Use a Dot Com web address? Then you're at risk

Do you have a website or blog with a .com, .net or .org address? Do you have some responsibility in your workplace for a website that does? Is your website, whatever its address, hosted by company based in the US?

Then watch out. The US authorities could take your website down if they think it is breaking US laws. More importantly, they could take YOU down - extradite you, put you in the dock in a US court, and jail you.

The US claims jurisdiction over websites, wherever they are run from, if they are hosted on servers located in the US - and many of the most popular and cheapest web hosting companies are located in the US. But if you think that by avoiding US web hosting companies you can stay safe, think again. The US also claims jurisdiction over a number of apparently "international" domains, including .com, .net .org, and .tv, because the companies that administer these domain names are located in the US.

Babar Ahmad and Tahla Ahsan are facing extradition to the US to face terrorism charges arising from their alleged involvement with a website that was hosted, for a short period, on servers in the US. Their connection with the website has yet to be established. You might think it would fall to a British court to decide on that, and to decide whether or not the website was legal. But neither the British nor the US governments want that to happen. Ahmad and Ahsan's application to the European Court of Human Rights to have their extradition blocked was rejected on 10 April, but they still have a right to ask a larger panel of European Court judges to look at their case.

Think the US will only do something like that if it thinks its security is at stake? Think again.

Richard O'Dwyer is facing extradition to the US to answer charges of copyright infringement solely because his site TVShack.net used a US-administered domain name. His lawyers have argued that his websites broke no UK laws. The judge at his extradition hearing disagreed, concluding that the allegations against O'Dwyer, if proven, would be offences in the UK. But if the US has its way it will be US courts, in the end, that decide Richard O'Dwyer's fate. He has lodged an appeal against the UK Goverrnment's decision to allow his extradition.

More cases like this are inevitable. New Zealand based web expert Vikram Kumar says:

"When a government finds a means that works, the range of ends to which it feels justified to apply that means can expand very quickly."

What you can do to stay safe

  • If you live in the UK, contact your MPs (you can use www.writetothem.com) and demand that they repeal the Extradition Act 2003, which allows the US to seek your extradition without having to present any evidence in a British court. And tell your MP that the extraditions currently in the pipeline must be stopped. The people the US is trying to extradite should be tried in Britain if there is any evidence against them.
  • If you live elsewhere, make sure that your country's extradition laws are French style (French citizens are not extradited to the US), not British-style. If your country has British-style extradition laws, ask your democratic representatives to change them.
  • If your website uses a US-administered top-level domain such as .com, .org or .net, consider changing it to something else, such as .co.uk, .org.uk. With care, it need not cost you web visibility. One day you may be very glad you did it.
  • If you have influence in a business or organisation that uses a US-administered top-level domain, encourage them to consider a change.
  • If you work with such a website as part of your job, ask your trade union to look into the legal risks you may be exposed to. Perhaps your employer thinks the magic of a .com domain is worth the risk. Your union should ask them to think again.
  • If you live in the UK, contact the Director of Public Prosecutions to demand that Babar Ahmad be put on trial in the UK. It's the right thing to do (Ahmad's alleged crimes were committed in the UK, the evidence against him was gathered in the UK by British police, and he is a British citizen). It's what Babar Ahmad wants. And it will set a precedent that makes it less likely that YOU could be extradited to the US. More info about writing to the DPP