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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 11:54 GMT
Comedy site has plug pulled
Cross-community satire: the Portadown News
An acclaimed comedy website which ridicules Northern Ireland politics has had the plug pulled on it by Freeserve. But, writes BBC News Online's Giles Wilson, the site refuses to be decommissioned.

Many UK websites have tried - and failed - to become as reliably funny, pointed and popular as The Onion.

The success of one stands out, though. It's not produced in a flashy Soho office, it's put together by one man, at home, in an unglamorous town in County Armagh, Northern Ireland.

It is the Portadown News. In eight months, it has built a dedicated following of about 1,000 people each weekday - a huge audience for a one-man hobby website.

The Onion, credited with proving that Americans do get irony
Its appeal for many is in an uncompromising "plague on both your houses" approach to the politics of Northern Ireland.

In the week of the IRA decommissioning, it reported that Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had asked his wife to do the dishes. "I am not my wife, although I do have some influence over her decisions," he is quoted as saying, adding: "While the important thing is that the dishes are in the sink, the time has come to put them in the cupboard."

Cross community satire

Nor do the loyalists escape being targeted. During the stand-off at Drumcree earlier this year, it reported that the Vatican had sent a Holy Water Cannon. "Spraying Holy Water on Orangemen is pretty much like spraying ordinary water on them," it said, "but it will really annoy them, and that's the main thing."

A roadblock during the Garvaghy Road dispute earlier this year, a familiar image of Portadown
The man responsible for the Portadown News prefers to remain anonymous, wary of what could happen if his name or face became widely known.

Last week he discovered that Freeserve, the ISP giant whose servers had been hosting his site, had pulled the plug on the whole thing.

He told BBC News Online: "Annoyingly they didn't bother letting me know at all. I had to phone their helpdesk and even then they wouldn't explain the situation."

It emerged that someone had complained to Freeserve about the site, and the company had then judged that it broke their terms of service because it was "abusive", "racist", and was likely to cause "offence and anxiety".

The internet's about freedom, and Freeserve is about freedom

Freeserve spokeswoman
PN's editor confesses that he sets out to cause offence, and the site does include a fair amount of bad language. But its readers would no doubt be surprised if it was taken to be anything other than comedy, aimed at both sides. It is not obviously a "hate" site.

On its discussion pages, one reader characteristically proposes that everyone should write letters of protest to Freeserve, and then find a volunteer to go on hunger strike.

A spokeswoman for Freeserve confirmed that the Portadown News would not be hosted again by the company. She said: "We won't put ourselves in the role of publisher. The internet's about freedom, and Freeserve is about freedom. It's not our policy to police sites at all, but if we receive complaints we will investigate them."


The matter has again highlighted the difficult legal position internet service providers are in. For while they are not usually responsible for the content of websites they host, they can become liable if someone complains about something and the ISP does not remove it.

This can have the consequence of ISPs barring sites simply because that is the easiest, safest course of action for them to take.

The Portadown News editor says the law has the effect that anyone can get a website banned "just by complaining to the ISP".

After legal action brought by Laurence Godfrey (above), the situation changed for ISPs
"Once a personal webpage really takes off, it's bound to offend somebody sooner or later and that's when the ISP gets an excuse to close down the site and dodge the current legal minefield.

"I think the whole episode reveals a gutless ISP industry, running scared of the fear of lawsuits which any professional industry would be aggressively contesting to protect its customer's interests."

After a court ruling last year some experts warned that ISPs would be forced into the role of policemen. Others warned that ISPs would remove legitimate but contentious material, simply to be on the safe side.

But the editor of the Portadown News is not to be discouraged by falling foul of his ISP. He has found a new home for his site and its archive of back issues. His discussion boards are unaffected, and he has arranged a new domain name.

And his ambition - far from wanting to become a UK version of The Onion - is simply to be well read within Northern Ireland. That and continuing to cause the odd bit of offence.

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