UK law is already notoriously favorable to complainants who wish to prevent the publication of an unflattering article or other information which they claim to be false under defamation law. In a lawsuit under the UK’s data privacy law, which is modeled after the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation in the wake of Brexit and targets companies like Google, the reasoning legal is that the journalist or other target is a “data collector”.
Data privacy law covers a wide range of real, truthful data that could be stored on any device, not just things that could be defamatory. Already, several high-profile cases have successfully tested the power of the law against politicians and journalists, and parliamentarians have held hearings on the issue.
“The way the law is being used by the oligarchs to silence journalists is expressly not the intention of parliament,” said Liam Byrne, a member of parliament. “It’s all part of trying to kill the truth.”
The issue resurfaced among British lawmakers after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and related sanctions. In one Hearing of witnesses on March 15 Before the Foreign Affairs Committee, convened following the invasion, witnesses and members of parliament discussed the unprecedented use of privacy laws by the oligarchs.
MEPs notably accused Russian oligarchs of using the judicial system to evade legitimate scrutiny, in a January 20 focused discussion on the topic.
The use of data privacy law was successful in a case brought by Russians against Orbis Business Intelligence which was decided in 2020. Orbis is owned by Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who gathered a dossier containing a collection of largely unverified reports that claimed the Russian government had compromising information on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The unfinished “raw” intelligence report, which accused Russian oligarchs of having close ties to Putin, was partially leaked to reporters, prompting articles around the world dissecting its claims. It has also been used by the FBI as a base for surveillance of people connected to the Trump campaign. While some aspects of the case have been corroborated, much has not been supported by independent sources.
The lawsuit alleged that in the process of assembling the case, Orbis stored inaccurate information on its computers and thus acted as a “data collector”. Under data protection laws, Orbis was required to take steps to ensure the data was accurate, even though it never planned to publish it.
The tribunal said Orbis responsible in two of the 15 total allegations of data mismanagement, even though the company never released the information, and issued a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.
“In a libel suit, you either win or you lose,” Steele said in an interview. “In that case, you are legally in no man’s land. … It has become a substitute for defamation law and a way to cool investigations.
In another case, a British Member of Parliament compiled research on a donor and he successfully coerced her into handing over all the information she had compiled on him as a result of the court case. The costly legal battle helped deter further scrutiny.
It is also used to attempt to suffocate a journalist in the United States.
Scott Stedman is the 26-year-old founder of Forensic News, a website he started from his parents’ home in Orange County, California. He was returning from lunch in the summer of 2020 when a man followed him down the aisle and served him with a lawsuit filed in the UK. The case is heading to trial.
Walter Soriano, a British security consultant whose firm provided airport security during the Sochi Olympics, has alleged that Stedman’s reporting on him – which he claims is inaccurate – amounted to illegal data collection .
Stedman and three colleagues had published articles for a year that examined Soriano’s alleged ties to Russian oligarchs.
“I didn’t know I had to meet UK laws,” Stedman said in an interview. “I never left the country.”
Anne Champion, an attorney at Gibson Dunn who represents Stedman, said she would argue that any judgment against her client on data privacy grounds should be unenforceable in the United States, where laws prevent the enforcement of certain foreign judgments that contradict US free speech laws. “I think it’s extremely important. People are always looking for ways to circumvent defamation protections,” she said.
The case has not yet been judged. But Soriano’s lawyers have already begun their efforts to have US courts enforce the judgment.
Andrew Brettler, a partner at Lavely & Singer, said he would argue in US courts that the costs and any future judgments are not protected by national free speech laws. And Shlomo Rechtschaffen, who represents Soriano in the UK, said the lawsuit was a good faith effort to clear Soriano’s name.
Stedman refuses to back down. He said Forensic News earns about $50,000 a year in subscriptions, which are paid voluntarily by readers to support the site. He took out loans to help pay for a British lawyer. He also launched a crowdfunding campaign to help defray the costs and delayed moving out of her parents’ house.
He could have ignored the lawsuit altogether, hoping that a judgment would be unenforceable in the United States.
“I would be lying if I told you we didn’t consider all of our options,” Stedman said.
“I’m not going to compromise my values,” he added. “He miscalculated thinking we were just going to bed.”