Whilst reading the Guardian’s RSS feed on my iPod Touch on the bus yesterday I came across an article entitled “The internet – a threat to free speech?“. The opening sentence was intriguing “It’s probably not the best time to be seen defending an MP, but here goes“. In the article Padraig Reidy described how “Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has been pilloried for likening the Daily Telegraph’s handling of the MPs’ expenses story to “torture” – drip-feeding information and keeping MPs waiting nervously by the phone each morning, awaiting the dreaded call“. And this complaint, it seems, was published on her blog, in which Nadine Dorries questioned the motives of the Telegraph and its owners, the Barclay brothers.
Now although I have little sympathy for Tory MPs, I am concerned with the news that “solicitors acting for the Telegraph and the Barclay brothers sent [a] complaint about not just to Dorries, but to her internet service provider, TDMWeb” which resulted in Dorries’ blog being taken down by the ISP. And although the blog was later restored, it seems that the material the Telegraph and the Barclays found so offensive has been removed.
The Blog of Nadine Dorries MP was launched in August 2006. It has a blog policy on the home page stating:
“It’s simple. Be nice. If you try and misinterpret the position I have laid out in a blog; if you swear, are rude, abusive, aggressive or threatening, I will not publish. If you want to be any of the above, there are lots of other sites you can go to.
This blog is civil, respectful and will try always to be caring (except when in verbally, armed, political combat) I will not tolerate the harsh political, aggressive tones accepted on other blogs. Anyone who breaks these rules will be sent to the naughty step until they learn to behave. I have a very keen nose for Trolls, so beware.“
Although I’ve not read any of the posts on the blog I’m pleased that an MP has been blogging for that length of time. And I’m very concerned that a newspaper can insist that a critical blog post can be removed and that the ISP will cave in. A clear example of the dangers of flaws in the legal system which can cause an ISP to cave into such threats. And we should be pleased we won’t experience such problems in our sector.
Of could we? I recently looked at the “IT ACCEPTABLE USE POLICY” at the University of Bath, which covers us of blogs hosted at the University. This states that “You must not use University computing services to harass, defame, libel, slander, intimidate, impersonate or otherwise abuse another person“. It goes on to state that a breach of the AUP can include “Copyright infringement“. Hmm. A search reveals I’ve written several blogs posts containing the words ‘George Bush’ – and they were unlikely to have been complementary! And I’ve also embedded various images, YouTube videos, etc. which may infringe copyright. So if this blog was hosted on the University of Bath blog server there could be a risk that I could face pressure to moderate my posts. A very slight risks, I’ll admit, and I would be prepared to justify the content I’ve published. But if the IT Services department was as easily intimidated as the provider of Dorries’ blog, there might be a risk.
I’ve also recently come across consortia agreements which contained a clause that organisations would not publish content which critical of other signatories (this wasn’t the exact wording, please note). So if, for example, JISC has signed up to such an agreement and I was posting on a JISC Involve blog, I might not be able to post anything critical of other partner organisations. Now I don’t think such possibilities are likely. But, in light of the Nadine Dorries incident I think we need to be careful.
I could imagine some academics or academic disciplines in which one could envisage tensions between the individual and the institution. And the clause in the JISC Involve blog terms and conditions which states that JISC has the “right (though not the obligation) to, in JISC’s sole discretion (i) refuse or remove any content that, in JISC’s reasonable opinion, violates any JISC policy or is in any way harmful or objectionable” seems to set a particulurly worying precedent – content can be removed if someone in JISC deems it “in any way harmful or objectionable“. I wonder if this post, which expresses concerns over this clause, could be considered objectionable and subject to removal if my blog was hosted on the JISC Involve service?
In order to avoid such risks wouldn’t it be desirable to make use of an external blog provider will whom one has a disinterested relationship? And if the service provider in based overseas we might avoid the pressures which have occurred in the Dorries blog case. WordPress pr Blogger, anyone? And that includes MPs such as Nadine Dorries.