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Anti-scam website forced offline

Heavy legal threats get plug pulled

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A website set up to warn UK companies about an international business directory scam has been pulled by hosting company Server Center after legal threats.

Server Centre, and its upstream supplier RapidSwitch, took the decision after a flurry of legal notices. Letters starting arriving from Birmingham solicitors Wragge & Co in October last year initially alleging libel and breach of copyright. But after changes were made to the site, and copyright material removed, the letters continued.

Adam Heavens, MD of Server Centre, told us by email: "We then had a number of letters from Wragge and other law firms requesting that the site was taken offline; if the site was not taken offline Server Centre Limited could be liable for damages.

"The site was then taken offline, as my infrastructure provider then started receiving the threats. Neither company can afford to go to court over this and so we had no choice but to turn the site off."

Nick Cunningham, a partner in the intellectual property team at Wragge and Co, said his client had no comment to make.

Wragge and Co represent Novachannel AG - a Swiss-based company which is under investigation by Swiss authorities. The London Swiss embassy website mentions Novachannel on a page called "Unfair practices via Switzerland". The page advises companies on how to cancel contracts with the firm and says it is collecting evidence for an ongoing investigation by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).

The SECO website, here, explains how NovaChannel operates: "Several Swiss companies exercise dubious business practices relating to business directory entries from bases in Switzerland. The forms in question usually give the impression that the entry is free. In actual fact, by completing and signing the form the persons concerned are concluding a contract running for several years."

UK businesses believe they are updating their contact details for a free directory rather than signing a contract to pay for as long as three years. The website - www.stopecg.org - has been running since 2001. The original campaign was against directory firm European City Guides but now covers several similar scams.

Jules Woodell, the man behind the site, said: "I am being gagged, I would gladly defend my words in court but how can I do that if no one will publish them! There is a grey area in the law which suggests that ISPs may hold responsibility for words on their servers, UK law needs updating in order to protect online freedom of speech."

Woodell added that any offer to host the website, even if only temporary, would be welcomed.

A simple Google search will reveal similar sites hosted by AOL, as well as Google's cached version, but AOL has not received any legal warnings. ®

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