Police (lack of) power and the FITwatch takedown

I guess this is a warning about where you choose to host your web site if someone – anyone – might object to it.

There’s been some talk about abuse of police power with the ill-advised “Fitwatch” website takedown. For those unaware, the site hosted some useful guidelines on how to get rid of any evidence if you’d been anywhere near Millbank tower last weekend. I may disagree with the opinions in the article and with the occupation but given the “arrest first, find an excuse to charge someone later after digging through their stuff” approach taken by many police, I don’t personally think there is anything particularly objectionable in having that content available. Any regular viewer of the multitude of American crime dramas such as Dexter or CSI probably figured it out for themselves anyway.

It was pretty obvious it was going to backfire. If you want to get the public’s attention, ban something.

Publicity-by-banning works if it’s either playing a single on Radio 1 single or a web site. Unsurprisingly, it’s now pretty hard to use Twitter or any other social networking medium without stumbling across links to copies of the FITwatch content and the web site has been put back up with new hosts barely 24 hours after it was taken down.

But the police had no more power in this case than your average UK citizen. The web site was hosted in the United States, not in this country. (It looks like it was hosted by a company called “Hostclear” who have UK pricing but from what I can tell, no UK presence, not even a sales office) In my day job, I often have to tell US solicitors that their beloved laws to not apply in this country so terribly sorry, but we can’t help you. I’ve even on occasion had to tell US District Courts the same thing, because they somehow think their court orders have magic powers over here too.

Strangely, Americans tend not to take the opposite view: They recognise that our laws do not apply to them.

So why was it taken down? It seems the police used a very nefarious tactic. They asked nicely, pointing out details that meant it probably violated the hosting companies Acceptable Use Policy, wrapped up in a bit of official-looking talk. There may have been aggressive use of police headed paper involved as well, although one assumes unleashing the headed paper requires authorisation from a senior officer.

The hosts, in their Acceptible Use Policy list a number of items that the FITwatch web site might have fallen under, but most likely seems their restriction of “sites promoting illegal activities”. Typically, one would expect that the police would need to have at least some sort of proof that they were promoting illegal activities beyond their say so, but a good starting point to consider when thinking about how US web site hosts will respond is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In the case of copyright material, it gets taken down the moment someone alleges copyright violation, regardless of merit. It’s then up to the user to object if they want it back up, and this mentality does tend to spill over to other non-copyright aspects of handling complaints of abuse.

It’s also a complete pain having to defend against legal action and a web host in a highly competitive market typically can’t afford to start hiring solicitors, so they’ll likely have wanted to dump the site as soon as possible to save hassle.

The new hosting provider is also in the United States. I assume, given the publicity surrounding this case, that there is a good chance the hosting provider already knows what they’re getting themselves in to so a simple letter from the Metropolitan Police will not be sufficient to get the site taken down. I notice the site is still using it’s .org.uk domain name – that’s the real weak point the police could go after now, if they haven’t learnt their lesson and are silly enough to try to pursue it. It would not at all surprise me if FITwatch go off and register – and publicise – alternate domain names in territories that might be less amenable to taking down content such as this.

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