Online Dangers

By The Drum, Administrator

September 14, 2007 | 7 min read

Caught on the web

Leeds based agency An Agency Called England, which recently found itself prominently placed in a rogues gallery that included the Royal Mail, Ebay and Littlewoods Direct, on the homepage of, has now shut the rogue website down. But only after a globetrotting battle that saw the site reopen after being shut down in India, only for it to reappear, this time registered in Australia, and again, after a further closure, registered in Romania. Once again, the agency has managed to shut it down. This time, they hope, for good.

The offending site at first glance appeared to be a forum for consumer feedback, but turned out to be run by one man with an apparent grudge, containing only malicious testaments and rancorous diatribe. Its removal signals a victory for An Agency Called England, but not before clients and contacts in the media sector became aware of its content. If your company becomes subject to unsubstantiated or negative online rants, removing the offending material can turn out to be a tortuous challenge.

“The web is global. From anywhere in the world you can sign up for free web space from anywhere else in the world, and from your desktop you can put stuff up, put a re-direct to your URL, and have your website wherever you want it,” Tony Stanton, CEO of An Agency Called England, told The Drum.

The England Agency obtained an injunction together with an award of costs against the site author, but not before the company’s name had been dragged through the mud by association with the libellous rants on the site.

It is inconceivable, as we approach the final quarter of 2007, that a successful media, marketing and PR company will not have a powerful online presence and dedicated website. The value of a strong online message is difficult to measure, but cannot be underestimated as one of the most important ways of reaching potential customers. However the benefits can potentially be offset by the twin edge of that sword, if the public – not the company – are able to take control of the message using websites of their own.

Sites such as have become firmly established as a valuable way for the public for example to assess their holiday hotel, based on postings from prior users, and if your hotel comes across as more Basil Fawlty than Balmoral, then there is no way you can keep a lid on it.

Libel laws give anyone a remedy through the courts to obtain damages for any loss of reputation, but this can be an expensive and time consuming remedy, and of little practical use if your company has been targeted by a website with few resources and an ability to pay damages. Sites such as include postings from pupils past and present which, although occasionally far from flattering and often unkind, may not even be libellous at all. Once you enter into this grey area between comment, opinion and libel, you are in murky waters indeed.

However of greater legitimate concern is the potential for unchecked content and libellous abuse that can be promoted on these sites. London businessman Brian Retkin recently brought a case against Google, which for three years continued to direct users to anonymous libellous postings against his company, an action which most informed legal opinion believes cannot be won, although time will tell. An internet service provider (ISP) can usually escape liability for libel if it removes offending material when asked, but that does not prevent the poster from posting the same material elsewhere on another ISP.

Campbell Deane, who acted in the Bonnier media internet privacy case, the first raised in Scotland, said trying to tackle rogue websites can be an impossible task.

“If you don’t get past the ISP’s policy, your only remedies are to sue or obtain an injunction,” he says.

“The problem that you have is that the person who controls the site inevitably jumps from one ISP to another, and you end up chasing your tail constantly, to get them to shut up. There is an argument that you are better letting these people go ahead and publish because nobody takes them seriously. Otherwise you give them the credence they are looking for.”

Stanton told The Drum that clients and contacts became aware of the CrapCompanies site content almost as quickly as the site appeared.

“I started getting text messages and phone calls from people, who had found out from others in the agency network. All of a sudden it became quite pervasive. People were asking if we were really like that. One client threw a printout from across the table and said ‘I want to know what all that is about.”

“The only thing that was true in our entry on the site was my home address. Everything else is unbelievable sh*te,” he says.

Stanton observes that a negative website can damage a company’s reputation if it can successfully masquerade as a legitmate consumer interest site, as he believes did.

“It was written as if it was an independent consumer site. They can be very damaging because they seem to be quite plausible,” he says. And he thinks it likely that the online rant may have impacted negatively on the agency’s business.

“How do I know if someone who was thinking about putting us on a tender list suddenly changed their mind?” he asks.

“We recruited an account director who then withdrew his acceptance without any explanation. A reasonable man on a reasonable day would say that sort of thing can’t possibly do anything but harm.”

Obtaining redress via the courts is far from straightforward since the incorporation of the Human Rights Act into UK law in 2000. The courts now favour freedom of expression ahead of any restriction on free speech via injunction or a libel action. Deane points out that the courts will often seek to protect the right of free speech that is now enshrined in UK law.

“If you try to stop somebody publishing, the principle becomes ‘why do they want to affect my freedom of expression’. The attitude in England is that you really need to take into account freedom of expression. The House of Lords has ruled that unless you can show that you will be successful if the case goes to a full trial, then you will not get an injunction.”

Very few people have been able to successfully remove an undesirable posting from the web. Paris Hilton was recently able to ensure the removal of all online references to a notorious intimate recording, which is now deleted from the web, with the exception of the posting made by the recorder of the tape himself, who retains the copyright.

“It is the only reference on the whole web to that particular tape,” says Deane. “If you have the resources to do that, you can. If you don’t have the resources, you will be chasing your tail.” Fighting fire with fire may be the best option for most medium sized businesses.

Tony Stanton of An Agency Called England supports the internets growth, but his experience is a cautionary tale, highlighting the dangers and difficulties in silencing a single individual who may target your business for an unknown reason.

“The internet has empowered people, which is great. But what it also does is give license to personal grievances,” he says. “What is missing is redress. It is very difficult for a damaged party like us to stop them.”


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +