Sealand and HavenCo Part I: The History of Sealand

As Eugene mentioned in his introduction, I’ll be talking about my new article, Sealand, HavenCo, and the Rule of Law (SSRN, BePress). Thanks to Eugene and his co-Conspirators for having me here. I can’t think of a better group to discuss it with than VC readers, since it hits on themes including government power versus individual freedom, how technology is changing law, and the sometimes tenuous line between reality and science fiction.

In the article, I discuss the history and significance of HavenCo’s attempt in the early 2000s to set up a data haven on Sealand, a former anti-aircraft platform in the North Sea. A data haven is “the information equivalent to a tax haven”: a place to store your data that’s hopefully beyond the reach of any other country’s legal system. The best-known example of one is Kinakuta, from Neal Stephenson’s 1999 novel Cryptonomicon, about which more later in the week.

My plan for the week is that today, I’ll talk about Sealand’s history, and tomorrow go over the rise and fall of HavenCo. On Wednesday, I’ll look at the ultimately rather one-sided struggle between HavenCo and the nations of the world. On Thursday, I’ll discuss a previously unappreciated side to the story: how HavenCo depended on law just as much as it challenged law. And on Friday, I’ll reflect on the larger lessons to be learned from HavenCo’s experience.

Sealand was built and used by the U.K. during World War II for anti-aircraft defense. Called “Roughs Tower” or “HM Fort Roughs,” it was a 120′ x 50′ steel platform on two hollow concrete legs, seven miles out into the North Sea. It might have faded into obscurity after the war, if not for the pirate radio boom of the 1960s. The BBC was unwilling to play much popular music, but also had a legal monopoly on radio broadcasts. Entrepreneurs took to the waves, setting up stations on ships and on Roughs Tower’s sister platforms. Roy Bates, a former army major, ran one by the name of Radio Essex from the Knock John platform. He was successfully prosecuted, however, after a court held that Knock John was within England’s three-mile territorial limit.

Undeterred, Batees took his transmitter and his family and moved further out to Roughs Tower on Christmas of 1966. Bates evicted the previous occupants, staff from Radio Caroline, a more famous pirate radio station. He spent the next few months fighting off Radio Caroline with petrol bombs and, according to Bates, a flame thrower. By mid-1967, though, a tough new anti-pirate radio bill (sparked by the fatal shooting of one radio pirate by a competitor) had become law, targeting those who supplied or advertised with the pirates. Bates gave up on broadcasting and instead declared his own nation, the Principality of Sealand. He became Prince Roy, and his wife, Princess Joan.

British authorities were not amused. After some months of occasional harassment by Customs, things came to a head when Roy and Joan’s teenage son, Michael, opened fire with a .22 pistol on a Trinity House ship tending a nearby buoy. The next time Roy and Michael came ashore, they were arrested and charges with violations of the Firearms Act. In Regina v. Bates, the court acquitted them both. The ruling said nothing about Sealand’s independence, only that, at seven miles out, it was beyond the “ordinary territorial limits.” As the court explained, “Parliament no doubt has the power to make it an offense for a British subject to have a firearm with intent to endanger life in Istanbul or Buenos Aires, or where have you, but I do not think it has done so.” Secure (or securer) in their possession, the Bateses spruced the platform up: moving in furniture, and creating a helipad.

Sealand has its own coins, postage stamps, and national anthem — and now also has a website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel. It’s hosted a wedding and a Red Bull skateboarding special, but not, despite frontman Pete Wentz’s interest, a Fall Out Boy concert. During the 1980s, Sealand served as a flag of convenience for an American attempt at pirate radio off of Long Island. Long story short: the FCC and Coast Guard boarded and shut it down within days, and the ship was eventually blown up for a special effects shot in Blown Away.

The most dramatic events in Sealand history took place in 1978: Sealand’s Prime Minister, Alexander Achenbach, tried to orchestrate a coup. He convinced Roy and Joan to come to Austria for a business meeting; while they were away, Achenbach’s lawyer Gernot Putz and two Dutchmen came to the platform, overpowered Michael Bates, and put him on a fishing boat headed to Holland. In a moment of high drama, Roy hired a helicopter and retook the platform at shotgun-point, imprisoning the invaders and putting them on trial. After a few weeks, Putz’s wife appealed to the German Embassy in London, which sent its own lawyer out to take a look. The Bateses have treated this as an act of diplomatic recognition. The embassy, however, said through a spokesman that it believed the whole thing to have been a publicity stunt. Either way, Putz and the other two were eventually released.

What happened next is, if anything, even more remarkable. Achenbach, having been repulsed, simply declared himself the legitimate head of the Sealand government. To this day, there is a self-proclaimed Government in Exile for Sealand. Their site has to be seen to be believed: it includes UFOs, legendary missing treasures, and a perpetual motion generator. As if that weren’t enough, a Spanish syndicate started printing “Sealand” passports by the thousands in the 1990s, some of which surfaced in unusual places.

Roy and Joan Bates are currently retired and living in Spain; Michael Bates is the Prince Regent. His sons Liam and James are waiting in the wings. In 2006, Sealand was subject to a devastating fire; multiple rescue ships from the nearby ports came to help put it out. Undeterred, Prince Regent Michael has been rebuilding.

Tomorrow: HavenCo and the ultimate in offshore data hosting.