Three years after its birth in 2007, SurfTheChannel.com was among the most-visited streaming link websites on the Internet. The site enjoyed more than six million visits a day from 400,000 users who were mainly looking for the latest movies and the most popular TV shows.
The site soon became the focus of an MPAA investigation carried out by the UK’s Federation Against Copyright Theft. As previously documented the anti-piracy groups went to extraordinary lengths to pin down site operator Anton Vickerman and present their evidence to the police.
After the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service declined to take on the case, the MPAA and FACT brought a private criminal prosecution against Vickerman. Accusing him of being involved in a Conspiracy to Defraud the Movie Industry, the tactic paid off. In August 2012 Vickerman was sentenced to an unprecedented four years in jail.
Following an unsuccessful appeal that was rejected a year after his conviction, Vickerman was eventually freed in August 2014. But for the MPAA the matter was from over.
Just months later in December 2014, Vickerman was called before the courts again under the UK’s Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA). It was argued that the money Vickerman made from the site was a proceed of crime and whatever hadn’t already been disposed of must be forfeited to the state – if any could be found.
While Vickerman insisted that all of the money was long gone, police financial investigators said the former site operator had placed money not only in the UK, but also other countries including Spain, Latvia, Cyprus and Tanzania.
“Vickerman moved the money he made out of the UK and into accounts around the globe, but working closely with FACT we were able to unravel his trail of bank transfers running across international borders and demonstrate to the court that six years on this convicted criminal still had access to assets worth over £73,000,” said Claudia Celentano from the City of London Police Asset Recovery Team.
Following a court ruling last December which ordered Vickerman to pay back £73,055.79, the clock has been ticking for the former site operator. He now has little over a week to repay the full amount or face being thrown back into jail for a further 21 months.
In desperation, Vickerman’s family and friends have launched a GoFundMe campaign to try and raise the money.
“As anyone who knows [Anton] personally will tell you he is a man who has been financially ruined by the legal battle with the powers against him and is not a man who has any money. Currently he lives on a council estate in the North West of England with his fiance working multiple jobs to try and put food on the table,” the appeal reads.
“This means that on June 16 [Anton] will be sent back to prison for another ten and a half months which, when added together with his first unjust sentence brings the total to a six year prison sentence [Anton] will have served for the victimless ‘crime’ of owning and running a search engine.”
If Vickerman can’t raise the money by next Tuesday, he will be sent to prison. However, that still won’t be the end of the matter. The 21 month sentence (with half deducted for good behavior) will not cancel out the requirement to settle the debt.
“The debt is for life and survives bankruptcy, it never goes away,” his family explain.
“On release [Anton] can look forward to being regularly dragged back before the courts to explain why he hasn’t paid in full, attachment of all earnings he makes, regular visits from bailiffs to seize any goods (not that he has any now having sold everything he could to pay some of the POCA debt) and, finally, further prison sentences if the UK Government decides that the interest on the debt has risen to a level that justifies more prison time.”
FACT declined to comment for this article but Director General Kieron Sharp previously thanked police for their assistance in the confiscation proceedings.
“FACT would like to thank the City of London Police for their assistance in pursuing confiscation proceedings against Anton Vickerman,” Sharp said.
“This private criminal prosecution produced many difficulties, not least of which was how to uncover Vickerman’s hidden criminal assets without the authorized powers of a financial investigator.”
Whether raising such a large sum of money in a week is a realistic proposition remains to be seen, but if Vickerman is to get any closure the debt (which is subject to interest at 8% per annum) simply has to be cleared. He’s managed to reduce it by £6,000 by “selling anything he owns of value” but that still leaves £67,000.
“Help us stop this never ending persecution of a man who just wants the chance to rebuild his life and start afresh,” his family concludes.