As most of you know, I recently received a threatening letter from the University of Queensland. This letter made a variety of threats and demands. The the strangest one was it suggested I’d be sued if I showed anyone the letter. Today, I intend to challenge that claim.
Some people suggested I should have immediately published the letter. I understand that view. It was my immediate reaction upon receiving the letter. The idea of a university from another country suing me because I published a letter in which they threatened to sue me was laughable. It was as empty a threat as I could imagine.
Still, I’ve been told I let myself get baited too easily. It seemed unwise to act hastily rashly when the issue of a lawsuit was at hand. I thought taking a few days to think about matters was sensible.
I have now, and I’ve talked to a number of people about this. Everything I’ve seen and heard agrees: The threat against me publishing the letter was bogus and pathetic. It might have even been unethical.
As such, I’m now going to publish the letter in full. You can find it here. If the University of Queensland wants to try to back up its threat, it can.
In the meantime, I’d like to challenge more than just the University of Queensland’s attempt at intimidating me into silence. I’d like to challenge several factual claims made in the letter. Specifically, the letter makes three claims I find difficult to believe:
1. The intellectual property in the data set (the “IP”) [I] have in [my] possession is owned by the University of Queensland.
2. The University of Queensland has contractual obligations to third parties regarding the IP. Any publication of the IP will expose the University to civil actions from third parties.
3. The University of Queensland has conducted a forensic investigation and it appears that the site where the IP was housed has been hacked
That is a quote from an e-mail response I sent to Jane Malloch, solicitor for the University of Queensland and author of the threatening letter. I expressed doubt about each claim and requested the university justify them. I received no response. I’m not sure why. All I am sure of is it is unreasonable to expect people to believe things simply because you say they’re true. We should look at what evidence there is, not just take one person at her word.
When we look at the available evidence, these claims don’t seem to hold up. Steve McIntyre has pointed out the Consensus Project was carried out by Skeptical Science volunteers. No indication was given the project was tied in any way to the University of Queensland. The data was stored on a third-party website. If the University of Queensland owns this data, there’s nothing to indicate it.
Naturally, if the data doesn’t belong to the University of Queensland, it cannot have the supposed contractual obligations regarding it. Let’s assume, however, it does own the data. Let’s also assume the University of Queensland had the obligations it claims to have had. If those things are true, why was the data stored on a publicly accessible, third-party website? Wouldn’t that failure to protect the data amount to a violation of the supposed contractual obligations?
Finally, what kind of forensic investigation did the University of Queensland do? I clearly didn’t hack anything. I guess it’s possible someone other than me hacked into the site I got the material from, but in that case, why would they direct the threat to me?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I could guess the answer is universally, “The University of Queensland made that up,” but I don’t know. Maybe some of what they said was true. Maybe none of it was. I hope to find out in time.
Until I do, I want to challenge the University of Queensland to stand by what it has said. I’m calling their bluff. I’ve published their letter, and I await the legal proceedings we all know will never come.
But that’s not the challenge I’m most interested in. I’m more interested in something else, something I find far more troubling:
Nobody has told me what I need to keep confidential. Nobody has explained why I need to keep things like datestamps secret. Nobody has explained how knowing people performed 65 ratings two years ago (to the day) could affect anyone’s contractual obligations. Nobody has explained how disclosing material like that could possibly harm anyone.
So here’s the challenge I want to propose to the Skeptical Science team, to the University of Queensland, and to anyone else who thinks I shouldn’t release the data I possess:
Tell me what material I possess could cause harm if disseminated. Tell me what agreements or contractual obligations would be impinged upon if that material were released to the public.
If you are unable or unwilling to meet such a simple challenge, I’ll release the data and you can bite me. I mean, sue me.