Published on 25 Jun 2012 Sections ,

Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales backs UK student

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales campaigns to stop the extradition of a British student to the US to face charges of copyright infringement.

Jimmy Wales has called on Theresa May to halt the extradition

Richard O’Dwyer, who created the website TVShack, could face up to 10 years in a US prison if found guilty.

The website, which provides links to TV shows and movies that viewers can watch for free, was among the 1,800 most visited in the world at its peak.

Mr Wales has called on Home Secretary Theresa May to halt the extradition, which was approved in January.

In an online petition on the website, Mr Wales said: “The internet as a whole must not tolerate censorship in response to mere allegations of copyright infringement.

“Copyright is an important institution, serving a beneficial moral and economic purpose. But that does not mean that copyright can or should be unlimited.”

Not a US citizen

Mr Wales went on to criticise the US for its extradition policy, saying: “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 US.

“America is trying to prosecute a UK citizen for an alleged crime which took place on UK soil.”

The petition, launched yesterday by Mr Wales, has been gaining support rapidly and has more than 28,000 signatures.

Mr O’Dwyer’s mother, Julia O’Dwyer, has spoken about the Wikipedia founder’s involvement in the campaign: “It is obviously quite significant to have Jimmy Wales’ support.

“He didn’t do that lightly. He spent a lot of time talking to Richard. It has concentrated efforts to get the message across to the government, because it is in their hands.”

Copyright infringements in the UK fall under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and it is thought that the penalty for such an offence would be a lot less severe than in the US.

Harsh sentences

Were he tried in the UK, Mr O’Dwyer would be likely to face a six-month jail sentence and a £5,000 fine.

David Cook, a solicitor for Pannone who specialises in cyber crime, has represented people in the UK accused of similar offences.

One of his clients, Matthew Wyatt, was cleared of charges brought against him for his use of the music sharing website, OiNK. The founder of the site, which allegedly offered links where users could download music for free, was also acquitted.

Mr Cook says that Mr O’Dwyer’s situation is similar, but that the US law on copyright could lead to harsh sentences.

He explains how the plea bargaining system used in America could be used to put pressure on the accused: “The US have a much more explicit plea bargaining regime in which a person is almost coerced into pleading guilty in order to receive a lower sentence that is only offered for a certain period of time.”

Tenuous link

Mr Cook questions the extradition itself, arguing that the link between Mr O’Dwyer and the US is a tenuous one.

“Even though he has never set foot on US soil, Richard O’Dwyer can be tried by an American court on the basis that the domain that hosts his website is based in Arizona.”

“It seems perverse that the US continue to push for the extradition of a student who is not even supposed to have hosted the material on his site and who may have had a defence, had he been tried in the UK.”

This is not the first case of extradition from the UK to the US to hit the headlines in recent times.

British citizen Gary McKinnon, accused of hacking into a US military computer in 2002, has been fighting extradition to America for over a decade.

Mr Cook believes that the two cases are similar: “Both situations involve a vulnerable person being targeted by the US and put through a public shaming and unnecessary ordeal that they hope will send a message.”