Consumer activist forced to move website offshore

| Barbara Maregele
USN CEO Albe Geldenhuys, whose company lodged a take-down notice request to the Internet Service Providers’ Association, against an website that debunks untested claims about health products. Photo sourced from LinkedIn.

A consumer activist who runs a blog exposing misleading claims about health products has been forced to move his website offshore after a run-in with sports supplement company USN.

Harris Steinman has been running the website CAMcheck since 2009. The strapline of the site describes it as a “South African consumer’s guide to scams, pseudoscience and voodoo science …”

Steinman has lodged numerous complaints about medicine advertisements with the Advertising Standards Authority, most of which have been upheld.

Until last Friday CAMcheck was hosted on Hetzner, one of the largest internet hosting companies in the country. But on 10 March Hetzner told Steinman that if he did not change content critical of sports supplement company USN within five days, his site would be taken down.

USN had lodged a take-down notice request with the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), of which Hetzner is a member.

Anyone who considers material on a website to be unlawful can request the ISP to take it down.

USN referred to three posts in its request, in which Steinman accuses USN of selling products under false pretences with no factual evidence to support its claims, and calls USN CEO Albe Geldenhuys a “liar” and “a scam artist.” The three web pages that are the subject of the complaint are:

Steinman wrote the first post after complaints about a USN product called “Fat Blocker”.

Following a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority(ASA) that Steinman placed on his website. Steinman says that USN later changed the product name. He wrote a new post saying the new product had the same ingredients as *Fat Blocker. “I wrote the blog about how angry I was that Geldenhuys made a massive empire on products with no evidence to back it up.”

A year later, according to Steinman, a cycling website picked up his first post and it went viral.

“This is why I think USN then had to react,” Steinman said.

In a press statement on 23 January this year, Geldenhuys rejected Steinman’s claims, calling them “unsubstantiated and defamatory.” He said USN products were regularly tested.

Steinman responded to USN’s press statement with a third post where he referred to Geldenhuys as a “scam artist”, among other things.

Steinman has said his wording in the posts in question was “over the top” and emotive, but has vowed to stand by his word should he face legal action.

He said he did not agree with Hetzner’s order to remove the content USN believed was unlawful. “There was no adjudicating process in place before I was issued with a take-down notice. There should be a process where you can be given an opportunity to respond to the complaint made against you. USN could take me to court for defamation, but I suspect that having my blog removed is an easier way of silencing me,” he said.

Hetzner had informed him that it had no way to verify the merits of the USN complaint.

Steinman is in the process of moving his website to an overseas host where, he says, his rights as a consumer activist are better protected.

In response to questions sent by GroundUp, USN national marketing coordinator Gareth Powell said the articles written on CAMcheck were a threat to the integrity of the brand and to that of Geldenhuys as an individual.

“The article in question went viral on social media. This meant that the article was being viewed by many of our existing and potential customers. As such, the decision was made to take action. However, our concern was never regarding the possibility of an impact on sales, but rather the insufficient and un-factual information contained in the article, which sought to discredit the USN brand and our CEO, Albe Geldenhuys, in his personal capacity,” he said.

Powell said USN was still considering legal action.

“The take down notice issued by USN to the author is not an attack on freedom of speech. In this case, the personal opinions of the author need to be separated from the facts,” he said.

Powell added that USN would respond to the allegations made by Steinman “at an appropriate time”.

Hetzner Communications Manager Athena Turner said the company was legally obliged to act on all take-down notice requests.

“Once we receive a take-down notice request from ISPA, Hetzner checks whether the request is valid by checking that the content referred to in the notification does appear on the website and that the website is hosted on our network.

“Once this check is complete, we communicate directly with our customer to comply with the notification. If the customer refuses to remove the content, Hetzner has little choice other than to suspend the website,” she said.

Turner said as a hosting company it was not Hetzner’s duty to adjudicate whether the content in question is unlawful or not.

“Our role is simply to enforce the take-down notice request. According to section 77 of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002, any member of the public, including organisations, may submit a Take-Down request.”

“If Hetzner does not respond to a take-down request, we will lose the protection afforded to us by the ECT Act and would risk being sued for contributory negligence,” she added.

ISPA’s Ivan Booth said take-down notices were not subject to any review.

ISPA’s role was merely to pass the notice on to the ISPA member, he said. “The member then decides how to respond to the take-down.”

He said the absence in the legislation of a right to respond was a problem.

“ISPA supports a change to the legislation which provides the target with a right to respond to a take-down notice. We cannot and do not want to be the arbiters of whether or not content is or is not legal. Such decisions should be left to the courts,” he said.

Of the 168 total take-down notice requests lodged with ISPA over the past year, 72 were rejected by ISPA (most because they were targeted at non-ISPA members or referred to non-existent content). Of the 96 requests that were accepted, the internet hosts removed the complained-against sites in 91 cases.

Roy Jobson, Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, said he was “perturbed” by the action against Steinman. He said, “Dr Steinman has been performing a public service with his website … just because such products are sold in pharmacies does not necessarily mean that they’re OK.”

A minor correction was made to this article after publication.

TOPICS:  Health Human Rights

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