Mother of TVShack's Richard O'Dwyer says plan to give UK citizens new extradition protections will come too late for her son
Published 18/10/2012 | 00:42
The mother of a young man facing extradition to the US fears plans to give judges new powers to decide whether a case should be tried at home or abroad will be too late to save her son.
Richard O'Dwyer, a 24-year-old student from Barnsley, is facing up to ten years in a US prison for hosting a TV link site from his university bedsit. The website linked to places where users could watch TV shows and films online but did not host copyrighted content.
He is one of the few remaining British citizens still fighting extradition to the US over alleged cyber-crimes that have taken place on British soil.
On Tuesday, Home Secretary Theresa May halted the extradition of computer hacker Gary McKinnon and announced plans to bring in a "forum bar" which would allow judges to decide if such cases should be tried in Britain. But Mr O'Dwyer's mother, Julia, said she had little faith that the Government would bring in the legislation before her son's case comes to appeal.
"It would be good if they could do that but I don't think they will," she said. "We certainly haven't been given any hope that they might. They can bring in laws quickly when they want to."
The O'Dwyer family watched Tuesday's announcement to halt Gary McKinnon's extradition with a mixture of hope and trepidation. Unlike Mr McKinnon, who was saved from extradition because he was at risk of suicide, Mr O'Dwyer has no underlying health concerns. But extradition campaigners have flocked to his cause as another example of the perceived outsourcing of British justice to America. Almost 250,000 people have signed a petition against his extradition set up by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
"Gary's a different case," said Mrs O'Dwyer. "But it's the same old thing – people being extradited when they've never even left this country and that's not happening to American citizens."
Jimmy Wales said: "Mr O'Dwyer is not a US citizen, he's lived in the UK all his life, his site was not hosted there, and most of his users were not from the United States. The US is trying to prosecute a UK citizen for an alleged crime which took place on UK soil.
"The internet as a whole must not tolerate censorship in response to mere allegations of copyright infringement. As citizens we must stand up for our rights online."
Rachel Robinson, of the human rights group Liberty, said: "The overwhelming support for Richard should send a message to the Government about the public's outrage at our rotten extradition regime - which both coalition partners opposed in opposition.
"It's a mystery why people in Britain are still being hauled from their bedrooms off to foreign courts without any semblance of justice or common sense."
Plans to bring in a forum bar would likely need new legislation in Parliament which means it could be at least two years before any changes are made. Mr O'Dwyer is currently appealing Mrs May's recent approval of his extradition in a case which is due to be heard in the court within the next six months.
Extradition campaigners have long argued for a forum bar. But some legal analysts have questioned whether it would have made any difference in many of the recent extradition cases that have come before the court.
During the recent review of Britain's extradition agreements by Sir Scott Baker, judges at Westminster magistrates – which hears all extradition requests – were asked if they could think of an example where a forum bar might have resulted in a suspect being tried in the UK. They said they couldn't find a single case.
Others have remarked how the forum bar is far from the extradition campaigners' ultimate goal of a renegotiation of Britain's extradition treaty with the US.
Profile: Richard O'Dwyer
The 24-year-old multimedia undergraduate student at Sheffield Hallam University registered the internet domain TVShack.net in 2007, when Mr O'Dwyer was aged just 19.
The website he built provided links to US films and TV shows available to watch on other websites, together with a forum for users to discuss what they were watching. It is claimed that he earned £140,000 through advertisements on his site.
It was shut down on grounds of copyright infringement in June 2010, for helping people to access pirated material elsewhere despite not hosting any itself. Four months later Mr O'Dwyer was visited by police officers who seized his computer equipment and took him away for questioning, before the US launched extradition proceedings.
Julia O'Dwyer: I won't have my son shipped off to America
Like most mothers with children of university age, Julia O'Dwyer paid little attention to what her son Richard was doing on his computer. She knew he had built a website and that he put a lot of work into it. She also knew that he was proud of his achievement: "It was his baby and people loved it," she said.
So when City of London police launched raids on the family home and Richard's digs in November 2010 in search of "the trappings of wealth", she was understandably astonished.
"Richard just had his student room and they said 'Well he's got nothing has he?' I said 'no he hasn't. He's got his laptop, his computer that you have taken, his camera and his phone, and a few gadgets'," she says. "They came looking for Mr Big and they found Mr Stupid Student."
Mr O'Dwyer had incurred the wrath of the mighty multibillion-dollar US movie and entertainment industry after launching a website called TVShack which offered links to films and popular television shows. What started as a hobby had grown in popularity, eventually attracting advertising.
By the time the authorities became interested in the operation, Mr O'Dwyer was studying interactive media with animation at Sheffield Hallam University and earning enough money from his site to run a second-hand car and take his friends out for the occasional pizza.
Home Secretary Theresa May signed the order authorising the 23-year-old's extradition to the United States, where he could face up to 10 years in jail for copyright offences and a potential legal bill of £2m.
But his mother Julia is fighting his corner. The palliative paediatric nurse, who normally administers to dying children, has devoted herself ferociously to the task of keeping her son in the UK.
In the process she has mastered the intricacies of extradition law, international copyright legislation, the internet, media campaigning and political lobbying on both sides of the Atlantic.
Despite the latest setback, she is determined her son will not be sent to New York to face the courts – despite an offer to pay his legal fees by billionaire producer-cum-entrepreneur Alki David.
Mrs O'Dwyer's efforts have bought her in contact with other high profile "victims" of Britain's controversial deportation laws. She has pooled knowledge with the mother of computer hacker Gary McKinnon, swapped notes with the so-called NatWest Three and is in contact with the family of extradited businessman Chris Tappin.
The O'Dwyer's argument, which they intend to put before the High Court in the coming days, is straightforward. "Richard is not trying to evade justice and he may or may not have committed something that was a crime in America. That is not the issue," she says.
"The issue is that it's not a crime here, and he has never been to America. If he has committed a crime in this country then he should be prosecuted in this country. But they know they won't get a conviction in this country because of previous cases."
Having lost count of the number of court appearances she has made in the past year, Mrs O'Dwyer is becoming a powerful critic of the inadequacies of the process, its "bungling incompetence" and the way the odds are stacked against anyone caught up in it.
"If we were fighting in a court of law in England, well we wouldn't be bothered because he'd be safe at home in this country," she says. "But the extradition court is only interested in extradition – it's not really interested in guilt or innocence."
Meanwhile, Richard is continuing with his studies as best he can. "I know he's 23 but he's still my son," she says. "To me any family member or even a friend would need help to deal with this because it is a totally destructive, terrifying thing to be in. "