Jimmy Wales rallies Britain over TVShack extradition

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is spearheading a fresh attempt to block the extradition of a British student to the United States over copyright infringement charges.

Richard O’Dwyer was arrested and bailed in 2010 for being the owner and operator of TVShack, a “resource site” which allowed people to search for web pages hosting videos — many of them pirated. The domain had been seized by U.S. federal agents several months earlier, but after British prosecutors declined to follow up the charges in May 2011, Department of Justice officials launched extradition proceedings.

Now Wales has joined a cohort of campaigners who say that if O’Dwyer is to be taken to court for his activity, it should be in Britain and not in the United States — and that he should not be forced to leave the United Kingdom.

Wales, who now lives largely in London and acts as an advisor to the U.K. government on data issues, made his support for O’Dwyer public announcement in The Guardian. In it, he suggested that big content companies were dictating the law and likening the situation to the recent SOPA protests — in which Wikipedia and other sites went dark in protest.

US authorities claim that O’Dwyer illegally made around £147,000 from advertising displayed on the site over three years. His lawyers contend that linking to other content is not illegal under UK law, and point out that Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service did not pursue charges against him.

Given the thin case against him, it is an outrage that he is being extradited to the US to face felony charges. No US citizen has ever been brought to the UK for alleged criminal activity on US soil. There is a disparity here that ought to raise concerns at the highest levels of government in both the US and UK.

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. Internet users handed the industry its first major defeat earlier this year with the epic Sopa-Pipa protests over planned copyright laws that culminated in a widespread internet blackout and 10 million people contacting the US Congress to voice their opposition.

Internet celebrities, politicians and others have all pledged their support, and petition in support of O’Dwyer set up by Wales currently has more than 12,000 signatures — though a previous petition that raised more than 23,000 signatories failed to get the U.K. government to intervene.

The issue of Britain’s extradition agreement with the U.S. has come up several times before in technology circles, not least in the case of Gary McKinnon — the hacker who broke into American military computers in 2002 looking for evidence of UFOs and has spent the last decade fighting extradition.

But O’Dwyer’s case is more complicated and confusing — and controversial — than McKinnon’s.

First there is the legality of the situation: O’Dwyer has argued that his site was merely a search engine — like Google (s GOOG) — that complied with takedown requests when asked. The fact that he has not been pursued by the British authorities suggests that the evidence against him is not as strong as opponents might hope.

Then there is the fact that none of the alleged crimes were committed on U.S. soil, or by an American. This makes many opponents concerned about the potential implications for cross-border prosecution in the future.

Then there is the unignorable fact that the case involves copyright. This has undoubtedly brought in supporters on both sides, who see his position either as a copyright cartel wanting to prosecute anybody who challenges them, or a scapegoat for a system that does not understand technology. This element of controversy adds an extra layer of difficulty, and adds a shrill tone to campaigning on either side.

It’s impossible to know where this will end up — but it does seem almost certain that O’Dwyer will be fighting his case for a very long time.