The History Of Sealand, HavenCo And Why Protecting Your Data Needs More Than Being In International Waters

from the fascinating-read dept

If you were around tech/cypherpunk circles a dozen years ago, you surely remember Sealand and HavenCo (some people incorrectly assume that the two were one and the same, rather than just connected). There was, of course, the famous Wired cover story by Simson Garfinkel, which is still a fun read. The whole thing collapsed pretty spectacularly (or, depending on your perspective, with a whimper) a few years later. There were many reasons why, and law professor James Grimmelmann has put together an amazing, detailed and fun-to-read history of Sealand and HavenCo (pdf) in the form of an 80-page paper for the Illinois Law Review. However, if reading 80-pages seems like a bit much, he's also put together a shorter version for Ars Technica that is worth the read (though it may lead you to just reading the full version anyway).

It's a fun story, though I'm sure some critics will use it to suggest that any attempt to create any kind of "offshore" data haven is doomed to fail. I think that what it does show is that setting up such a solution is extremely difficult, involves a number of difficult to control variables, and needs a lot more than just "hey, we're sorta (but not really) in international waters!" The end result shows that there were problems with Sealand itself, separate from HavenCo, which had its own problems. Combine them all and it's a complete recipe for disaster. This doesn't mean that an offshore data haven couldn't work, but as Grimmelman correctly notes, the appeal of such a thing is actually pretty limited. In a world where the internet really is everywhere (even if some governments try to limit it), the way to route around censorship tends to have more to do with hiding digitally (hello encryption) than physically. Either way, I figured many folks here would get a kick out of the story. Here's the intro to get you interested:
In 2000, a group of American entrepreneurs moved to a former World War II antiaircraft platform in the North Sea, seven miles off the British coast. There, they launched HavenCo, one of the strangest start-ups in Internet history. A former pirate radio broadcaster, Roy Bates, had occupied the platform in the 1960s, moved his family aboard, and declared it to be the sovereign Principality of Sealand. HavenCo’s founders were opposed to governmental censorship and control of the Internet; by putting computer servers on Sealand, they planned to create a “data haven” for unpopular speech, safely beyond the reach of any other country. This Article tells the full story of Sealand and HavenCo—and examines what they have to tell us about the nature of the rule of law in the age of the Internet.

The story itself is fascinating enough: it includes pirate radio, shotguns, rampant copyright infringement, a Red Bull skateboarding special, perpetual motion machines, and the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of State. But its implications for the rule of law are even more remarkable. Previous scholars have seen HavenCo as a straightforward challenge to the rule of law: by threatening to undermine national authority, HavenCo was opposed to all law. As the fuller history shows, this story is too simplistic. HavenCo also depended on international law to recognize and protect Sealand, and on Sealand law to protect it from Sealand itself. Where others have seen HavenCo’s failure as the triumph of traditional regulatory authorities over HavenCo, this Article argues that in a very real sense, HavenCo failed not from too much law but from too little. The “law” that was supposed to keep HavenCo safe was law only in a thin, formalistic sense, disconnected from the human institutions that make and enforce law. But without those institutions, law does not work, as HavenCo discovered.
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Filed Under: datahaven, history, james grimmelman, sealand
Companies: havenco


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Mar 2012 @ 10:35pm

    "This doesn't mean that an offshore data haven couldn't work"

    The issue isn't if the it would work in isolation (ie, you can set it up, and yes, it can be in international waters and subject to few laws), but rather that it has to connect to the world.

    No matter how much you wish that your data is "free" and without restriction, it has to go through the hands of companies that provide the connectivity to get that data online and get it moving. Those companies are subject to the laws of the countries they operate in. Further, the data has to transit those countries, and as such, does become in some ways subject to those same laws.

    With infinite amounts of money, they might, maybe, be able to maintain enough connectivity through friendly places (or those who turn a blind eye) by running really long fiber connections under the sea to those locations, but it's still sort of moot - everyone would know where the data is coming from, and would react accordingly.

    As the US is showing with cases like Mega, they are more than willing to go after anyone, anywhere for sites that interact with American users. You can't hide.

    What was cute back in the day of pirate radio and such is just not feasible in the internet world.

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