Redbus and Demon founder denied RIPA appeal

Sound of strategy backfiring

Internet pioneer Cliff Stanford has been denied the right to appeal against his conviction for unlawfully intercepting emails at his former company, Redbus Interhouse. Last year Stanford pleaded guilty, but argued that the trial judge had misunderstood the law.

Stanford made his name when he founded the ISP Demon Internet in 1992. He sold it to Scottish Telecom six years later for £66 million, reportedly making around £30 million. The following year, in 1999, he co-founded Redbus Interhouse which offers co-location and data centre facilities. Stanford resigned from the company in 2002 after a disagreement with the company's then chairman, John Porter.

In October 2003, allegations surfaced that Stanford had been involved in the interception of emails between Porter and Porter's mother, Dame Shirley Porter, the former leader of Westminster council.

Stanford, together with another man, George Nelson Liddell, were charged with offences under the Computer Misuse Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000. The case was due to come to trial in September 2005, but both men pleaded guilty at the last minute.

At the time, Stanford's solicitors, Peters & Peters, issued a statement.

"Mr Stanford pleaded guilty to this offence following what we regard as an erroneous interpretation of a very complex new statute," it read. "The Judge’s ruling gave Mr Stanford no option other than to change his plea to one of guilty."

The strategy was to establish his innocence on appeal. That strategy backfired yesterday.

At trial, Stanford had sought to rely on a section of RIPA that gives a defence to a person who intercepts “a communication in the course of its transmission by means of a private telecommunication system” if either: (a) he is a person with a right to control the operation or the use of the system; or (b) he has the express or implied consent of such a person to make the interception.

Stanford said he had gained access to the emails through the actions of a company employee. That employee, according to Stanford, had been given administrator access to usernames and passwords on the email server. He was therefore lawfully authorised, and through this authorisation was a “person with a right to control the operation or the use of the system”.

But the trial judge, Geoffrey Rivlin QC, disagreed. He reasoned that “right to control” did not simply mean that someone had a right to access or operate the system, but was more specific, requiring a right to authorise or forbid that operation.

This ruling effectively quashed Stanford’s defence argument – so Stanford pleaded guilty and pinned his hopes on the appeal process.

In his application to appeal, Stanford's lawyers argued that Judge Rivlin was in error. His interpretation made a criminal out of an employee who had been empowered to operate and use the system without any restrictions, they said.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal yesterday upheld Judge Rivlin’s view. It found that, in this context, the right of control was wider than a simple right to operate or access the system and to find otherwise would undermine the object of the provision, which was to protect privacy.

Accordingly, Stanford's application to appeal was refused.

Judge Rivlin had sentenced Stanford last September to six months imprisonment suspended for two years. He was also fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £7,000 prosecution costs.

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