Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lawyers instead of arguments

One of the Alpha-Bloggers in Germany, Johnny Haeusler from Spreeblick, wrote the other day about the mounting legal costs of operating a blog that reports on and comments the news (Geld ausgeben mit Blogs). He's apparently already spent 10,000 € on legal fees fighting take-down notices from lawyers, although at least he runs ads and has income. People and companies don't like it when you say anything negative about them. They try and root out all of the reports about problems with their products or the deeds that they did and try to silence people.

I am quite allergic to people who give themselves out to be scientists (for example because they wrote a doctorate or publish scientific papers that turn out to be plagiarisms or to have cooked their data or some such) and who react to criticism or statement of fact by sending out the lawyers. I much prefer to see arguments. Don't threaten me, convince me!

I myself just had a tussle about an article that I wrote on this blog in October 2011 about a conference on good scientific practice in medicine at the Charité.  I noted that the journalist Hubert Rehm had spoken about a few cases, amongst them B.S.  (for more information, see Laborjournal (link removed), they have reported in depth on the case). A few weeks ago I received a letter from a Swiss law firm with so many names on the masthead, it took almost half of the first page. Take down the reference to B.S. immediately or else.

I consulted a lawyer, who noted that I am in a very special circumstance: I do research on good scientific practice, and in Germany a researcher is permitted to publish as they please, as long as it's not illegal. And it is never illegal to state the truth. All the same, the lawyer suggested that I tone down my sentence. So I did, and had the lawyers write an (expensive) letter to that effect.

What I don't understand is what these lawyers and their customers think that they are going to achieve by trying to silence everyone. Have they not heard of Barbara Streisand?

Update: On 2013-04-18 I removed the link to the Laborjournal article.  The lawyers insist that even linking to the publication that they consider to be illegal is not okay. By linking I am not assuming the position of the items I link to - I am reporting on what what was said and giving my readers the opportunity to decide for themselves. This is covered by the laws governing freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. I am not removing information because I made an error - I am making the changes clear while removing the identifying information because I do not wish to fight a legal battle on this particular issue.


  1. I think the first goal of censorship is to instill self-censorship, not to make specific works vanish.

    It's hard to completely remove something that was once online, even if the author has taken it down, who knows who made a snapshot. And there is the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine: ) or Google Cache, although they have their limits too.

    But once enough bloggers notice what happens to other bloggers (being sued, threats of financial ruin, etc.) the resulting climate of insecurity and fear might serve the goal of people who do not want an open discussion, e.g., because they do sloppy work or are complete fraudsters. And even if the information is out there, it might be confined to small groups, not easily available to the general public.

    The strange thing is -- people who deceive others make use of the law (or the appearance of the law) to continue deceiving others. Shouldn't the law protect the other guy/girl? But yup, perhaps Richard Fish was right in Ally McBeal:

    "I didn't become a lawyer because I like the law. The law sucks. It's boring. But it can also be used as a weapon. You want to bankrupt somebody, cost him everything he's worked for, make his wife leave him, even cause his kids to cry? We can do that."

    I don't have a solution to this either, although at least in Germany, I recommend watching some of Udo Vetter's videos on YouTube regarding what you can do online (e.g., the difference between stating an opinion and making an assertion).

    But yup, lawyers instead of arguments is bad practice, for everyone but lawyers and people who win by preventing an exchange of knowledge and ideas, that is.

  2. Maybe you should write a very detailed article about this for the German DIE ZEIT. So they would have some real university-scientist-laywer-going-bad stuff to publish ... and could use their lawyers for something useful, instead of publishing badly researched articles on their ZEIT ONLINE website ...


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