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Homoeopathy multinational Boiron threatens amateur Italian blogger

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d5197 (Published 12 August 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5197
  1. Fabio Turone
  1. 1Milan

A letter sent by the Italian arm of multinational company Boiron, threatening to sue an amateur blogger over remarks he made about homoeopathy, has sparked a strong internet reaction in defence of freedom of speech.

Samuele Riva posted two articles on his blog, blogzero.it, on 13 and 27 July,which included pictures of Boiron’s blockbuster homoeopathic product Oscillococcinum, marketed as a remedy against flu symptoms. The pictures were accompanied by captions, which joked about the total absence of any active molecules in homoeopathic preparations.

On 28 July Boiron fired off a letter to the internet provider, complaining that both the articles and the captions were “untrue and derogatory both of homeopathy and [the] company,” and responsible for tarnishing the company’s reputation and causing “serious damage,” which it could seek to recover in court.

The letter asked the internet provider to remove all references to Boiron and its products from the two articles immediately, and to prevent the blogger from further accessing his blog, or else the company would sue the service provider and the blogger.

“We regularly monitor all media, including the web, to see what is being said about our company, and occasionally we contact those who are critical to ask for corrections [to be made] or to be given the right of reply,” Silvia Nencioni, chief executive officer of Boiron Italy, who signed the letter, told the BMJ.

“In this case we tried in vain to contact the blogger by phone through his service provider, but [they] wouldn’t give us his contact details, so we decided to send the warning letter,” she said.

Privacy laws in Italy make it difficult to obtain contact details of bloggers. “We cannot communicate personal data except to the authorities,” the internet provider confirmed to the BMJ.

“When I was informed of the threatening letter, I removed the pictures and the direct references to the company and its products, while leaving the articles about homoeopathy online,” the 28 year old computer engineer from Milan told the BMJ. “I also sent an email to the company telling them I had complied with their requests, but have not received a reply so far.” He then published a post about the warning letter, and wrote: “Nobody can prevent me from affirming that homoeopathy has no scientific basis.”

The details were rapidly shared online and collected hundreds of citations and comments within a few days, all of which expressed fury at the company’s behaviour, and sparking a surge in the number of visitors to the blog, from fewer than 100 a day to several thousands.

“We have been depicted as the big multinational bullying the little blogger, but I don’t think this is correct,” commented Silvia Nencioni. “Rather, I would say there was basically a misunderstanding, due to the lack of dialogue and probably the legal jargon suggested by our lawyer.” She was unable to say whether the company would definitely carry out its threat to sue.

“I don’t think we will waste time and energy in the courts. But we will re-evaluate the issue in a few weeks with our lawyer and with the company’s head office,” she added.

In 2004, science journalist Piero Angela triumphed in both the criminal and civil courts after being sued by two homoeopathic associations for saying on Italian state television that homoeopathy was unscientific, and indirectly comparing it to fresh water.

“The courts looked into the scientific evidence we provided, and stated that homoeopaths had no right of reply on public service TV, accepting my view that it is a science journalist’s duty to clearly distinguish between what is science and what is not,” Mr Angela told the BMJ.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5197