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A Russian Oligarch Faces the “Streisand Effect”

What happens when Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov tries to buy Arsenal, the world’s top football club — and runs into media trouble?

September 28, 2007

What happens when Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov tries to buy Arsenal, the world's top football club — and runs into media trouble?

What do Alisher Usmanov — a Russian oligarch of Uzbek origin and a potential owner of the top-ranked British football club, Arsenal — Apple, the tech giant, and Diebold, a company that produces electronic voting equipment, have in common?

All three have suffered from the “Streisand Effect”, an emerging virtual disease that is giving headaches to public relations professionals all over the world.

The term was jokingly coined in 2005 to describe an Internet phenomenon where attempts to censor or remove a certain piece of information backfire and often lead to consequences entirely opposite the ones intended. This is because information often receives wide publicity and is often mirrored and distributed on peer-to-peer networks that are usually out of anybody’s control.

The term got its name from Barbra Streisand’s unsuccessful efforts to suppress the publication of photos of her Malibu house in 2003. Streisand’s actions almost seem naive today. Her $50 million lawsuit against the photographer was a perfect pretense to spread the pictures all over the Internet.

Since then, occurrences of the Streisand Effect have been widely observed online.

It has affected all kinds of digital data: iPhone skins for smartphones (Apple’s Streisand problem), HD-DVD keys to unlock DVDs, email streams from MediaDefender, a company involved in tracking those who participate in illegal file-sharing, or internal email streams from Diebold that revealed the company was concerned about the security of its own voting machines — all this data has been widely shared online despite numerous complaints from the original right-holders.

Paradoxically, the occurrences of the Streisand Effect are becoming more common. Potential victims do not learn much from mistakes of others.

Instead, organizations that find their reputations or business models threatened by the sharing and linking culture of the modern Internet — represented by blogs and social news websites like Digg — still believe that lawyers can get them back on track and help regain the ground lost because of file-sharing or Web2.0.

When it comes to controlling how information spreads online, we are essentially talking about asymmetric warfare. The bigger players will never win this war, as there will always be somebody more mobile, more creative and collectively more resourceful than they.

The Internet is too mobile of a battleground for a large corporation, a billionaire or a celebrity to thrive in and win — no matter how many lawyers are involved.

Hoping to defeat the complex network of invisible insurgents who have a panoply of tools and anonymity options unmatched by the corporate world, is not only naïve — it carries big publicity costs for those who are convinced otherwise.

What’s worse (for the companies), many contemporary legal regimes — particularly in Scandinavian countries — provide a legal shelter for these cyberactivists-turned-insurgents, and there is no indication that such laws will become stricter. If anything, they might be relaxed.

Enter the most recent victim of the Streisand Effect, Alisher Usmanov. He is ranked as the 142nd richest person in the world by Forbes and may not have heard of the Streisand Effect until he experienced it recently.

Usmanov, who is bidding for the controlling stake in London’s Arsenal, is under close scrutiny by British bloggers and media. One such blogger — Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan — had hinted that the prison term that Usmanov served during the Soviet times may be for rape, while Usmanov claimed he was a political prisoner.

True or not, Murray’s accusations created a little PR problem for Usmanov.

But what ensued turned into the ultimate PR disaster. Usmanov preferred to resort to British lawyers — not a cup of polonium tea or some other appealing option — to settle his problems.

Schillings, a London law firm he hired, got in touch with the company that was hosting Murray’s blog and asked them to remove it. The hosting company complied, and the blog went offline. Accidentally, several other related and unrelated blogs were deleted in the process.

A digital riot was brewing. More than 200 blogs joined the campaign, some spreading the word about Usmanov and his lawyers, some re-posting the original post from Murray, some drawing cartoons and banners to share with others.

That got traditional media interested and Usmanov Vs. Murray was reported in British newspapers and television.

If Usmanov’s objective was to hide some facts about his past from the public eye, he surely went for the worst option. Murray’s allegations have received enough coverage in blogs and traditional media to qualify for mentioning them (as well as the whole scandal) in Usmanov’s Wikipedia biography, where they are likely to stay forever.

Which reveals a broader trend: Trying to muzzle the blogosphere not only amplifies its opposition but also perpetuates the very stance one is trying to muzzle on user-generated resources like Wikipedia or among Google search results (which, come to think of it, are also user-generated — the more people link to a page, the higher it is ranked on Google).

Usmanov would have been better off keeping quiet and hoping that in the modern age of attention deficit disorder, nobody would remember a word of what bloggers had to say about him 24 hours after publication.

Paradoxically, the best way to avoid greater attention in today’s Internet-driven public discourse is to pay no attention at all. It immediately makes one look cool and celebrity-like — and by tomorrow nobody will care anyway.

Thus, the best piece of advice for Mr. Usmanov and all future victims of the Streisand effect is to counter it with the “Gunter Grass effect.” He is the German writer — in fact, the country’s most famous author of the last 50 years — who made a career out of exploring the country’s unsavory Nazi past.

He was so successful at it — and so moralistic about it — that one little detail escaped everyone’s attention: The man had been part of Waffen-SS himself.

So, the best piece of advice for Mr. Usmanov and all potential victims of the Streisand Effect is to keep quiet and hope that nobody will notice. And, who knows, when the right time comes, one may even want to go public and sell a popular book or two on the subject.