Following a special general meeting 10 days ago, the society has gone from instructing its commercial arm, Domainz, to fund one side of a defamation suit to having it now fund the other side. That’s genuinely having a bob each way.
Let me retrace the zig-zag route that’s been followed to get to this bizarre spot.
In late December 1999, society councillors met to consider a response to what one of them called “clearly defamatory” remarks made by society member Alan Brown about Domainz boss Patrick O’Brien. We don’t know precisely who was present at the meeting, but former society chair Jim Higgins was one and current chair Peter Dengate Thrush was another, and the upshot was that proceedings were commenced against Brown in O’Brien’s name, paid for by Domainz.
In the painfully slow manner of these things, the case was heard in Palmerston North last month, apparently after abundant efforts to settle out of court. TV3 News coverage of the hearing included Dengate Thrush commenting on the new phenomenon of internet defamation, and how email headers could provide an evidential trail.
Subsequently, messages flew back and forth in society mailing lists about the propriety of the society chair commenting on a case which he clearly played some part in instigating and demanding that Domainz, which carries out the policies of the society, fund Brown’s defence. Which is precisely what was arrived at at the SGM held simultaneously in Auckland and Wellington on May 25.
So what, you might think? Why does Computerworld keep harping on about the inner workings of a society which, after all, probably behaves no differently from countless other non-profit organisations throughout the land?
The answer is we’ve paid as much attention as we have because while the society might be non-profit making, its Domainz subsidiary is not. By our estimate, Domainz makes as much as $10 million a year from fees collected from .nz internet domain name holders. If some of this money is being channelled into what, from the outside, appear to be pointless legal proceedings, we consider our readers, many of whom will be Domainz fees payers, will care. They would probably prefer to pay lower fees rather than help make a bunch of lawyers rich.
A charitable interpretation of what the society achieves by funding both sides of this case is that it is helping establish a legal precedent in the area of e-crime. I don’t buy that as far as the question of defamation-by-email goes: defamation is defamation by whatever medium.
The question of admissability of email as evidence in court is less clear, however. If it was cut and dried, the judge who heard this case would probably have released a verdict by now.
I know what he’s confronted by: as this saga has unfolded, Computerworld has been leaked numerous mailing list postings apparently written by society councillors which paint quite a different picture of events than the official line. While it’s tempting to take them at face value, I don’t feel confident enough of their authenticity to do so.
I’ve given the charitable view of the society’s actions. The uncharitable one is that by coughing up for Brown’s costs it’s admitting embarrassment over the affair.
It has the opportunity to put this sorry saga behind it at its AGM on June 22.
Whether councillors and office holders who were associated with the defamation case retain their positions is as interesting a question as the verdict the judge eventually hands down.