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Wikipedia: Royaldutchshellplc.com 10 January 2007

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10 January 2007 VERSION

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Royaldutchshellplc.com

The website royaldutchshellplc.com is operated by Alfred Donovan and his son John Donovan, both of whom are prolific long term critics of the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. A press statement issued by Shell on 17 March 1995 provides an indication of the degree of acrimony already involved over a decade ago between Shell and the Donovan’s and the length of time the Donovan’s have utilised the world wide web as part of their campaigning activities against Shell.

The Internet provides a low cost public platform for ordinary individuals, even of modest means, to reach a global audience to publicly criticise the rich and powerful, including multinational corporations via what are known as “gripe” or “sucks” websites. They can also be described in this context as “corporate critique” websites, in view of the range of Royal Dutch Shell issues addressed on the Donovan website. Examples of such websites can be found on cybergriping.com and in a Forbes magazine article entitled “Top Corporate Hate Web Sites”. An article published in USA Today on 2 July 2005 also provided examples of these increasingly prolific sites and discussed related legal issues. An article published in The New York Law Journal in January 2005 addressed some of the issues relating to trademark law which can arise from the incorporation of a trademark into the domain name of corporate critique websites. In this connection, there have been important developments in case law. One such decision in August 2005 by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (the WIPO), was in respect of the website royaldutchshellplc.com.

Due to an oversight, the management of the Royal Dutch Shell Group had not registered the dotcom name for the new company which resulted from the unification in 2005, of The “Shell” Transport and Trading Company Plc and the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company Limited.

The domain name had already been registered by Alfred Donovan, who exploited a loophole which allows an online critic to legally use a dotcom domain name identical to a target company’s name or trademark. To fall within this category, the gripe site must be non-commercial, with no subscriptions and no paid advertising. To avoid being considered a “cybersquatter”, the domain name and associated website must be active, with no attempt made to sell the domain name, especially to the company holding rights to the corresponding trademark or company name. Shell also attempted to obtain via the same WIPO proceedings, two other Donovan owned domain names: royaldutchshellgroup.com and tellshell.org.

The WIPO, acting for the panel of experts appointed to adjudicate the action, notified the Complainant, Shell International Petroleum Company Limited, and the Respondent, Alfred Donovan, that it was an exceptional case. This allowed the panel more time to consider the complex issues involved. The proceedings generated global media interest. The following is an extract from an article published on 2 June 2005 by The Wall Street Journal(“Shell wages legal fight over web domain name”),: “Later this summer, oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell Group is expected to merge its two parent companies, creating a new corporate entity: Royal Dutch Shell PLC. But go to www.royaldutchshellplc.com and you will find a crude Web site in garish colors where Alfred Donovan, an 88-year-old British army veteran, posts dozens of media reports and commentary, most of it negative, about Shell and the accounting scandal that plagued it last year. Just after Shell unveiled the name of the new entity last October, Mr. Donovan — who has had frequent legal battles with Shell — snapped up the rights to the Web site.” The Times newspaper also published features at the commencement of the WIPO proceedings (Hostile domain) and after they had been concluded.

Ideal features of a “gripe” website

The royaldutchshellplc.com website uses a news based format focused on the activities of a targeted company (in this case Royal Dutch Shell). As a result, the content on the site is topical and changes several times every day. All Shell related news articles are published irrespective of whether they contain positive or negative news about Shell.

Together with its associated websites, shellnews.net and tellshell.net, over 11,000 web pages of information about Royal Dutch Shell are freely available and searchable. The search facility provides a permanent record of all articles. On the royaldutchshellplc.com site there is also a “blog” facility where visitors can post comments. There is also a “live chat” feature.

Donovan website used to make appeals to Shell shareholders, Shell employees, and the public

The Donovan website has been used to publish appeals on behalf of a number of parties who wanted to reach Shell shareholders and/or Shell employees, or the public e.g.

  • An [1] appeal by the WWF] WWF (World Wildlife Fund] in relation to environmental concerns about Shell’s Sakhalin II project in Russia. Part of the WWF appeal published on the Donovan website on 2 February 2006, stated: “If you have a story you would like to tell, then please get in touch with us or Alfred Donovan in confidence, or make your views known to EBRD. This is a crucial time for influencing this project, when it is essential the real story of Sakhalin comes out.” A further appeal on behalf of the WWF was published on the Donovan website in March 2006.
  • An appeal by The World Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility,. The statement by the ECCR published on the Donovan website on 25 January 2006 included the following explanation and appeal: “The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility intends to bring a shareholder resolution to Royal Dutch Shell plc’s 2006 AGM. ECCR believes that Shell’s impacts on `frontline’ communities and the environment in County Mayo, Ireland, the Niger Delta, and at Sakhalin II in Russia merit urgent attention. The resolution calls for a major improvement in Shell’s performance in terms of community and stakeholder consultation, risk analysis, and social and environmental impact analysis. ECCR needs 100 Shell shareholders to co-sign the resolution before the end of February.”
  • On 25 January 2006 an appeal by Zack Brown, an Arctic Wilderness Associate of the U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group). Brown stated: “Our campaign continues to push Chevron and ExxonMobil on the Arctic, but in 2006 most of our attention will focus on Royal Dutch Shell.” He went on to make the following appeal: “As a part of our effort, we are building a large pool of individual Royal Dutch Shell common stock investors. If you, or anyone you know owns Royal Dutch Shell common stock (RDS-A or RDS-B) please contact Zack Brown at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund…”

The Donovan website is also used to publish information by The National Union of Ogoni Students (NUOS International) USA, “an independent, non-profit entity that functions as the students unit of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).” A letter from NUOS INTL. USA to President Olusegun Obasanjo of the Federal Republic of Nigeria was published on 17 December 2006. It demanded that the license granted Shell Oil to operate in Ogoni should be revoked. The following is an extract from the letter “…the worlds’ most impoverished people inhabiting one of the world’s wealthiest span of land. This irony ridiculously fed by succeeding governments of Nigeria and Shell Oil Company is unacceptable.” Shell has unsucessfully attempted to promote a reconciliation process with the Ogoni which would allow Shell to recommence oil production in Ogoniland.

Website recommended by Fortune magazine for information about Royal Dutch Shell plc

On 2 August 2006, CNNMoney.com published a feature from Fortune magazine recommending books and websites focused on the world’s top five companies, as ranked in the “Fortune Global 500“. A company website with a corresponding website critical of the companies activities was featured for each multinational, along with a recommended book. For Royal Dutch Shell, listed as number 3 in the rankings, Shell’s portal website shell.com was cited along with royaldutchshellplc.com. The recommended book, A Century in Oil: The Shell Transport and Trading Company 1897–1997, by Stephen Howarth (ISBN 0-297-82247-0) is an authorized history of the Anglo-Dutch giant.

Connection with Shell Sakhalin II project

Moves by the Russian government in relation to environmental issues concerning the Royal Dutch Shell led Sakhalin II project in eastern Russia has created an international furore, with representations made to President Putin by Prime Minister Tony Blair and many other heads of government. On 18 October 2006, the Donovan’s published an article confirming they had for some time been supplying information to the Russian government relating to Sakhalin II. Information in the form of Shell internal emails and Shell insider comments, posted on the “Live Chat facility on the website, were passed by the Donovan’s to Oleg Mitvol, the Deputy Head of Rosprirodnadzor, the Russian Environmental Agency. The information revealed alleged potentially calamitous flaws. The revelations came at a difficult time for Shell in view of the strong objections voiced by President Putin to spiralling project construction costs which have increased from $10 billion, to reportedly $28 billion. The website provided a conduit for the potentially important information which might not otherwise have reached the Russian Environmental Agency. In November 2006, Oleg Mitvol confirmed in an interview published in “This Week in Argus FSU Energy”, that the evidence on which a prosecution against Sakhalin Energy claiming $10 billion in damages is being mounted, was supplied by John Donovan of royaldutchshellplc.com. Mr Mitvol is quoted as saying: “Who will take Sakhalin Energy to court? I will take them. I have documents proving that the Sakhalin Energy management was aware that the company violated technical standards, but carried on trying to meet project deadlines and refused to stop work. I am confident of winning my case in Stockholm. What documents are these? Where are they from? I have email correspondence between executives in Sakhalin Energy management from 2002. I received these letters from John Donovan, owner of the anti-Shell website www.royaldutchshellplc.com.”

Further confirmation was contained in an Interfax news agency report published by “Johnson’s Russia List”. Intefax reported on 13 November 2006: “On October 19, Rosprirodnadzor deputy chief Oleg Mitvol sent a letter to Sakhalin Energy CEO Ian Craig, asking him either to confirm or deny information contained in confidential e-mails from Shell natural gas field manager Hans Bouman to Engel Van Spronsen, then Sakhalin Energy technical director in 2002. Copies of the e-mails were forwarded to Rosprirodnadzor from John Donovan, a Shell shareholder and the owner of a website providing news on Shell.”

Thorn in the flesh

Mr David Bowen, a “website effectiveness consultant” and author of 200 articles published by the Financial Times and FT.com based on a brief “to write about commercial and other use of the web”, has commented on the web activities of John Donovan in relation to Shell. In a November 2006 article which he authorised for publication on the royaldutchshellplc.com website, Mr Bowen stated in reference to Donovan’s activities regarding Shell: “…in your role as thorn in the flesh of one company, you are clearly highly effective”. Mr Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant to BP and Shell.

Copyright issues

The legal question of the unauthorised use of copyrighted material arises in relation to a news based website which uses material originated by other publishers. On 15 December 2005, Dow Jones & Company Legal Counsel, Selene Costello, sent what is known as a “cease and desist” letter to Alfred Donovan concerning the use of copyrighted material on the Donovan website previously published by The Wall Street Journal. The material related to Royal Dutch Shell Plc Chief Executive, Jeroen van der Veer and the Chairman of the company, Jorma Ollila. The following is an extract: This letter puts you on notice that we regard the above-referenced content to be an infringement of our intellectual property rights. Accordingly, we ask that you immediately and permanently remove the unauthorized content from your website, and refrain from unauthorized use of our intellectual property in the future. Please provide written assurances within seven (7) days that you will comply with these requests. Dow Jones expressly reserves all of its rights and remedies in connection with this matter. As is evident from the correspondence, no further action was taken by Dow Jones & Company after Donovan pointed out that his website operates entirely on a non-commercial basis and consequently, was not profiting from the unauthorised use of copyrighted material.

Defence options available to a targeted company

A gripe site provides a powerful medium to focus public attention on a deeply held grievance and any associated issues, possibly gaining some moral satisfaction in the process (in addition to embarrassing a targeted party) {or}. However, any allegations and comments published on a gripe website must be well founded, or otherwise grounds for a defamation action could arise.

Companies, organisations and individuals targeted by gripe websites have a number of options available to them. The website can simply be ignored, which may be the best course of action if it consists of a single web page which draws little attention. If a site is making an impact, then an attempt can be made to seize the domain name through an appropriate body, such as the WIPO. Alternatively, an approach is sometimes made to the company hosting the website if the targeted company believes that it has grounds to ask the host company to close the site. Another possible line of action is to bring defamation proceedings if anything published on a gripe site is untrue.

Shell high court proceedings involving royaldutchshellplc.com website

In June 2004, eight Royal Dutch Shell Group companies collectively obtained an Interim Injunction and Restraining Order in the High Court of Malay against a Shell whistleblower, a Malaysian geologist and former Shell employee, Dr John Huong in respect of alleged defamatory postings by Dr Huong on a Donovan website. The Shell litigation is directed solely against Dr Huong. Further proceedings against Dr Huong were issued by the same plaintiff companies in 2006 in respect of publications on the Donovan websites in 2005 and 2006. The further proceedings include a “Notice to Show Cause” relating to a “contempt of court” action potentially punishable by imprisonment. The contempt hearing and a related application by the eight Royal Dutch Shell plaintiff companies for Dr Huong to produce Alfred Donovan for cross-examination in connection with an affidavit Donovan provided, is scheduled to be heard in the High Court of Malay in Kuala Lumpur in November 2006. Dr Huong is suing Shell for wrongful dismissal. The next hearing in his claim against Shell is scheduled for December 2006.

Importance of online reputation

In May 2006, it was reported that Shell intends to appoint a digital agency with “experience in turning around corporate reputations” (Campaign Magazine: “Shell seeks agency for online makeover”).

External links

http://www.royaldutchshellplc.com

Times Online report mentioning the case

This page was last edited on 10 January 2007, at 15:36 (UTC).

royaldutchshellplc.com and its also non-profit sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellenergy.website, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net and shell2004.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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