How Richard O’Dwyer’s love of films led to two-year struggle for liberty
For Richard O’Dwyer, the extradition battle to decide his fate started with a knock on the door of his student room at dawn on a chill November morning in 2010 – and ended almost exactly two years later with a tweet, fresh from court.
In 2007, O’Dwyer – a student interested in South Park, Reddit, and with an abiding love of films – set up a website allowing people to search and share links to places to watch TV shows and movies in full online. The site rapidly grew in popularity, and over several years generated about £140,000 from adverts.
Much of this went on the costs of running a popular site from a student dormitory, but the rest was splashed out on fast food, rounds at the pub, and at least three trips a week for O’Dwyer and his friends to the local cinema.
But despite the fact the site only linked to – rather than hosted – pirated video, over this time it also attracted the attention of the authorities, and early in the morning of 29 November 2010 a group of City of London police, accompanied by US customs agents, arrived at the door of O’Dwyer’s student room in Sheffield. At the same time, another group of officers arrived at his family home in Bolsover. Both were searched, computers taken as evidence, and O’Dwyer was arrested.
The day would mark the start of a two-year fight, pitting the British and US justice systems and politicians against a ragtag coalition of supporters from across the world in a series of internet campaigns – spearheaded by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and the Guardian, but also MPs from all three major parties, writers and entrepreneurs, and the group of families fighting their own extradition battles, particularly Gary McKinnon’s mother Janis Sharp.
O’Dwyer refused a lawyer for this first interview with police, for fear that the wait for a solicitor might make him miss lunchtime lectures. Hours later, the interviews were concluded, the evidence taken, and O’Dwyer was given bail. For a while all was quiet, and more-or-less routine. Five months later in May 2011, when O’Dwyer reported for bail in a London police station, that changed: seconds after being told the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to prosecute him – and the accompanying flash of relief that ensued – O’Dwyer was cuffed and served an extradition warrant, and taken immediately to court.
The shift of O’Dwyer’s battle – from a simple prosecution to an extradition battle, facing two US charges, each carrying a maximum sentence of five years in jail – in many ways affected the life of Julia O’Dwyer even more than her son.
From that moment, the community nurse, who works with terminally ill children, became an extradition campaigner for her son. Having barely used a computer before, she first researched extradition, contacted other families and support services, and took to Twitter. She found support in many areas, as different groups and individuals took interest. Some, particularly in the House of Commons, were aghast to see a British citizen who had built his website in Britain and hosted it in Europe, facing prosecution in US rather than UK courts. Others wondered why O’Dwyer faced prosecution when precedents in US law appeared to suggest that merely linking to content counted as speech protected under the first amendment.
Wales took up the case in June 2012, after O’Dwyer had lost his initial case to prevent extradition and was awaiting an appeal. Launching a huge online petition with the Guardian, he wrote at the time: “From the beginning of the internet, we have seen a struggle between the interests of the ‘content industry’ and the general public. Due to heavy lobbying and much money lavished on politicians, until very recently the content industry has won every battle. O’Dwyer is the human face of that battle, and if he’s extradited and convicted, he will bear the human cost.”
In the months after that campaign was launched, the news for O’Dwyer’s efforts to avoid extradition was initially grim: Theresa May, the home secretary, refused to reconsider her decision not to intervene in order to prevent extradition.
But in the months following, the spotlight remained firmly on extradition, as the decision on the case of McKinnon – an alleged computer hacker with autism who faced extradition to the US – became due, and MPs and panels from across the political spectrum raised concerns about his case and the wider US/UK extradition treaty.
May eventually told MPs she would block the extradition of McKinnon on human rights grounds, but also said she was introducing more stringent tests before trial on which country, the US or Britain, would be the best in which to hear any case for which extradition was mooted – addressing the main concern of many supporters of O’Dwyer. Unfortunately for O’Dwyer, his would be potentially one of the last extradition cases to be heard before such a reform was introduced. His hope lay behind the scenes, as his legal team desperately sought a compromise with US prosecutors. Just as talks were reaching a crucial point, New York was struck by Hurricane Sandy, delaying any agreement. Even on Tuesday night, just hours before the draft agreement was announced in the high court, the details weren’t settled – and so as the news broke from the courtroom, O’Dwyer and his family were as surprised as anyone.
O’Dwyer’s battle against extradition will end strangely: a flight to the US, albeit a voluntary one, an appearance in a US court and a compromise – and those around him say it should all be over by Christmas.