Richard O’Dwyer, a 22-year-old undergraduate studying multimedia in Sheffield, England, rose uncharacteristically early for a student on Nov. 29, 2010, in preparation for a lecture later that morning. So the knock on the door of his small hall of residence room before 7am did not wake him — but he was far from prepared for what would come next.
On the other side of the door waited two officers from the City of London police, accompanied by two leather-jacketed men from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
O’Dwyer’s next two years were about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. The call would place him at the heart of the running battle between the Hollywood giants — struggling to keep their beleaguered business model intact in the online era — and a new digital generation unwilling to play by the old rules. What brought the ICE agents to O’Dwyer’s door was his role in setting up a small Web site, TVShack.net, linking to sites where people could watch US TV and movies online. To prosecutors in New York, this made him a worthwhile target in the battle against copyright infringement.
Although several recent extradition cases to the US have attracted controversy, in none does the gap between the alleged crime and the punishment sought by US prosecutors yawn as wide. Many have been angered by the US’ eight-year effort to extradite Gary McKinnon, who is afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, for allegedly hacking into Pentagon computers; O’Dwyer faces extradition and a potential sentence of up to 10 years simply for letting people in the UK find somewhere to watch Iron Man 2 before its release.
In his first big interview, O’Dwyer tells how he became the unlikely poster boy of the 21st century’s culture war.
“I was up early,” he said. “Then policemen turned up with two American men, wearing matching Top Gun jackets,” he said.
“I was half-waking up, half-confused. When they started talking I couldn’t hear what they were saying, because I was too tired, but it was something about TVShack. So I was like, ‘Okay ... bugger.’”
O’Dwyer, a quiet, clean-shaven man who looks younger than his 24 years, had set up the site in 2007, at the age of 19, at the suggestion of a friend. It was a “human-powered search engine” for people looking for places to watch films, TV and documentaries online. Users could post links to video content — on YouTube, the now-defunct Google Video, MegaVideo or elsewhere — that contained full TV programs or films. O’Dwyer’s site would check the link worked and add it to its search engine. The site quickly became a specialized search engine for TV and film content, plus a forum for people to discuss and review the films.
“I told a few friends and maybe they told a few friends, and it sort of spiraled from there, and shot up fairly quickly, popularity-wise,” he said.
As the site grew, eventually reaching an audience of around 300,000 people a month, so did O’Dwyer’s workload — and Web site hosting bills.
“It’s hard to maintain, with so many people [using it], I had to put adverts on to pay for the Web hosting to get more servers to cope,” he said. “Lots of advertisers seemed to e-mail the contact address on the Web site. I just basically picked one out of the hat and put them on the Web site and obviously, when traffic went up, so did the revenue. That’s the way Web sites work.”