Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has made a rare political intervention to call on Theresa May to stop the extradition of British student Richard O’Dwyer to the US for alleged copyright offences.
Launching an online campaign, Wales said O’Dwyer, 24, was the “human face” of a global battle over the interests of the film and TV industries and the wider public, which came to a head in the global outcry against proposed US legislation, Sopa and Pipa, cracking down on copyright infringement.
O’Dwyer, a multimedia student at Sheffield Hallam University, faces up to 10 years in a US prison for founding TVShack.net, a crowdsourced site linking to places to watch full TV shows and movies online.
“When I met Richard, he struck me as a clean-cut, geeky kid. Still a university student, he is precisely the kind of person we can imagine launching the next big thing on the internet,” Wales wrote in a comment article for the Guardian.
“Given the thin case against him, it is an outrage that he is being extradited to the US to face felony charges for something that he is not being prosecuted for here. No US citizen has ever been brought to the UK for alleged criminal activity that took place on US soil.
“From the beginning of the internet, we have seen a struggle between the interests of the ‘content industry’ and the interests of the general public. Due to heavy lobbying and much money lavished on politicians, until very recently the content industry has won every battle.
“We, the users of the internet, handed them their first major defeat earlier this year with the epic Sopa/Pipa protests which culminated in a widespread internet blackout and 10 million people contacting the US Congress to voice their opposition. Together, we won the battle against Sopa and Pipa. Together, we can win this one, too.”
Wales was at the forefront of the campaign against the Sopa and Pipa bills aimed at enforcing online copyright more vigorously, which many warned would threaten sites at the core of the internet: Google, Wikipedia and others. With other senior editors, Wales set aside for the first time Wikipedia’s vaunted principle of neutrality, blacking out the online encyclopedia for a day as a warning of the consequences of too-strict copyright enforcement.
On Sunday, he launched a petition on change.org, an international campaigning website which garnered 2.2m signatures for a campaign to prosecute the killer of Trayvon Martin in the US. Wales’s petition called on May, the home secretary, to stop O’Dwyer’s extradition.
Under UK law, May must grant permission for extraditions to proceed, so she is able to stop extraditions without recourse to the courts.
O’Dwyer’s cause has already attracted cross-party support in the UK from prominent MPs, including the Liberal Democrat party’s president, Tim Farron, the chair of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, and liberal Conservatives such as David Davis and Dominic Raab.
Other US extraditions, such as those of alleged computer hacker Gary McKinnon and the NatWest Three, have led to calls for reform of the US/UK extradition treaty, which campaigners say is biased against UK interests.
O’Dwyer was arrested by City of London police, accompanied by US customs officials, in his student room in November 2010. Six months later, he was informed that the UK investigation into him would not be pursued, but that he faced extradition to the US.
O’Dwyer, a UK citizen who has not travelled to America since early childhood, faces two charges of copyright infringement and conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, each carrying a maximum of five years in prison. Under UK law, the comparable offences carry a maximum sentence of six months.
In his first major interview since his arrest, O’Dwyer told the Guardian of his efforts to ignore his potential fate in order to try to complete his degree and start his career of choice.
“It does get in the way, it distracts you … if you thought about extradition all day, you’d never get any work done. It’d be a horrible mess. It’s quite difficult but I think I’m managing quite well.
“I think about it sometimes during the day, but I try to think about other things that are more important. I don’t let their extradition warrant ruin my life. Otherwise you’d fail university, just sit in your room all day moaning. They’d be winning if I let it do that.”
Jimmy Wales likened O’Dwyer’s website to Google – as TVShack.net only hosted links to videos hosted elsewhere, it worked much like the search engine. And like Google, O’Dwyer says he complied with the small number of takedown notices from copyright owners he received.
Previous court cases in America have argued that linking to other websites is protected speech under the first amendment. Website owners such as O’Dwyer should also receive protection for content submitted by their users – whether comment or links – under safe harbour provisions.
May has given her permission for O’Dwyer to be extradited, but he remains in the UK pending an appeal to the high court, to be heard later this year.
[Image via Joi Ito, Creative Commons licensed]