So often when people criticise the United States of America, it comes across as misinformed, self-righteous snobbery done largely with the intent of boosting our jolly British egotism. After all, the US has produced some of the finest writers, singers, artists, scientific minds and thinkers the world has entertained—yet now America is to publically disgrace itself by lynching twenty-four year-old Sheffield student Richard O’Dwyer in a gross abuse of unwarranted legal power while the British government avoid their moral obligations to prevent the mistreatment of an innocent citizen. Specifically, the USA is demanding his extradition to face charges of violating Federal criminal copyright laws while our Home Secretary, Theresa May, has signed the extradition notice and is refusing to review her ill-considered decision.
Richard O’Dwyer may be a familiar name but his story deserves telling, if only for clarification. Interested in web development, the Hallam student created tvshack.net which allowed users to search for links to television and movies online. It’s important to be clear; his website did not host copyrighted content, it merely provided links to it. The difference here means the site effectively operated as a pretty useless Google: users could search for whatever they liked but the results tvshack could deliver were very limited. You’d have been hard pressed to find the news on there. More interestingly, the results it did have were only those links which users submitted and the site let the world know exactly where it stood: ‘TV Shack is a simple resource site. All content visible on this site is located at 3rd party websites. TV Shack is not responsible for any content linked to or referred to from these pages.’ Of course, it’s impossible for anyone to write themselves a ‘get out of jail free’ card but consider almost any website with links on it carries this warning –from established institutions such as the BBC through to the Home Office webpage—and see it is a generally recognised and accepted disclaimer. While Richard ran the site, he occasionally received requests to remove the links to copyrighted content and he did so; these weren’t the actions of a hardened criminal hell bent on sticking two fingers up at Hollywood. Are they actions worthy of a ten year jail sentence?
In this pressing situation, it is important to establish question the jurisdictional power of the US; crimes are not crimes everywhere- an obvious example would be the age of consent or the age at which someone can buy and consume alcohol. It seems curious that America feel the need to involve themselves in the actions of a UK citizen, whose actions took place on UK soil and whose audience were largely watching from outside America. And the kicker? His site was hosted on Swedish servers. In fact, Richard and Captain America are only related by some content being American.
The British Government are not bringing any claim against Richard following a ruling in the similar case of tv-links.co.uk, where linking was found not to be a crime. This means the UK does not consider Richard guilty of any offence. Under our law, there will be no charge. No punishment. No jail sentence. It seems extraordinary the US is trying to jail a UK student for a crime that our legal system doesn’t recognise. We aren’t alone in this either– recently the Federal Courts of Canada concluded linking isn’t copyright infringement in the battle of the National Post versus FreeDominion.com.
Why then did Theresa May sign the papers to approve the extradition and what does that say about our relationship with America? Obviously copyright law has an important and substantial function but as this ‘crime’ is unrecognised in the UK, May’s decision seems entirely unfair. Wikipedia co-founder and adviser to our Government on data issues, Jimmy Wales, certainly has voiced his disgust through an online petition to reverse her choice. At the time of writing, 234,000 people had raised their hand in support of the cause. Moreover, a YouGov survey found only 9% of the country thought the extradition was justifiable. Sadly, Theresa May remains in that tiny fraction of the nation and told an enquiring House of Commons with damning finality that the decision had ‘already been taken.’
It is imperative to question the reasoning behind her conclusion. Both she and Prime Minister David Cameron had recently added their voices to a lengthy list of Extradition Act detractors. It is this act America is invoking and yet she has so easily bowed to the pressure. It is a curiosity and an atrocity that American legal teams should be so intent on an individual student in Sheffield. Is it the money? They allege he earned £147,000 from advertising; it seems unlikely a sum so insignificant in comparison to the majority white-collar crime profits would induce the white hot, dogged determination to charge O’Dwyer. Speculation must turn to the corporations who produce the material which is copyrighted; they are looking to make an example of someone. Pathetically, they chose a target they assumed could be bullied; a quiet student who wasn’t yet sufficiently established to be impenetrable (his site worked like a search engine but there’s been
no word on any case against Google, Yahoo! or Bing.) Richard is relying on his court appeal but our Home Secretary should step in and stop the extradition. If not, he will become a victim of American media corporations using their government as frontage. This in itself is an affront to our legal position and serves to fuel Britain’s reputation as something of a doting sidekick to the United States; Britain have never used the act to extradite an American citizen while they are seemingly happy to use it for purposes so trite such as this. The act was intended to be used against terror suspects. Sir Menzies Cambell, former Liberal Democrat leader and advocate, criticised May’s decision, saying the act was ‘never intended for people like Richard.’ Her decision leaves her in a position of legal ambiguity and moral failure.
Richard O’Dwyer has committed no offence under the law of his country. Should he be extradited to the United States, it will tantamount to sending an innocent man abroad to be punished for a crime he could not have known he was committing. The stress, unwelcome media attention and inconvenience this is causing is not acceptable and the Americans should never have involved themselves with so keenly; it is not of their concern. To imprison him under the law of another country is obscene and unjust. Or, simply; you do not punish a rugby player for breaking the rules of cricket.