"Someone has taken down my website!"
Julia O'Dwyer was at work when the news came through, last week. Working in palliative care, she couldn't easily go online to hear the result. “But I have a Blackberry, so I had a sneaky look,” she says. And in this way she learned that Gary McKinnon, who has fought against extradition to the US for the best part of a decade, had finally been reprieved to stay in the UK.
Great news for Gary, she says, and for his tireless mother Janis. And it meant that O'Dwyer's son Richard would now move into the spotlight McKinnon had occupied – because to many people Richard's threatened extradition to the US looks every bit as unjust.
The 24-year-old faces at least five years in a US prison for alleged copyright offences relating to TVShack.net, a website he set up, providing links to places where users could watch TV shows and films online. His next date in court is 4 December.
Theresa May's announcement, last week, doesn't make it any more likely that Richard be reprieved. “Some people have said, ‘This might give hope to Richard O'Dwyer,' but I have not seen any reason why it should.”
Indeed, the US authorities, having been deprived of McKinnon, may be all the more determined to get O'Dwyer. “Each case is different. The Home Secretary's decision lifts the spirits for Gary, and his mum Janis, but the law has not been changed. I wouldn't want to get Richard's hopes up.”
Indeed, Julia had not even spoken to her son about it when I met her, days later, at the family home in Bolsover, Derbyshire. “He may be oblivious about what has happened.”
Richard's troubles began in November 2010, when police arrived early in the morning to raid, simultaneously, his room at university and the family home.
When Julia saw three police officers at the door, she feared the worst. “I thought, Oh, God, Richard's had an accident. But they said it wasn't that.” Instead, the police wanted to know what she knew about the website Richard had set up, and asked to examine his bedroom. There wasn't much in his room. “They thought they were going to find the trappings of wealth, cars outside with customised plates. But they hardly found anything. They said, ‘You've got nothing.‘”
They took away some receipts for web hosting, and asked Julia to come in to the station for questioning.
She had known about his website, but had not paid much attention to it. As a paediatric nurse working in the NHS, she had little to do with computers herself, but her son had always been interested, and had grown up taking them apart and rebuilding them. Now he was studying computing at Sheffield Hallam University. He'd set up TVShack on the suggestion of a friend. Members of the public suggested links, which were verified before being put into a search engine. The site also provided a discussion forum for film and TV enthusiasts. It attracted surprising numbers of visits, and Richard put advertising on it to pay for the hosting and other expenses.
As the number of visits had gone up and up, the ad revenue had started flooding steadily into his Paypal account. But for a long time, nobody really counted how much money the site was making. (Police investigations would show that the site earned an impressive £147,000.) When Julia eventually found out, she told Richard he needed to open a business account, find an accountant, and put money aside to pay tax.
In the summer of 2010, something happened to the site. “I remember, he was sitting up there on a bar stool in the kitchen,” says Julia, waving a hand across the kitchen, “and he said, ‘Someone has taken down my web site!‘” Visitors to the site were confronted with a lengthy legal statement to the effect that the domain had been seized by American authorities fighting copyright theft. Only with hindsight did she realise the significance of that incident. At the time, she didn't take much notice. “I remember him saying, ‘I'll sort that out. America has nothing to do with me. And he set up the website on a new domain in just a day or two.”
The US authorities objected to the site providing links to content that was, in some cases, under copyright. Selling fake CDs or DVDs of copyrighted work is an offence, as is deliberately uploading such a work to the internet – and the officials, after campaigning from industry bodies, argued that even linking to illegal items on other sites was an offence. It's a controversial view even in the US – search engines like Google provide those kinds of links automatically.
While Julia was helping the police, Richard too was taken in for questioning. Transcripts show that he had no solicitor, answered the questions he was asked, and spent a lot of the time in tears. Back home afterwards, amid yet more tears, his mother assured him they would sort it out somehow. And then they heard nothing till six months later.
Arriving as previously agreed at a police station in London, they were told Richard faced no charges here – but there was a warrant for his extradition to the US. He had to go to court immediately. He was handcuffed and bundled into a car, and Julia was left to find her own way to court.
“And after that it became terrifying.” She spent hours at the court. “It was full of people, mostly Eastern Europeans, having their extraditions rubber stamped. I thought, my God, bloody hell, Richard is next.” In reality, that was never going to happen – but nobody explained to Julia or Richard what was going on. “They don't give you a leaflet,” she laughs bitterly, and the barrister sent to help was no expert either.
Richard was presented with two US charges: criminal infringement of copyright, and conspiracy to commit criminal infringement of copyright. Each carries a maximum five-year prison sentence. Not having a passport with him – it was in Derbyshire – he couldn't be bailed and had to spend the night in Wandsworth prison.
In the weeks that followed, Julia proved unable to stop thinking about Richard's situation, and bursting into tears. She was not fit for work, so stayed at home and spent every minute researching extradition. She got a Twitter account (@JRODwyer), and made contact with McKinnon's mother, as well as others such as the so-called NatWest Three, who had experience of extradition.
Extradition hearings are based solely on proving there is a case to answer in the US – that the alleged actions, if proven, would be a crime in both countries, and other technical points. But there is no scope for challenging the case itself – not until it comes to court in the US. Typically, that means waiting for trial for a year or more in a Federal prison.
Richard's supporters have included politicians from every major party, Liberty, the founder of Wikipedia, and some 250,000 signatories to a petition, on Change.org, saying that if his actions constituted a crime he should be prosecuted here. (He has not been to the US since he was five years old.)
The extradition treaty is unfair, campaigners say, because it gives much better protection to US citizens. “Not a single US citizen has been extradited to the UK for committing a crime here while they were in the US,” says Julia.
When Theresa May announced the reprieve for McKinnon, last week, she added that there are plans to rectify this injustice. Henceforth, if the bulk of the activity in an alleged crime is conducted in the UK, the case should be prosecuted here too. But the law will only change, if at all, when parliamentary time allows – and that won't be soon enough, Julia fears.
Like any parent, she has done all she can for her son – because he would never have been able to manage it himself. “Richard didn't have a clue,” she says with the frustrated fondness that many parents will recognise. “At first, he just thought, ‘It's mad, it's not happening.' He buried his head in the sand. I always tell the lawyers to copy me in to everything, because if they only send things to him, he'll delete them. ‘I don't want that extradition crap on my computer,' he says. And he doesn't want to talk about it if he can help it.”
Irresponsible? Perhaps, but the sheer magnitude of what has happened to the 24-year-0ld has simply overwhelmed him. “That's his way of dealing with it,” his mother says. “He once told me, ‘If I had to think about that every day, I would slit my wrists.‘”
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times