Cliff Stanford, the Internet pioneer has recently had his appeal to quash his criminal conviction for intercepting emails denied. Stanford pleaded guilty last year to intercepting emails from his former company Redbus Interhouse – he argued in his appeal that the trial judge had misunderstood the law.
Stanford was the founder of the ISP Demon Internet in 1992 but sold it to Scottish Telecom for £66 million in 1998. It is reported that Stanford made £30 million from the acquisition. Shortly afterwards Stanford was a co-founder of the co-location and data centre company Redbus Interhouse. However, Stanford resigned from the company in 2002 after disagreeing with the Chairman Jonathan Porter.
In 2003 allegation started to be made as to whether Stanford was involved in the interception of email between Porter and his month Dame Shirley Porter. Stanford and another man were later charged under the Computer Misuse Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 with a trial date set for September 2005. However, both men pleaded guilty to the offence shortly before the case went to trial.
Peters & Peters solicitors for Stanford were reported to have released the following statement:
“Mr Stanford pleaded guilty to this offence following what we regard as an erroneous interpretation of a very complex new statute. The Judge’s ruling gave Mr Stanford no option other than to change his plea to one of guilty.”
Apparently, the legal team for Stanford intended to establish his innocence on appeal. However, this has had a severe drawback. He lost.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 provides a defence to an individual who intercept a communication in the course of its transmission from a private telecommunication system, if they can establish:
a) that they are entitled to control the operation of the system; or
b) they have the express or implied consent of such a person to make the interception.
Stanford relied on the position that he had gained access to the emails through a company employee. The employee apparently was given access to usernames and passwords on the email server. Therefore, Stanford argued, he was entitled to access the emails as “a person with a right to control the operation or the use of the system”.
Geoffrey Rivlin QC, the trial judge had a different view. He pointed out that “right to control” did not mean that someone had a right to access or operate the system, but that the Act required that person to of had a right to authorise or to forbid the operation.
Stanford appealed the judge’s decision. However, the Court of Appeal upheld Rivlin’s view. It pointed out that the purpose of the law was to protect privacy. Therefore Stanford’s sentence of 6 months imprisonment (suspended for two years) and a fine of £20,000 with £7000 prosecution costs were upheld.