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Legal protection falls short for Zimbabwe's Insider

The Insider is a political newsletter about Zimbabwe, edited by veteran journalist Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was printed as a 12-page leaflet until 2003, when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to publish with annual subscriptions. Rukuni made the move to the Web, where he continued to archive and publish stories at insiderzim.com. Rukuni's site has been one of the only outlets for investigative journalism in the country. Rukuni chose to host The Insider outside Zimbabwe, he says, for access speed and to protect it from local interference.  

Two weeks ago, Rukuni received an email from his U.S. Web host, Powweb, stating that a copyright claim had been made on some of Rukuni's articles. The company informed him that unless he removed the content, his entire site would be suspended. U.S. law allows hosting providers to remove allegedly infringing content in response to a copyright claim without the hosting company risking a lawsuit for damages against them by their own customer. If a customer challenges the infringement, he or she can file a counter-notification, in which case the provider may restore the content, again without liability. 

It's a compromise that is intended to prevent litigants from pre-emptively deleting free speech online, while allowing hosts to remain "above the fray" during contentious legal battles. As the law permits, Rukuni denied the claim of infringement, as well as other charges made by the complainant, a Zimbabwean living in South Africa. Powweb duly restored his site. Then it suspended the site again, and finally announced it was cancelling Rukuni's account due to "numerous complaints." 

Right now, Insiderzim.com is offline, disabled by Powweb while Rukuni struggles to move his site to another hosting service. "The suspension came at a very bad time," says Rukuni.  He was forced to spend time attempting to negotiate with his own hosting service, instead of reporting. "The final blow was that Rex Nhongo (known as Solomon Mujuru, a key leader within Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF party) died when I had no website."

I spoke to Steve Sydness, executive chairman of the Endurance International Group, the company that owns Powweb and dozens of similar small-scale hosting providers. He confirmed that Rukuni's account had been canceled due to a single dispute. Sydness said that felt that it was not Endurance's business to host sites like Rukuni's: "Guys like us." he told me, "don't need to be dragged into a fight between someone in Zimbabwe and someone in South Africa." 

U.S. law attempts to grant hosting services like Endurance sufficient freedom from liability so that they can host content without self-censorship. Authors and publishers have worked hard to put such laws in place, most recently with the adoption of the SPEECH Act, which protects American publishers from foreign defamation suits. 

If companies are still intimidated by threats of lawsuits outside the United States, it may be that the law is insufficiently strong, or that web hosts do not fully understand the level of protection they have. In the meantime, online journalists remain vulnerable to their competitors or critics throwing them offline without a court order. A hosting company may still consider it more expedient to respond to external complaints than to defend a customer. 

As of this posting, Insiderzim.com is still down. In my next blog post, I'll write a little more about the technical sides of restoring a site if your host deletes it, and how controversial sites can minimize their downtime.

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