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.


Reader Comments (rss)

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    Watchit (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 7:49pm

    I remember Sealand... Lovely beaches...

     

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    G Thompson (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 8:06pm

    I've always believed ever since Sealand et.al that the ONLY place to do this properly and with full legal control is Off-planet.

    This could be either somewhere like the Lagrangian points, the Moon itself, or somewhere even more remote since the moon and Lagrange areas would more than likely be militarily seized by some do-good country who has an ego/control/power problem.. you know like the USA Govt/Industrial complex.

     

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      Torg (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 8:15pm

      Re:

      You're making this more complicated than it needs to be. Let's try getting majority shares in DirecTV before jumping to funding our own lunar expeditions.

       

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      ltlw0lf (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 9:17pm

      Re:

      This could be either somewhere like the Lagrangian points, the Moon itself, or somewhere even more remote since the moon and Lagrange areas would more than likely be militarily seized by some do-good country who has an ego/control/power problem.. you know like the USA Govt/Industrial complex.

      The Lagrangian points should be fine. You need to clear the satellite with the US military, but just tell them it is a communications satellite and grab a spot in orbit in the cluster. Once the satellite is in orbit, there isn't much anyone can do since destroying a satellite at the Lagrangian points will likely cause collateral damage. There is a risk of jamming, but with software radio you can jump to any channel they aren't blocking. The biggest problems will be resources to keep the satellite in orbit, solar flare hardening, and the speed of light (which, depending on the point, may give you quite a bit of lag.)

       

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        ltlw0lf (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 9:32pm

        Re: Re:

        just tell them it is a communications satellite and grab a spot in orbit in the cluster

        Even better, it is a space telescope -- but again, speed of light is going to be a problem. A fleet of geostationary communication satellites might work better.

         

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          G Thompson (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 10:10pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          The delay in transmission is fine as long as we are talking about long term data storage, or the delay is built into redundancy protocols for burst transmissions.

          Well unless we are talking about quantum computing with entanglement (twin-pair) communications, or even tachyons... But that's still SCI-FI speculation, or is it :)

          I like the telescope idea too.

           

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            ltlw0lf (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 5:59am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            The delay in transmission is fine as long as we are talking about long term data storage, or the delay is built into redundancy protocols for burst transmissions.

            Not to name drop, but Vint Cerf has some really good ideas about setting up a network in space, and dealing with the problems with lag. I certainly agree with you though -- the only way we are going to be able to free the internet from all unfair/undue/petty manipulations from the sociopaths is to remove the internet from their playing fields. I am not thinking of it solely as a repository (though it would work great as a time capsule,) but as a nice platform for high-lag DNS caching, so if some idiot wants to break the internet, we just move everything to the satellite cache and wait it out. The censorship is killing me.

             

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      Watchit (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 12:02am

      Re:

      Might work. No country can claim ownership or sovereignty in outer space, but the State that launches the installation retains control over that installation, so launching independent of the U.S. would probably help. Also, attacking another sovereignty's installation could be counted as an act of war, which is illegal in space. Though, that hasn't totally stopped some big players before.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 4:35am

      Re:

      we were there first, planted our flag and everything, USA owns the moon

       

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        G Thompson (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 5:06am

        Re: Re:

        And China, Brazil, Russia and a few other major economies own the USA. Ipso Facto, no one country owns the moon, though for your benefit we will allow the USA to own the area's of Luna that they have physically landed on and a 12mile radius around them.

        Good luck with your moon dust, the rest of Luna, and the Solar System out to the Oort cloud is owned by humanity.

        The Rest of the Spiral arm, and galaxy you ask.. Well lets not get too ambitious.

         

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 8:41am

        Re: Re:

        As many a throughout history has found out the hard way...
        ownership only goes as far as your ability to defend your claim.

         

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    G Thompson (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 8:24pm

    DirecTV (I had to look them up) sounds like a great concept. But they are still housed and reside in California and are fully under US sovereign law.

    HavenCo wanted to be their own sovereignty, and to do this sort of thing you need to be. You can not be beholden to any one jurisdiction and need to be your own legal entity and jurisdiction with all powers and responsibilities that entails.

    Off planet is the ONLY place left to do this, even Antarctica is not available, even though it is basically a non-State it is still controlled terrestrially.

    Becoming your own State is complicated no matter which way you put it, though going off world creates it's own unique complications too, though it doesn't have to actually be habitable.. Remote systems as long as backups and other safeguards (and that includes defensive protection) are built would work in the short term as well.

     

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      Watchit (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 12:11am

      Re:

      No one can claim sovereignty in space, which also means creating your own state in space as well. But you can retain ownership of bases or satellites launched into space or to the moon, though that would require some sort of sovereignty on Earth first.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 28th, 2012 @ 8:39pm

    Unless people produce an army to defend such a physical position I don't think there will be anything like that anytime soon.

    Now subverting the very system that governments depend on, now that is the way to go, you don't need to create a new infra-structure just use the one that is already in place and put a layer on top of it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 28th, 2012 @ 9:08pm

    I'll have to read this...

    I remember vividly reading the infamous article. I always wondered what happened but never looked into it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 28th, 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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      Anonymous Coward, Mar 28th, 2012 @ 11:36pm

      Re:

      You talk like pirate radio is dead.

      MODERN pirate radio stations hide several relatively inexpensive transmitters on top of buildings, with a harder to trace uplink to the transmitter from the studio. When one transmitter is tracked down and taken they bring another one online and keep transmitting.

      The pirate bay is now running a similar setup; the web address points only to a chain of relay servers running on cheap VPS hosting. If the authorities take down these servers the pirate bay have other servers ready to go and can be back online as fast as it takes to update the DNS.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 4:57am

        Re: Re:

        It really doesn't matter - the harder you have to work to stay "hidden" the less effective you become. The very publicity that made you famous is what ends up killing you, because in order to have an audience, you need to get known.

        TPB has reached the point where they aren't even trying to suggest they are legal anymore. Now they are just trying one desperate move after another to avoid being left standing on the wrong square.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 5:17am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "TPB has reached the point where they aren't even trying to suggest they are legal anymore"

          I'd like to see citations for that. Or perhaps you are just assuming that just because TPB got bored of telling dumb assholes that what they do is legal, that they agree that it illegal.

          In any event, what TPB does now is even less likely to be interpreted as illegal. They no longer provide links to torrents. Now they just give you a hash and point to a swarm of thousands of users and say "Hey, don't ask us what this is, we don't have a fucking clue. ask those guys" (they aren't being shifty, by the way, there's really no way to know what is behind the hash). The bittorrent protocol handles the rest (it's called magnet links, look it up).

          "Now they are just trying one desperate move after another to avoid being left standing on the wrong square."

          The pirate bay is desperate?

          Tell me, do you come from some sort of alternate universe where up is down, black is white and the Pirate Bay is struggling to stay alive?

           

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            Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 7:34am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            If TPB is truly legal, they would set up shop, operate in the open, and not try every hiding game in the world. They would stop being jackasses and make a stand.

            Last time I looked, they were found guilty.

            Really, magnet files are "Hey, we know exactly what this is, here is the code, go ask the other guy to give it to you". It's pretty much the same cute system used by drug dealers in many US cities, where one takes the money, one holds the product, one makes the delivery, etc, so that nobody is every "selling drugs". Sadly, the whole bunch of them are in a conspiracy to sell drugs, so they all go down.

            TPB - squirming around, admitting that what they did before was illegal enough for them to stop.

             

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              Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 8:46am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              And illegally buying laws to criminalize something that is inherently a civil matter is any better?

               

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        Me, Jul 3rd, 2013 @ 7:22am

        Re: Re:

        The pirate bay runs on cloud hosting, all their data is encrypted, the companies hosting the pirate bay don't even know it. They don't use cheap VPS's...

         

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    Watchit (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 12:10am

    Re:

    No one can claim sovereignty in space, which also means creating your own state in space as well. But you can retain ownership of bases or satellites launched into space or to the moon, though that would require some sort of sovereignty on Earth first.

     

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      Watchit (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 12:12am

      Re: Re:

      this was meant to be a reply to G Thompson's post... don't know how it ended up down here :P

       

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      MikeVx (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 8:47am

      Sovereignty in space

      Just because the existing entities have declared that no new entities are allowed does not mean much. In the end, sovereignty is determined by having sufficient weaponry to defend your position, pretty much like all human arguments. Sometimes the weaponry is guns and bombs, other times building-sized packets of money. If someone can manage to get into space with enough of either, or better, both, they can be a sovereign power.

      If anything, the gravity well makes for a great force multiplier. A space-dwelling entity has the ultimate high ground in a battle. They don't even need much in the way of explosives. As Robert Heinlein speculated, they can just drop rocks on their chosen targets.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 10:05am

    Distributed LANs

    Thinking territorially (ocean, air, space, planets) is not going to be a long-term feasible solution. What happens 100 years from now when some descendent of Newt Gingrich comes along and claims the part of the moon where you're data center is located?

    What's needed is to think subversively, inside-the-box so to speak. Build small systems based on things like Raspberry Pi that contain OOB Wifi, DNS for routing, storage and webserver. Wifi should be open by default and automatically forms bridges to similar nodes (wifi routers) within range to form an intranet.

    The important factor would be that connected hosts firewalled and unidentifiable. If you own 2 PCs for example and a node, by default they can't see each other on that node unless you configure them to do so (even then they would only be seen by each other).

    The more nodes added, the bigger you're 'intranet' grows, and the more information is shared. Law enforcement can also connect to these nodes but would not be able to see hosts connected, only content posted to the NAS storage through the webserver.

    If at any point the owner of the node gets unwanted attention, they simply change the Wifi AP name, or kill it altogether - the intranet stays up for other connected nodes, anyone can join another AP. Similarly if a specific node is seized.

    This kind of tech is already available and in some way is already used (but not implemented in the way I am specifying) - see BT Fon.

    What would be required is a cultural mindset shift to secure, open, shared Wifi, rather than a technology upgrade.

    After all, what is the Internet but just one big WAN?

     

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    Jim_G, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 11:08am

    I think all the discussion about off-planet data havens is kind of fun and entertaining, but missing the main point of the article on Sealand. As soon as you try to set up an entity outside of existing legal systems you instantly run into all the inherent problems in human nature regarding power and the abuse of power.

    The legal systems in different cultures have evolved to address these problems of human conflict. There are centuries of “intellectual property” accumulated in each culture. Deciding to jettison all that in order to set up your own system AND hoping that you will come up with a better one is incredibly naïve.

    Consider this—if absolutely NO country on earth has evolved a legal system which is adequately free for a data haven, why do you think one thrown together on the fly is going to be more successful? Because you and your business partners will never disagree or have ego-conflicts that require legal intervention? Good luck with that!

    Generally speaking it’s hard enough to come up with a sustainable business model. Creating a sustainable legal system on top of it will just add tremendously to the burden.

     

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