasthosts are given 24 hours to respond.
Tuesday 25 Sep 2007 (pm) - The Register reports:
Fasthosts says it acted according to standard industry practice and has declined to answer Reg questions.Wednesday 25 Sep 2007 (pm) - The deadline passes, with no response from Fasthosts.
Note from Tim #5 – Which, to me, seems odd, because they were awfully mouthy when they held all the cards.
[Fasthosts will be given a further 12 hours to respond to the above timeline and submit any corrections or clarifications they wish to make.]