Russian oligarchs and other powerful individuals are turning to an unusual method to protect their online images: data privacy laws.
British law is already notoriously friendly to plaintiffs who want to stop the publication of an unflattering article or other information they allege is untrue under libel law. When suing using the U.K.’s data privacy law, which was modeled after the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation following Brexit and targeted at companies like Google, the legal reasoning is that the journalist or other target is a “data collector.”
The data privacy law covers a wide swath of real and truthful data that could be held on any device, not just things that could be libelous. Already, several high-profile cases have successfully tested the law’s potency against politicians and journalists, and parliamentarians have held hearings on the issue.
“The way the law is being used by oligarchs to silence journalists is expressly not what Parliament’s intention was,” said Liam Byrne, a member of Parliament. “It’s all part of trying to murder the truth.”
The issue has resurfaced among U.K. lawmakers following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and related sanctions. In a March 15 evidentiary hearing in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee, called in the wake of the invasion, witnesses and members of Parliament discussed the novel use of privacy laws by oligarchs.
Members of Parliament accused Russian oligarchs in particular of using the legal system to avoid legitimate scrutiny, in a Jan. 20 debate focused on the topic.
The use of the data privacy law was successful in a case brought by Russians against Orbis Business Intelligence that was decided in 2020. Orbis is owned by Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who assembled a dossier containing a collection of largely unverified reports that claimed the Russian government had compromising information about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The unfinished “raw” intelligence report, which accused Russian oligarchs of having close ties with Putin, was partially leaked to journalists, spurring articles around the globe dissecting its allegations. It was also used by the FBI as a basis for surveillance of people connected to the Trump campaign. While some aspects of the dossier have been corroborated, much of it has not been backed up by independent sources.
The lawsuit alleged that in the process of assembling the dossier, Orbis stored inaccurate information on its computers and thus acted as a “data collector.” Under the data protection laws, Orbis was required to take measures to ensure the accuracy of the data, even if it never planned to publish it.
The court found Orbis liable in two of the 15 total allegations for mishandling data, even though the company never published the information, and awarded a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.
“In a libel suit, you either win or you lose,” Steele said in an interview. “In this case, you’re in no man’s land legally. … It’s become a proxy for libel law and a way to chill investigations.”
In another case, a British Parliament member compiled research on a donor, and he successfully forced her to turn over all the information she had compiled on him as a result of the court case. The costly legal battle has helped deter further scrutiny.
It’s also being used in an attempt to stifle a journalist in the United States.
Scott Stedman is the 26-year-old founder of Forensic News, a website he launched from his parents’ house in Orange County, Calif. He was returning from lunch in the summer of 2020 when a man followed him up the driveway and served him with a lawsuit filed in the United Kingdom. The case is headed toward trial.
Walter Soriano, a British security consultant whose firm provided airport security during the Sochi Olympics, alleged 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 scrutinized Soriano’s alleged ties to Russian oligarchs.
“I didn’t know I had to answer to U.K. laws,” Stedman said in an interview. “I’ve never been out of the country.”
Anne Champion, a lawyer at Gibson Dunn who represents Stedman, said she will argue that any judgments against her client on data privacy grounds should be unenforceable in the United States, where laws prevent the enforcement of some foreign judgments that contradict American free speech laws. “I think it’s extremely important. People are always looking for ways around defamation protections,” she said.
The case has yet to go to trial. But Soriano’s attorneys have already begun their effort to get U.S. courts to enforce the judgment.
Andrew Brettler, a partner at Lavely & Singer, said he will argue in U.S. courts that the costs and any future judgment are not protected by free speech laws domestically. And Shlomo Rechtschaffen, who represents Soriano in the United Kingdom, said the suit is 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 by readers voluntarily to support the site. He has taken out loans to help pay U.K. counsel. He also has started a crowdfunding campaign to help defray costs and has delayed moving out of his parents’ house.
Stedman is scheduled to testify about his case in front of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, next week in a hearing on “Countering Oligarchs, Enablers, and Lawfare.”
He could have ignored the lawsuit altogether, hoping a judgment would be unenforceable in the United States.
“I’d 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 in thinking we’d just fold.”