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In Britain, Web Leaves Courts Playing Catch-Up
March 29, 2009
By Noam Cohen (New York Times)
On March 17, hours after publishing leaked documents on its Web site showing the lengths Barclays had gone to in order to reduce the taxes it paid in Britain, The Guardian newspaper was ordered by a judge to take the material down. His reasoning was that the bank had a right to confidentiality.
In the ruling, the judge in London, Nicholas Blake, also added a peculiar twist: The Guardian must not tell readers how easy it is to locate the documents at Web sites outside of Britain. It was only the latest example of British courts trying to preserve what it saw as litigants’ rights even in the face of an onslaught of information on the Internet. To some, this may be a final, futile effort.
In November, a court order prevented British newspapers from printing a leaked list of members of the far-right British National Party. Unfortunately for the court, that material was available at, among other sites, wikileaks.org, which also hosts the Barclays documents.
In that earlier case, British newspapers, including The Guardian, took great pleasure in (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) directing its online audience to the list they had been forbidden to publish. The height of absurdity came when those papers published blog posts from reporters describing the experience of reading the list at wikileaks.
“The Internet is throwing sharp relief to the illogical nature of our system,” said Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian. “Technology is way ahead of the law, and the law is limping along trying to make sense of it.”
The effect of the Internet on judges’ rulings is not a uniquely British problem, said Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor who taught at Oxford. There is at least one example, he said, of an American court ordering a Web site not to link to content it had been ordered to take down. But he added that “British courts may be a little more confident of their own power, and be less willing to cave in to practicalities.”
The Barclays case pits two interests against each other, said James Edelman, a law professor at Oxford who argues media law cases. Since 1988, Professor Edelman said, British law has given great protection to the right of confidentiality, applying it to third parties like The Guardian, which received the documents from someone else. Yet, the “public interest” in learning about what is contained in those documents, he said, can often outweigh confidentiality considerations.
Finally, there is a basic factual question: is the material already in the public domain? And this is where the Internet throws a wrench into the proceedings.
The courts recognize, Professor Edelman said, that there is no point in banning the publication of something already widely disseminated. In the Barclays case, the court met in secret to determine if the material had crossed that threshold.
Mr. Rusbridger, who said he, too, was awakened in the wee hours to receive the order to take the material down, characterized the scene: “We were pretending that by discussing this in secrecy in a court in London that no one was discussing it elsewhere.”
The entire situation, he said, puts newspapers “in a uniquely disadvantaged position where we cannot discuss what is being discussed elsewhere.” There was a silver lining, Mr. Rusbridger said. For the hearing, he wrote a witness statement, which included summaries of what was contained in the memos and the analysis of a tax expert retained by The Guardian, to explain to the judge why it was in the public interest to publish the memos. That material was unaffected by the order.
Mr. Rusbridger’s summaries later appeared in The Guardian.
The leaked memos come from Barclays’ structured capital markets division and were given to a member of Parliament. They explain complex arrangements — given names like Project Berry and Project Knight — involving, say, transactions between an Isle of Man subsidiary and the Luxembourg branch of a German bank. Collectively, The Guardian wrote, they show that the division “has for years been engaged in engineering numerous inventive schemes to avoid very large sums of tax.”
In a statement, the chief executive of Barclays, John Varley, responded: “Barclays complies with taxation laws in the U.K. and in all the countries where we do business.” He wrote that his company placed great emphasis on meeting its obligations to the British tax agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. “From our perspective, this has enabled H.M.R.C. to carry out detailed and robust assessments of our tax affairs with an emphasis on our structured capital market transactions. We provide them with further explanations and documentation as required.”
He concluded: “We are confident that the leaked papers do not highlight any deficiency in our disclosures and explanations to H.M.R.C.”
Nonetheless, Barclays was quoted by Reuters as saying the publication of the documents would damage its business.
Professor Edelman of Oxford said that Judge Blake’s order could represent a last example of British courts ignoring the changed reality of by the Internet.
“What is significant about the ruling,” he said, “is that it will open people’s eyes that even if you can get an injunction to preserve information that is able to be obtained over the Internet, I suspect that the injunction won’t last.” The publicity over the injunction creates more interest in the material, leading other sites to publish it. The Guardian will be able to return to court, he said, and argue the injunction no longer serves any purpose.
Mr. Rusbridger said that the newspaper still had not decided whether to do that. The cost for being wrong, he said, could be as much $300,000 in legal fees.
Seeming to prove Professor Edelman’s larger point, however, when Wikileaks became overloaded by the traffic about a week ago, another site, techcrunch.org, published the seven memos under the heading “How Barclays Ensured That Everyone Would See Their Confidential Tax Documents.”
First appeared in the New York Times. Thanks to Noam Cohen and the New York Times for covering this leak. Copyright remains with the aforementioned.