Web head

As a lawyer with Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, Jonathan McCoy enjoyed libel litigation but yearned for something a bit more hands-on and commercial. A stint at the BBC took him in-house, but then came a move to Yahoo! at around the time of the dotcom crash. Now, following his appointment this summer as Yahoo!’s European legal director, McCoy has ended up exactly where he always wanted to be.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for me and I love the work,” gushes McCoy. “Unlike other jobs, where you can be exhausted by 5.30 and desperate to leave the office, I get more enthused at Yahoo! as the day goes on. I’m often here working late, but it doesn’t bother me at all.”

McCoy’s enthusiasm is readily apparent. Colleagues say he is almost invariably in a good mood, never short of an opinion and passionate about what he believes – for example, the internet and its effect on the libel landscape. “The internet is about freedom of speech – that’s how it started and that’s what it provides,” he says. Warming to his theme, he continues: “People need to be more robust in a world of instant messaging and internet chatrooms. Look at the allegations concerning the Premiership footballers [in last year’s alleged Grosvenor House rape]. However much message boards are disabled for fear of a defamation claim, the allegations and the players’ supposed identities are going to get out somehow. The internet will ultimately change defamation and, as it stands now, the ‘chilling effect’ of the threat of a libel claim has diminished hugely.”

Having qualified with libel specialists Carter-Ruck 1990, McCoy is in a better position than most to opine on the interplay of libel and the internet. He became a salaried partner at Carter-Ruck during his five-year stay there post-qualification, handling a number of high-profile libel matters and, incidentally, Norman Lamont’s efforts to rid himself of an unwelcome tenant by the name of Miss Whiplash.

One of the biggest cases in which McCoy was involved was Telnikoff v Matusevich, a complex and lengthy battle over obscure nuances of the defence of fair comment in libel. McCoy helped Vladimir Telnikoff eventually obtain an award of £240,000 damages plus costs over a letter written by Vladimir Matusevich which appeared in The Daily Telegraph, but not before the case had been heard by 10 judges in a series of appeals in which every aspect of fair comment was minutely analysed. To an extent, Telnikoff’s victory was Pyrrhic given that Matusevich was relocated by his employers to the US, which refuses to recognise English libel awards. But the case remains key to an understanding of the parameters of fact and comment.

The jurisdictional and enforcement issues in Telnikoff are now bread and butter for McCoy, with Yahoo! itself involved in a test case concerning the sale of Nazi memorabilia. A French court ruled in 2000 that Yahoo! broke French law by allowing the sale of the material on its website (which was accessed in France), and ordered Yahoo! to prevent such sales. If the French court’s decision is recognised by the US courts, there would be major implications for the internet, with France being able to stipulate what its citizens can and cannot access via a US-based website.

Commentators and internet acolytes believe that the French judgment represents one of the greatest threats to the internet to date. McCoy agrees. “It’s a landmark case,” he says. “The danger is that, if you have to adopt the law of the country where the material can be viewed, you are in effect adopting the lowest common denominator. The law in this area is developing all the time, but this case will help to define international internet law.”

Yahoo! is fighting the enforcement of the French judgment on the basis that US courts may not enforce judgments of foreign courts that lack personal jurisdiction over US defendants, because to do so would violate the due process clause of the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.

This kind of cutting-edge legal work is typical of McCoy’s workload. He arrived at Yahoo! as the company’s compliance counsel, responsible for the UK, but soon found himself head of legal compliance for Yahoo! Europe. Now, as European legal director, he heads a team of 10 lawyers spread across Europe in Yahoo!’s offices in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and, in London, near the Embankment on Ebury Bridge Road.

One thing he relishes is the commercial work. “I’d always wanted to be more involved in a business, in helping to drive it forward. We work very hard to help the business team achieve their aims and objectives, and there’s an enormous variety in the legal issues we face. They’re all new problems, though what’s clear is that tried-and-tested legal principles apply as much to the internet as anything else.”

McCoy believes that being “a generalist” is what it is all about at Yahoo!. “So many different issues crop up on any given day,” he says. “There can be hosting issues, letters of intent, spoofing, hacking and other abuse problems, data protection and defamation complaints, and ongoing commercial work such as contracts with business partners or due diligence in an acquisition. A lawyer here has to be flexible and has to have an affinity for the internet and what it’s for.”

Two other lawyers work with McCoy in the UK office, while he uses a variety of outside law firms. Yahoo! does not have a formal panel, but has used Osborne Clarke for general commercial work since its inception, and instructs Baker & McKenzie and Bird & Bird for IT and intellectual property work. Substantial M&A work goes to Davis Polk & Wardwell or Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.

McCoy reports to Yahoo!’s head of international Greg Wrenn, who is based in the company’s California head office (with a total of around 30 lawyers). He travels frequently to the US and Yahoo!’s various European offices, and is also involved in lobbying in Europe on internet legislation. “The job’s much more proactive than life as a litigator, where you tend to be reactive most of the time,” he says.

It might all have been a little different if McCoy’s first job had gone to plan. He left London University with a degree in geology and joined the Royal Navy, with the intention of becoming a pilot. What he didn’t know – and what he soon found out – was that he suffered from air-sickness.

In between Carter-Ruck and Yahoo!, McCoy spent two years at the BBC as a litigation lawyer. He enjoyed his time there, but when the chance of joining Yahoo! came along there was little doubt that he would take it. “It’s been a superb few years here so far,” he says. “There’s a tremendous enthusiasm here, a young team and the kind of commercial involvement that I’ve always wanted. Everything I learnt as a libel litigator has been incredibly useful – and still is. But this is much more me.”
Jonathan McCoy
European legal director
Yahoo! UK Limited

Organisation Yahoo! UK Limited
Sector Internet
Employees 250
Legal capability 10 (Europe)
Annual legal spend £1m-£2m
European legal director Jonathan McCoy
Reporting to Head of international Greg Wrenn
Main law firms: Baker & McKenzie, Bird & Bird, Davis Polk & Wardwell, Osborne Clarke and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom