Anonymous Courtroom Notes Raise Serious Questions About SurfTheChannel Conviction
from the a-nod,-a-wink-and-a-false-beard dept
Update: The blog has been taken down, but a Google cache remains.
We just wrote about the extremely troubling ruling in the UK that has left Anton Vickerman, the operator of the TV linking website SurfTheChannel, facing up to ten years in jail. The charge is the rather ambiguous "conspiracy to defraud", which is not surprising, because it's still not clear what STC did that was actually illegal—it certainly wasn't copyright infringement, since similar sites in the UK have been found to be non-infringing in the past. These websites don't host any pirated content, they only index links to videos on other sites—and there's no evidence that their operators assisted in the uploading of that third-party content. At worst, it can be argued that they were somehow implicitly encouraging their users to upload infringing content and submit the links, which is why "conspiracy to defraud" is just about the only charge that could stick. The UK has a notoriously low bar for conspiracy charges, which can be used to go after people who have gotten on someone's nerves without really breaking any laws, and this has been the subject of controversy for some time.
But, even when it comes to the conspiracy charge, there are some serious questions that need to be answered—especially after a look at this collection of notes from the trial posted by an anonymous blogger. I'm taking this information with a grain of salt, because the source is unidentified, and it also can't be ignored that the notes are one-sided and focus on flaws in the prosecution's case—so there may well be another significant side to the story. But there is also enough specific information about the case that it seems unlikely that the notes are fake, and some of the things that happened look very bad no matter what other evidence was presented.
First, there are several things the judge did that are concerning:
- Judge leaves jury little choice after directing as a matter of law that knowingly linking to infringing content is illegal despite no such offence in the UK;
- Judge ignores SportsRadar High Court judgement that states if an infringement takes place it takes place in the country the server is based (linking to infringing content legal in Spain where SurfTheChannel was based);
- Judge states "if I have got the law wrong then a higher court than this one will sort it out";
What the entertainment industry has wanted all along is for linking to content to simply be illegal, so they twist around interpretations of various laws to try to make it so. From the sound of it, the judge let that happen to some degree, despite precedent to the contrary. The notes then go on to detail the activities of FACT, the Hollywood-backed private group that independently investigated Vickerman (without police knowledge) then helped set up the raid on his offices. Their investigation included posing as potential home buyers to gain access to his house, and telling service providers (like his ISP) that he was selling counterfeit DVDs to get them to share information about him. There was even a bizarre dispute about whether or not Vickerman was wearing a false beard at some point, but the details are unclear, and the FACT agent claimed in court to have lost the log book about the incident. FACT also admitted that it conducts about 15 of these surveillance operations a month. Other statements made by FACT reveal that it was extremely sloppy in its evidence gathering methods, and that it had a clear goal of shutting down STC regardless of legal authority:
- FACT Ltd staff admit to attending raid on Vickerman's address with USB stick that contains a replacement home page to be placed on SurfTheChannel website that states “This website is under investigation” despite having no legal authority to do so and in contravention of the Computer Misuse Act 1990;
- FACT Ltd contractor Ben Clelland admits to copying all case evidence from Vickerman’s computer to a USB drive, putting USB drive in pocket and leaving house without alerting Police that this evidence existed or bagging and tagging it. All forensic evidence in case emanates from this USB drive.
- FACT Ltd contractor Ben Clelland admits to “making a mistake” by not attaching a write blocker to his examination computer before examining USB drive data. All file creation dates on evidence are changed.
I don't know the details of UK procedure, but it sounds like there should be serious questions about the admissibility of that evidence. The other component of FACT's case was their star witness, Brendan DeBeasi, who had been involved with STC in the past and admitted offering to bring the site "to its knees" for the highest bidder. DeBeasi faces charges in the U.S., and testified in exchange for immunity and more:
- DeBeasi says he is not tailoring his evidence to help FACT despite admitting that his immunity deal in the US is dependent on him “performing well” in the Vickerman prosecution;
- DeBeasi admits MPAA offered him a job not long after he agreed to cooperate in prosecution of Vickermans;
A representative of the MPAA also testified, revealing that he posed as a potential STC investor to gain access to Vickerman. Then, some interesting facts about the MPAA's broader strategy were revealed. It turns out that STC had commercial deals with some networks, including A&E and Discovery, but those partners withdrew before the charges were brought—allegedly under targeted pressure from the MPAA:
- Defence accuses the MPAA of arranging commercially damaging news stories containing false information about STC in an attempt to isolate it as a “piracy site” so that its commercial partnerships with TV networks such as Discovery Channel, A&E Television Networks and others are destroyed;
- [MPAA representative] Pascal Hetzscholdt admits that senior MPAA personnel including John Malcolm contacted NBCUniversal to pressure them into terminating A&E Television Networks partnership agreement with SurfTheChannel;
The notes also highlight several serious errors on behalf of FACT's lawyer throughout the trial. Most notably, the prosecution repeatedly presented digital forensic evidence that was clearly flawed and in some cases seemingly presented in a very selective way to paint a picture of guilt. Though FACT did back down on some of these instances, it casts a lot of doubt on their approach to building a case:
- [FACT Prosecutor David] Groome opened case by saying that the Chinese websites linked to by STC are “run by Chinese Gangsters”, “obviously and completely illegal” and “owned by thugs” amongst other things. Anton Vickerman accuses him of misleading the jury when he presents evidence that the sites referred to (Youku & Tudou) are listed on the New York Stock Exchange and that another (56.com) is funded by the Venture Capital arm of FACT Director Walt Disney Studios. Vickerman also presents evidence that many of FACT's directors have partnership deals with these so called “Chinese Gangsters”;
- Groome tells jury that there were many many movie files found on Vickerman's computers and that he was uploading them to third party websites before linking to them from STC. This is again proven false when the defence shows that there is only 1 movie file found on any of Vickerman's computers and the other handful of video files are for TV shows all of which were downloaded for personal use. The defence also shows that there is not one shred of evidence that any uploading took place from Vickerman's computers despite 3 separate teams of forensic investigators inspecting the computers;
- Groome tells jury that Vickerman saved specific forum posts and private messages to his computer that talk about uploading and other controversial topics. Vickerman accuses Groome of again misleading the jury by showing that the posts they have exhibited are extracted from a backup of the forum which contained 91,000 posts which he had only seen a tiny amount when browsing the forum from day to day. Groome tells the jury that a spread sheet produced by the prosecution proves that links to movies were added to the STC site by Vickerman from his computer. When Vickerman says that is not true Groome tells him that he is therefore calling FACT witness Andrew Smith a liar. Vickerman then points out that the spread sheet is an extract created by Smith of a backup from the STC database that shows list of links to movies added to the STC database by those users. Not Vickerman adding the links from his computer. Groome eventually agrees.
- Groome ambushes Vickerman with a printout of a forum post and accuses him of running a server that staff uploaded material to which was then streamed to STC's users. Vickerman flatly denies this and explains that he is getting confused and that STC used a complicated system for hiding its links from its rivals. The next day Vickerman accuses Groome of misleading the jury again by printing out only the first page of the forum post when the third page actually shows that the forum thread is regarding the link hiding system not the hosting/streaming of content by STC.
Vickerman himself raised some damning points as well, including something that sounds a lot more like a genuine "conspiracy"—evidence of infringing links being added to the site by anti-piracy groups themselves:
- Vickerman explains that SurfTheChannel's then number one rival, BlinkX.com, has commercial partnerships with every one of FACT's directors despite BlinkX.com having the exact same links that FACT is using as evidence of illegality in this case;
- Vickerman provides unchallenged evidence that Anti-Piracy companies, in particular Aiplex Software, are responsible for automated adding of around a million links to the STC website.
(Interestingly, BlinkX.com—once a well-known pirated TV destination—seems to have been recently scrubbed of most infringing links.)
Again, it's entirely possible that there are errors and omissions in these notes—but the points of concern really are piling up. It seems insane that Vickerman faces ten years in jail for actions taken primarily, and perhaps entirely, by the users of his website and not by him. In court he noted that he researched the law and received advice that merely linking to infringing material was entirely legal—and from the many apparent flaws in the evidence showing that he participated in uploading, it looks like he was careful to ensure that he didn't cross that line. Some will call this exploiting a legal loophole, but it's not a loophole—it's a vital safety valve on copyright, a law that already flirts dangerously with curtailing freedom of speech. It is not illegal to merely point to something in the internet. The real legal loophole is the charge of "conspiracy to defraud"—a seemingly magic way to create a general sense of wrongdoing where no lucid laws have been broken.