by David Miller
When the anger of a prominent young thinktanker causes one of the world’s largest web-hosting companies to shut down a site that monitors lobbying and transparency, it is time to start asking questions about online free speech and censorship.
Last week, as Hugh Muir reported in the Guardian diary, the website SpinProfiles was taken down by the domain name registrar, 1 & 1 Internet, following a complaint from Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, son of journalist Christopher.
SpinProfiles, run by sister organisation Spinwatch, aims to stitch together publicly available information to provide a detailed picture of who’s who in the shadowy world of lobbying. It features close to ten thousand profiles of think tanks, lobbying organisations and those associated with them.
The profile of Meleagrou-Hitchens, a 26-year old thinktanker and blogger, detailed his work for American and British rightwing and neoconservative thinktanks, blogs and magazines, and his particular interest in Islam. He is or has been associated with the UK-based neoconservative Henry Jackson Society Project for Democratic Geopolitics and with the two leading UK-based conservative thinktanks, Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion.
Although all the information mentioned in his profile is in the public domain and is fully referenced and sourced, last week 1 & 1 Internet asked that the page be removed. They gave no reason, and when we queried the decision, they responded:
“Regardless as to whether the contents of the webpage in question is factual and backed up by sourced information, we still have a legal obligations as an ISP provider to ensure that personal information (for which you have not obtained the permission for) is removed from your website.”
When we asked what part of the information was “personal”, they declined to specify. When we declined to remove the page, the site was closed down.
We do not know precisely why Meleagrou-Hitchens objected to the page. According to Hugh Muir, Meleagrou-Hitchens did ask for the profile to be taken down, although he did not say that anything in it was defamatory. We wrote to Meleagrou-Hitchens to ask for his reasons, but he has not, as yet, replied.
However, the page did report claims about his role in attacking allegedly “Islamist” organisations. Our investigations highlighted that Meleagrou-Hitchens appeared to have been associated with a Policy Exchange briefing attacking the 2008 Global Peace and Unity festival, the annual Muslim conference at London’s ExCel Centre. In October that year, Nick Clegg attacked Policy Exchange in a letter to its director Neil O’Brien for “privately” briefing against the event in London. Clegg mentioned the “notable lack of evidence to support many of the claims”, and said he was “appalled to see ‘evidence’ quoted from the Society for American National Existence, an organisation which seeks to make the practice of Islam illegal, punishable by 20 years in prison”. We reported that that the “properties” of the Word file containing the briefing listed Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens as its author.
Neither is this the first time that Policy Exchange has been involved in a questionable approach to the debate about Islam. In 2007, BBC Newsnight revealed that Policy Exchange’s report on the Hijacking of British Islam was based in part on fabricated evidence. That report has since been removed from Policy Exchange’s website.
Spinwatch research has also revealed how Policy Exchange’s engagement with this issue has been shaped by its research director Dean Godson‘s advocacy of an approach rooted in cold war propaganda techniques.
We have been in a similar situation before, in February this year, when a complainant to 1 & 1 Internet claimed that their profile was defamatory. The complainant Sagit Yehoshua is a terrorism researcher whose research has involved interviewing jailed Palestinians. The ISP 1 & 1 refused to tell us the precise text that was alleged to be defamatory and insisted that the whole page be removed. Due to the uncertainty over the alleged defamation, we removed the page, hoping to get clarity from the company. It was not forthcoming, although the issue appeared to hinge on the question of “personal” information; 1 & 1 told us that “Ms Sagit Yehoshua has expressly stated in a phone call to us that they do not want their personal information placed on the website.”
This time, we felt that the Meleagrou-Hitchens case should not be allowed to set a precedent, where public-interest reporting can be censored at the request of any aggrieved individual. If such an approach were taken either online or in print journalism, that would signal the end of the possibility of independent journalism.
Our site can, indeed, be controversial for those who appear on it, which is part of the point. Some of the organisations and individuals we focus on go to great lengths to evade transparency. If we were to please all our critics, we would not have a site at all.
What we are particularly struck by is that 1 & 1 Internet, which advertises itself as the largest web-hosting company in the world, with 10m domains worldwide, simply took it upon itself to take down our site. Meleagrou-Hitchens seems only to have been demanding his individual page be removed, yet the company decided to shut down the entire site.
We are transparent about we do, and our sources of funding. We only use information in the public domain or that unearthed by standard investigative enquiries. All our pieces are authored rather than anonymous – in marked contrast to the approach taken by some of our critics. We offer a right of reply and will correct factual inaccuracies whenever we discover them or they are brought to our attention.
That our research can be arbitrarily wiped from the internet on the say-so of one disgruntled individual raises questions not only about online free speech and censorship, but journalism as we know it.
– David Miller is professor of Sociology in the Department of Geography and Sociology at the University of Strathclyde. He is the Director of Spinwatch and the co-author of A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the cutting Edge of Corporate Power (Pluto Press, 2008).