Lord Chancellor shuts down Web site

Civil liberties groups decry move as political "pressure"

Civil liberties advocates were furious Thursday following the closure of a Web site for carrying allegedly "offensive" material.

The Web site was removed by Kingston Internet following requests from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, who complained that a site set up by James Hulbert was offensive. Hulbert used his Web site to criticise a number of judges following alleged bad treatment at the hands of the courts.

Yaman Akdeniz, director of CyberRights and CyberLiberties, believes it is a case of political pressure being brought to bear on ISPs. "Receiving a letter from the Lord Chancellor is bound to have a significant impact on any ISP. He is using his political position to pressurise Kingston," Akdeniz said. He does not believe Mr Hulbert's Web site is offensive: "It might offend certain judges but they should take individual action against Mr Hulbert."

The individual's right to publish on the Internet was spotlighted back in March in the Laurence Godfrey versus Demon Internet case. In that case Justice Morland ruled ISPs were liable for offensive material if they had received notice such material existed.

Akdeniz believes the case has had a major impact on service providers. "ISPs are scared and many don't have the legal departments of Demon or AOL," he said. "What can they do? They are bound to take material down."

Civil liberties experts are worried about the precedent being set by both cases. GreenNet, an ISP which supports radical political and environmental views, has found itself a victim of defamation laws with multinationals pressurising it to remove content they did not like. Biwater, a UK utility company, attempted litigation against GreenNet following the publication of articles critical of the company.

Andy Whitmore, one of GreenNet's coordinators, believes the Irving case is symptomatic of the pressure government can bring to bear on the Net. "It seems rather ironic that the judiciary that will be asked to judge in defamation cases would themselves close down content critical of themselves," he said. "A judicial government body is using its power to silence a critic. It is clear the government cannot be trusted to police the Internet," he said.

Laurence Godfrey is pleased to see an ISP acting on the ruling made in his fight with Demon. "I haven't read the content in this case but I am glad to note that, as a result of the precedent made in the ruling in my case against Demon, some ISPs are behaving responsibly in acting to remove offensive material," he said.

Neither the Lord Chancellors department nor Kingston Internet were available to comment at press time.