The perils of blogging: the Alisher Usmanov affair

What with party conference and now general election preparation – not to mention the normal day-to-day work for my constituents – I’ve not previously got to blogging about the Alisher Usmanov affair.

If you don’t know – he is an Uzbek billionaire (and then some) and owns a large chunk of Arsenal football club. Craig Murray – former British ambassador to Uzbekistan – made various allegations about him in his book. No libel writ. But he then repeated them on his website. Result?

Threatening legal letters to the firm hosting his website. Firm then decided to pull the computer on which his website was hosted – removing from the internet both Craig Murray’s site, but also a host of other sites from people who had never even mentioned Alisher Usmanov. Also caught in this was Tim Ireland (of Bloggerheads website, and who had also mentioned the allegations) – his site was pulled by the firm too.

I’ve not actually read Murray’s book or blog – so I don’t know whether the allegations are true or not – but that’s not the point. There are two free speech problems here.

First – I’m all for people who publish things online being held accountable for what they say – but people who publish online should also have reasonable protection. It is possible to get an injunction against a book, newspaper etc before going ahead with a full action for libel – but there are hurdles you have to meet and in the end you have to make your case in court and win if you want to stop the allegations being distributed. That’s not what has happened here as far as I can see – instead it was a case of threatening legal letters and – bing! – the site went.

Second – those innocent sites caught in the crossfire – including Tory MP and London Mayor wannabe Boris Johnson and Labour councillor Bob Piper. These and others do seem to be back online – but they shouldn’t have gone in the first place.

In many ways the internet – and blogging community – has shown its resilience through this, with widespread support online for the principle of free speech (and far more publicity about the allegations I suspect than if the lawyers had never sent those letters!) There’s an impressive list of blogging supporters at Tim Ireland’s new/temporary site.

Now – libel law isn’t my area of speciality, but clearly what’s happened here leads to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with our laws.

There’s much that is wrong with our libel laws overall (basically – too much power given to the rich who are willing to gamble on the libel lottery), but it may also be there are some smaller, more immediate changes that would be feasible to pursue in Parliament, even though I’m sceptical of the odds of getting a major libel law overhaul in the near future. Something to ponder – and I’m open to suggestions.

(Update: I’ve corrected the text above as more than one legal letter was sent – I originally wrote about “one” letter)