Saturday, 17 March 2007

Clarification from A*Star over the AcidFlask incident

I saw this on Tomorrow: a clarification from A*Star over the AcidFlask incident. I found it a very interesting read, because it included snippets of the actual posting by AcidFlask that A*Star found objectionable.

Given that the AcidFlask incident is often cited as an instance of official intervention into or even quasi-censorship of the Internet, in particular in discussions on the dos-and-don'ts of blogging and the impact of defamation law on freedom of expression in Singapore, there has always been a gaping hole in all the discussions, in that the actual allegedly defamatory statements have never made it into the public domain. And now that they have, how many people really think that A*Star's action was unjustified?

Prior to this, the case had frequently, if not, always been positioned as A*Star using threats of a defamation lawsuit to crack down on criticisms of its scholarship policy. There have also been suggestions that it basically involved a poor student having to back down in the face of the full legal might of a heavyweight statutory board.

In light of the excerpts that are disclosed, I'm not quite sure that the above characterisations are entirely accurate or fair.

Those statements may well have appeared in the context of a posting discussing A*Star's scholarship policy as a whole. But they went way beyond fair criticism as such, and alleged outright corruption by A*Star in obtaining places for its scholars. This is a case where I can, and I think most unbiased and rational people would be able to, completely understand why A*Star threatened legal action. (Still, I'm not convinced that defamation is the best or most effective route to deal with Internet speech, but that's a whole other discussion.)

Having said that, I think there is a lesson to be drawn from this. When A*Star took action against AcidFlask, AcidFlask shut down his site and the statements became unavailable. So until this post by Aaron Ng, nobody actually knew (or at least, I've never seen or heard anyone who knew or claimed to know) what was said. Many people simply assumed that A*Star was responding to straightforward criticism of its scholarship policy in a heavy-handed fashion.

Now that I've read it, I don't think A*Star was heavy-handed at all. But I also think that A*Star may have erred by not disclosing these specific objectionable statements. [I wrote the following paragraphs before reading all the comments on Aaron Ng's blog -- a number of comments there make the same point in a less longwinded fashion.]

Defamation seeks to give redress to a plaintiff for the damage done to his/her/its reputation. But when it comes to matters of reputation, recourse to the law can only be just one part of the solution. There will always be non-legal PR consequences, and they need to be managed.

Let's be honest here -- even though A*Star was vindicated legally, its reputation did take a bit of a hit in the wake of this incident. I'm quite sure that any such damage would have been much reduced, if not eliminated, if the actual statements had been disclosed in the form that they have been on Aaron Ng's blog. Such a point by point rebuttal would have gone a long way in clarifying matters and preventing the damage to A*Star's reputation.

After all, those who visit Tomorrow and Aaron Ng's blog would have seen the clarification. What about all those who don't, and still labour under a misconception about the entire incident?

PS. The comments are worth a read, due to what appears to be Philip Yeo himself making repeated appearances.

PPS. There was a question in an early comment about the choice of jurisdiction for a lawsuit, i.e. if A*Star had sued, would it be in Singapore or the US? There is a well-known Australian case (Dow Jones v Gutnick), where an Australian plaintiff who felt defamed by an online article in Barrons (a Dow Jones publication) sued Dow Jones in Australia. The the High Court of Australia held that Gutnick was entitled to sue in Australia to protect his reputation. The same reasoning would apply here.

5 comments:

Ivan Chew said...

I've always maintained that A*STAR unnecessarily put itself in a disadvantaged position by not explaining it's point of view. In a way, it didn't have the expertise or appropriate means to respond to what's being discussed in the Blogosphere. Hence, people were bound to draw their own conclusions based on available information. Well, better late than never.

philip yeo said...

A*STAR made a serous mistake taking the advice of the two external legal counsels in not disclosing the full details of the defamation that I had specially asked to be done.

Their legal rationale was that Acidflask had apologized and shut down his site on his own accord.

Hence, they argued that if A*STAR put up the full facts then A*STAR could be liable to be sued by the US colleges that Acidflask accused A*STAR of bribing to accept our scholars.

A*STAR should ask for at least a refund of the legal expenses for poor legal counsel.
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o said...

SKH: Thank you for pointing to this very interesting episode. I've spent far too much time looking into it, but here's my take on it. I include a timeline to save time for others. Obviously this is my opinion but I would like to think that I'm objective.

03-Mar-2005: AcidFlask, the moniker of a PhD student at UIUC, writes a blog post that accuses A*Star of bribing certain American universities in order that they accept A*Star's PhD scholars.

09-May-2005: AcidFlask takes down the blog post and the whole blog and posts an unreserved apology to A*Star and Philip Yeo (PY).

14-Feb-2007: John Burton writes an article entitled: "Singapore’s elite in biomedical project row" at (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/ec4f22dc-bc49-11db-9cbc-0000779e2340.html)
The article details a dispute between PY and Lee Wei Ling, daughter of Lee Kuan Yew and head of the National Neurocience Institute.

16-Feb-2007: Elia Diodati, previously known as AcidFlask, posts a critique of Burton's article (http://diodati.omniscientx.com/2007/02/16/the-smugness-of-ignorance-i) PY comments on this post. The debate is wide-ranging.

27-Feb-2007: Aaron Ng, an undergraduate at NUS, remarks on the exchange between PY and others on Elia's blog (http://aaron-ng.info/blog/elia-diodati-versus-philip-yeo-a-watershed-for-blogosphere.html). PY comments on Ng's blog as well.

09-Mar-2007: A*Star sends an official clarification of the AcidFlask incident to Ng, who posts it on his blog (http://aaron-ng.info/blog/clarification-from-astar-over-acidflask-incident.html).

My take on this: The original accusations by AcidFlask were completely baseless. A*Star would never have to bribe universities to accept their PhD scholars, because a fully-funded PhD candidate is already a no-risk gift. The universities would be under no obligation to graduate the candidates (their theses will be available publicly so no attempt can be made to blindly accept them), and the universities are provided with free research labour. A no-lose situation, so why would they require a bribe?

However, the accusation on the face of it (for those unfamiliar with grad school) is inflammatory and cannot be defended by A*Star. How can you prove that you didn't bribe somebody? Almost impossible.

So A*Star threatened a defamation lawsuit. Heavy handed? I think yes. Wouldn't a simple statement that all of AcidFlask's accusations were without evidence be sufficient?

Philip Yeo: I don't see on what grounds and for what reason the US colleges would sue A*Star if A*Star had openly defended itself at the time. Bad legal advice indeed.

philip yeo said...

Chap is bitter ex-PSC bond breaker.
Picked on A*STAR to grind his envy axe.

Chap refused to delete the defamatory statements.

So Legal counsels recommended legal notice to sue for libel.

Follow on not to post all the defamatory statements was bad advice.
Will ask for refund. :-D

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So A*Star threatened a defamation lawsuit. Heavy handed? I think yes. Wouldn't a simple statement that all of AcidFlask's accusations were without evidence be sufficient?

Philip Yeo: I don't see on what grounds and for what reason the US colleges would sue A*Star if A*Star had openly defended itself at the time. Bad legal advice indeed.

o said...

The heavy handedness came in retaining external legal council. What platform was AcidFlask ranting from? The New York Times? CNN? No, his personal blog. Why bother with such extreme measures for just a "bitter ex-PSC bond breaker"?

As a maths prof of mine used to say: if you're going to swat gnats with a chainsaw, you're going to get hurt.