Nominet, the non-profit company in charge of Britain’s web address system, is suing one of its own members, Barnsley man Graeme Wingate, for defamation.
The charge is related to an online video on one of Mr Wingate’s websites, www.avoid.co.uk, that alleges its chief executive Lesley Cowley OBE (pictured) gave inaccurate evidence to an employment tribunal.
The company has rejected the allegations and has issued a claim for up to £100,000 in damages at the High Court.
But Mr Wingate, of Wakefield Road, Barnsley, a businessman who trades in web addresses, is unrepentant and has used his avoid.co.uk site to call for the removal of Mrs Cowley as Nominet chief executive on the basis of what he claims is her own testimony, and other tribunal evidence.
Nominet runs the registry that ensures web addresses connect people to websites.
Given the growing importance of the web for communications and commerce, the company, based in Oxford, is seen as part of critical national infrastructure and although operated privately is overseen by Government.
The video posted by Mr Wingate is about evidence given by Mrs Cowley to an employment tribunal hearing, at which Nominet was found to have unlawfully discriminated against its former legal and policy director, Emily Taylor. The tribunal concluded that Nominet management had engaged in ‘deception’ by using her disability as a ‘pretext’ for removing her from internal email lists, and awarded aggravated damages.
Mrs Cowley was cross examined on a number of issues, including editorial changes to an independent governance review, an executive bonus scheme, and off-the-books communications between Nominet and government officials that led to new laws that allow ministers to seize control of the company.
The video quotes and comments on an unofficial transcript of the cross examination.
Mr Wingate posted his video on his website and on YouTube. Access to the YouTube showing was blocked from Britain in November following a complaint from Nominet.
As a result the Barnsley man moved his website to a host in China in an attempt to resist further attempts to censor it.
And Mr Wingate now has his eyes on a High Court showdown.
“I fully believe in the independence of the High Court and that they will agree with my right as member of Nominet and a business owner to raise legitimate concerns I have made about individuals,” he said. “I have not attacked Nominet’s reputation as a company. I have attacked Mrs Cowley’s leadership and her conduct.
“And I am fully prepared to justify all my allegations in a court of law.”
Writing on his website, Mr Wingate says he has raised funds through private donations to hire a barrister to review any evidence against the Nominet directors.
He added: “I fully believe in the independence of the High Court and that it will agree with my right as a member of Nominet and a business owner who uses .uk domains to raise legitimate concerns about individuals.”
As a member of Nominet, the businessman has similar voting rights as shareholders in other companies.
Mr Wingate is also attacking Nominet’s proposed plan to introduce a more costly new type of web address.
The company wants to sell ‘secure’ web addresses ending in just ‘.uk’ rather than ‘.co.uk’ or ‘.org.uk’. However Mr Wingate and others, including children’s charities, have said the plan will not protect the public and will cost businesses even more money to operate online.
Nominet, which is also seeking an injunction to prevent further publication of the allegations, responded with a statement which read:
“It is with regret that we have today issued formal legal proceedings in the High Court against Graeme Wingate and his company That Internet Limited for publication of defamatory content. We are seeking an injunction to remove this content and prevent its publication in future.
“While we are entirely comfortable with legitimate protest about Nominet’s actions or proposals, there are assertions about Nominet and our CEO published on the avoid.co.uk and that.co.uk sites that are untrue and defamatory.
“The Board is united in its view that harassment and victimisation of our staff is unacceptable, and that Nominet should take appropriate action to support staff and protect our reputation.
“We have written to Mr Wingate and That Internet Limited to inform them that we have been advised that some of their content is defamatory, but our attempts to encourage them to remove the content, discuss the matter or enter into mediation have been rejected.”