WordPress Yields to Putin

— WordPress censors Putin-Hitler mock photo on request of Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor

A couple of months ago, Russia’s state media regulator Roskomnadzor sent a complaint to WordPress demanding that it remove a doctored photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin dressed as Hitler, claiming the image is “prohibited for public distribution in the Russian Federation.”

The offending image, via https://belgarathblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/vladimir_putin-als-hitler.jpg:

vladimir_putin-als-hitlerAccording to the Lumen Database, a website that collects takedown requests of online content, WordPress has taken action against the German blog that hosts the image.

russian-takedown-demand-to-wordpress

Roskomnadzor’s September 27, 2016 complaint, via the Lumen Database

When you enter the offending URL into a Russian proxy, you get this message

unavailable-for-legal-reasons-wordpress

…an HTTP error code approved late last year by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), and which has been endorsed by WordPress.

WordPress has developed a good reputation for its principled support of freedom of speech.

In 2008, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg stated that his company “supports free speech and doesn’t shut people down for ‘uncomfortable thoughts and ideas,’ in fact, we’re blocked in several countries because of that.”

However, WordPress recently changed its policy on geo-blocking. Via my blog last week, the blogging service said that it now complies with censorship demands in order to ensure access to the bulk of WordPress.com for users within authoritarian countries, who would otherwise face more drastic punishment from their Internet service provider.

A list of WordPress blogs currently geo-blocked in Russia is available by clicking here.


See also: “Erdoğan Strikes Again,” my November 27, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of Turkish political blog following court order by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan: Turkey’s Trump?

Highly regarded Harvard Law Prof. Laurence Tribe weighs in on my blog post re: WordPress geo-block of Turkish political blog following complaint by Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Last week, I blogged about a Turkish political blog which was geo-blocked by WordPress following a complaint from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The complaint, in the form of a court order, requested that WordPress restrict access to the offending blog, claiming that satirical cartoons depicting the Turkish leader as a tyrannical dictator constitute “an attack on personality rights” and do not “reflect reality.”

Yesterday, I tweeted my item at First Amendment lawyer Popehat aka Ken White, whose blog I recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the intricacies of freedom of speech, after which it was re-tweeted by Laurence Tribe, a highly regarded Harvard Law Prof. whose former students include President Barack Obama and Senator Ted Cruz.

Via Twitter:

laurence-tribe-erdogan-trump

See also: “Erdoğan Strikes Again,” my November 27, 2016 item re: WordPress geo-block of Turkish political blog following court order by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Tyranny of Values

Downing Street used misleading data from “right-wing think tank” to “name and shame” universities that host “extremist” speakers, newly released e-mails show

Late last year, Downing Street unveiled its updated Prevent strategy, requiring universities and colleges to “stop extremists radicalising students on campuses.”

Citing work by Whitehall’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU), Downing Street claimed that in 2014 there were “70 events involving speakers who are known to have promoted rhetoric that aimed to undermine core British values of democracy.”

Honouring the former PM David Cameron’s pledge to “name and shame” institutions that host “hate speakers,” four universities were singled out: King’s College London, Kingston University, Queen Mary, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

pms-extremism-taskforce-tackling-extremism-in-universities-and-colleges-top-of-the-agenda

Downing Street’s September 17, 2015 press release

However, e-mails recently obtained via a public records request show that much of the data attributed to the EAU in the above press release – including information used to “name and shame” universities – was taken from a misleading July 2015 report by Student Rights, an arm of “right-wing think tank” the Henry Jackson Society.

“Striking similarities” between the press release and the Student Rights report were first highlighted in this October 1, 2015 Times Higher Education article by Jack Grove.

For instance, the Student Rights report “lists the four London universities mentioned by Downing Street in its own table of most-visited universities. It also includes a list of former students later convicted of terrorism-related offences – of whom eight are also mentioned in the press release.”

student-rights-downing-street-data-comparison

Top: The Student Rights report / Bottom: Downing Street’s press release

The appropriated data was used to put a favourable spin on the government’s controversial counter-terrorism measures in a supporting statement by David Cameron, who prefaced his comments about “making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish” with a caveat about not “oppressing free speech.”

But efforts to assuage concerns about the possible chilling effect on free speech failed to convince, and the PM’s arguments in favour of limiting speech faltered under scrutiny.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron

Via the Independent, two of the four universities “named and shamed” by Downing Street denied hosting any of the so-called “hate speakers” listed in the press release, calling into question the premise that British universities are “hotbeds” of terrorist activity.

There were also questions about the list of convicted former students, two of whom were supposedly radicalised during their studies.

Via Times Higher Education:

“Both reports cite the example of the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to set off a bomb on a Detroit-bound plane in 2009, even though an inquiry by University College London found no evidence to suggest that he was radicalised while a student there.”

student-rights-downing-street-comparison

Top: The Student Rights report / Bottom: Downing Street’s press release

Roshonara Choudhry, who was jailed for life for stabbing Labour MP Stephen Timms in 2010 shortly after dropping out of King’s College London, also appears in both documents. She admitted to having been radicalised by watching over a hundred hours of speeches on YouTube, and said she dropped out of King’s because she felt it to be ‘anti-Islamic.’”

So how did Downing Street get it so wrong?

As this “URGENT” September 16, 2015 e-mail shows, Downing Street’s press office was still in the process of collecting data the morning prior to publication.

redacted-september-16-2015-e-mail

Per this quick response to the above request to fact-check an early draft of the press release, the office was then urged to “amend the figures for numbers of events in 2014.”

redacted-september-16-2015-e-mail-reply

It was suggested using the dubious Student Rights report in response to the office’s request for “case studies on extremists speaking on campuses.”¹

redacted-september-16-2015-e-mail-reply-2

Downing Street has yet to substantiate its claim that in 2014 “at least 70 events featuring hate speakers were held on campuses” – the only figure in the press release to have come from the EAU – with the Home Office refusing to provide a more detailed breakdown.

Assuming this figure is accurate, why did one of Downing Street’s internal fact-checkers request a correction? Why did Downing Street ignore calls to amend figures later used to smear British universities?

To ban or not to ban?

Also contained in the e-mails is a trial script” of the press release, plus an early draft of a scolding letter from Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson to former president of the National Union of Students (NUS) Megan Dunn.

As stated in the published version of the press release, the updated Prevent guidance requires universities to ensure those espousing extremist views do not go unchallenged.”

This means that when a university suspects an external speaker of holding “extremist” views, they must not be allowed to speak unless the “risk” of allowing them to do so is “mitigated by challenging the speaker…with someone holding opposing opinions.”

Anti-Prevent demonstration held in 2015

Downing Street had originally pushed for a statutory ban on “extremist speakers, including “non-violent extremists. The plans were were reportedly scrapped in March last year over concerns about free speech.

However, as this trial script” of the press release shows, Downing Street was still toying with the idea of a ban on “extremist speakers right up until September 16, 2015, just five days before the updated guidance came into force.

home-office-trial-script-september-16-2015

In May this year, the government announced its intention to revive the proposed ban.

The plans were criticised by the police lead for Prevent Simon Cole, who warned that a ban risked creating a “thought police,” and suggested it was questionable whether the proposed legislation was even operationally enforceable.

Jo Johnson’s letter to the NUS

In the published version of the Jo Johnson letter, the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) minister urged the NUS to end its overt opposition” to Prevent, citing the legal duty that will be placed on universities and colleges.”

However, per this early draft of the letter, Johnson chastised the NUS for its supposedly “inaccurate, outdated” and “misguided opinions,” which he claimed left no space for “balanced debate.”

jo-johnson-letter-to-megan-dunn-early-draft

Responding to the revised letter, Megan Dunn said that she was confused about why the government was so focused on the NUS, as “students’ unions are not public bodies and therefore not subject to the act.”

She added: “The NUS is a campaigning organisation, so our opposition to this agenda, based on both principled and practical concerns…is both valid and appropriate.”

Preventing Prevent

Since the updated Prevent strategy was brought into force, it’s been reported that the British government’s loose definition of extremism” is being used by other countries to crackdown on non-violent” dissent.

Last month, the prisoner advocacy group CAGE published a startling report on the junk science” underpinning the Prevent strategy’s assessment criteria for identifying at-risk” individuals at the so-called pre-criminal” stage of radicalisation.

The report prompted more than 140 academics and experts, including the renowned linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, to sign an open letter voicing concern over the lack of proper scientific scrutiny or public critique.”

Last week, the Open Justice Society Initiative published its report recommending a “major government rethink of the “badly-flawed Prevent strategy, particularly on its use in the education and health system.

The report highlights multiple, mutually reinforcing structural flaws, the foreseeable consequence of which is a serious risk of human rights violations” including the right against discrimination, as well the right to freedom of expression, among other rights.”

¹At the time of this e-mail, information from the Student Rights report had already been added to the press release, although it’s unclear when.

The Bitch is Back

— Carter-Ruck Lawyers passes the baton to Schillings partners in Elton John three-way tabloid scandal, but where does that leave Internet users threatened with legal action?

The juiciest celebrity news story of 2016 went unreported in the UK thanks to strong-arm legal tactics by David Furnish, husband of pop singer Elton John.

As you didn’t read in the newspapers, Furnish was allegedly given permission from his famous hubby to participate in a three-way sexscapade with British businessman Daniel Laurence and his husband Pieter Van den Bergh in a paddling pool of olive oil.

The story as reported by the National Enquirer in April (source)

When Laurence and Van den Bergh decided to go public with the story, Furnish took out an injunctiondubbed the “cheater’s charter”preventing papers in England and Wales from revealing the names of those involved.

But efforts to squash the story didn’t end there.

Earlier this year, non-UK Twitter users began tweeting e-mails they received from Twitter’s legal department demanding that they delete tweets outing John and Furnish as the celebrity couple first identified in court documents as “YMA” and “PJS.”

neil-saunders-twitter-legalsource

As an experiment, I set up a pseudonymous Twitter profile and tweeted about the story.¹

YMA PJS Tweet

Sure enough, within a few days I received the following e-mail.

Twitter Legal Notice

Twitter didn’t respond to multiple requests for information about the complainant and the nature of their complaint, so I took my enquiry to Carter-Ruck Lawyers, a British law firm known for using aggressive legal tactics to squash negative news stories about its celebrity clientele.

According to court documents, Carter-Ruck represented Furnish when the National Enquirer broke the story in AprilHowever, when I asked Carter-Ruck’s Managing Partner Nigel Tait about his firm’s legal shenanigans, he forwarded my questions to defamation lawyer Jenny Afia of Schillings partners, another British firm specialising in reputation and privacy.

Afia declined to comment on whether Schillings represents Furnish, or if it intends to pursue offending Twitter users.

— Don’t shoot me I’m only the messenger

In April, UK-based anti-piracy company Web Sheriff filed 12 copyright complaints with Google requesting it remove a total of 447 URLs linking to articles about the scandal.

web-sheriff-requestssource

Among the websites flagged for removal was TomWinnifrith.com, whose namesakea prominent British entrepreneur and bloggerouted the couple in April.

Although Google ultimately didn’t enforce the request, Winnifrith said his web hosting provider took down his website following a legal threat from Web Sheriff.

Investment columnist Tom Winnifrith (source)

“WS [Web Sheriff] contacted our hosting company and bullied it into taking our site down and only putting it back up if we pulled the article,” said Winnifrith. “That hoster cravenly did this even though WS had no power to threaten.”

He continued: “I asked WS on whose authority it was demanding we pull content since that authority was actually vested with the UK Courts not a US law firm. I asked if it was acting for Mr. John. It refused to reply.”

When I asked Web Sheriff similar questions, I received no reply.

Self-proclaimed “Web Sheriff” John Giacobbi (source)

It isn’t the only time an article about the scandal was pulled following legal threats.

In May, an article by Irish political activist and blogger Paddy J. Manning was pulled from MercatorNet, an Australian opinion-based news website.²

According to Manning, MercatorNet was forced to take down the article after the website’s web hosting provider was threatened with legal action.

Irish electoral candidate Paddy J. Manning (source)

“MercatorNet warned me that the website was run on ‘the smell of an oily rag’ so that if they were sued in Australian courts they would capitulate,” said Manning. “They received several warnings but no effective legal correspondence outside of threatening e-mails.”

He continued: “It was their hosting company who were threatened successfully with a court action against their mirror/backup in Florida. No legal action was taken against the host; the threat was enough.

“This was a perfect lesson in the brittleness of the web, how weak some constituent parts are and how quickly they snap.”

— Redressing an unfurnished press

Thanks to the Internet, unflattering details about celebrities’ personal lives are accessible to anyone who wants to know. Ironically, there appears to be little public interest in Furnish’s affair, as demonstrated by the scanty coverage it initially received in the US.

Per the Streisand Effect, efforts to suppress the story only helped it along; according to a recent YouGov poll, one in four Brits already know the identity of YMA and PJS.

daily-mail-elton-john-david-furnish-perfect-marriageA recent edition of the Daily Mail (source)

It’s perhaps an indication of the futility of Furnish’s efforts that, since April, Google has removed just two of the 447 offending URLs flagged by Web Sheriff.

However, the residual chill from the injunction can be felt as far as the US and Canada. The National Enquirer and the National Postboth of which were flagged by Web Sheriffare just two publications whose articles about the scandal are unavailable in the UK.

I’ll ask the Enquirer, the Post, and others about their articles and blog the results.

Stay tuned.


¹I live in Northern Ireland, therefore not bound by the injunction in England and Wales.

²Manning’s original blog post about the scandal was also geo-blocked by Google Blogger following legal threats. However, he described this form of censorship as “patchy,” as the post could sometimes be viewed in one US state, but not in another. His tweets about the scandal were also geo-blocked by Twitter.

Worst in Show

Police Scotland arrests man for Nazi dog video – I’ve asked authorities to advise dog owners on how to behave their pooches online

Police in Scotland have reportedly arrested a 28-year-old man from North Lanarkshire on hate crime charges over a video he allegedly posted online of a dog gesturing a Nazi salute.

Via the Guardian:

The Guardian May 9 pug hate crime

The video/apology, via SWNS TV (trigger warning – fascist pug):

I’ve asked Police Scotland to confirm the arrest and to further advise on what precautions dog owners can take to avoid causing offence online. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Peter M. Heimlich for linking me to the pug-nacious video above.

See also: The #ThinkBeforeYouTweet Police, my April 10, 2016 item on the Greater Glasgow Police force’s warning to social media users to “think before you post or you may receive a visit from us this weekend.”

Q&A with Peter Tatchell

Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights” – Renowned human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell answers my questions on racism, transphobia and freedom of speech

For over 40 years, British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has worked tirelessly to advance the causes of freedom, civil rights and social equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide.

As a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front, Tatchell helped organise Britain’s first gay pride rally in 1972. He is also a founding member oLGBT activist group Outrage!, known for its theatrical style of campaigning and flair for political agitprop.

In February this year, Tatchell was forced to fend off unsubstantiated accusations of racism, transphobia and of having incited violence against transgender people from National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT officer” Fran Cowling.

To recap: Tatchell and Cowling were scheduled to speak at an event at Canterbury Christ Church University on Feb. 15. However, Cowling declined to appear on stage with Tatchell, citing an open letter he had signed in the Observer newspaper last year decrying the NUS’ policy of deplatforming politically unpopular individuals from speaking at universities.

On Feb. 22, over 160 academics and activists signed an open letter condemning Tatchell for “bullying, vilifying, and inciting a media furor” against Cowling (you can read Tatchell’s account of what happened by clicking here).

I contacted Tatchell a few months ago to ask him about the incident with Cowling and the broader issues around freedom of speech. He generously agreed to answer my questions.

Q. Why do you think freedom of speech is so important?

A. Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights and should be defended robustly. It can only be legitimately restricted by the law when it involves harmful libels, harassment, menaces, threats and incitements to violence.

As someone who has risked life and limb for LGBT rights, how do you respond to Cowling’s accusations of transphobia and of inciting violence against transgender people?

She has produced no evidence for those preposterous claims – nor has anyone else. It is pure fabrication.

Are you disappointed in the response from the 160+ academics and activists who signed an open letter condemning you for leaking Cowling’s emails?

Those academics are part of a global network of sectarians who have been attacking me and other activists for several years. They spend more time [complaining] than fighting real racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and corporate power. Their open letter is full of the usual fabrications and unsubstantiated allegations.

What’s your opinion of the NUS policy on “no-platforming” speakers with offensive or politically incorrect views?

No-platforming should be restricted to people who incite violence, such as some far right and Islamist demagogues.

Why is it important that students listen to, engage with and debate people who hold these views?

Hateful and extremist ideas should be challenged, protested and refuted. Bad ideas are most effectively countered by good ideas backed up by rational argument and evidence. Heavy-handed legal restrictions on free speech undermine the democratic, liberal values that extremists oppose and that we cherish.

Bans and censorship don’t defeat bigotry. They merely suppress it. Whereas, exposing bigotry in open debate helps discredit and defeat it, as happened to Nick Griffin and the BNP. Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by good ideas.

How would you persuade student activists like Cowling, who perhaps don’t know what it’s like for people living in places such as Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe, that free speech is worth fighting for?

Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. It can only be legitimately restricted when someone makes false, damaging allegations – such as that a person is a rapist or tax fraudster – or when they engage in threats, harassment or the endorsement of violence.

A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offence in their time.

Generations of British people fought and suffered to secure the right to free speech. In many parts of the world people are still suffering for speaking out, including in Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia. It is an insult to their sacrifices when students and others are so quick to suppress the free speech of others they disagree with.


To learn more about Peter Tatchell’s humanitarian work, click here.
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