Author Archive | James Grimmelmann, guest-blogging

Sealand and HavenCo Part V: Learning from HavenCo

HavenCo and Sealand hitched their fates togther for a while, but the two had very different models. Sealand mostly just wants to be left alone, in proud independence, with its flag and its coins and its one-of-a-kind royal family. HavenCo, on the other hand, was supposed to reach out beyond Sealand, to inject its clients’ content into other countries. That’s harder, both because the moral justifications are subtler, and because the other countries are likely to get mad.

As I’ve discussed over the course of the week, HavenCo had to deal with three different bodies of law: national law, international law, and Sealand law. In order to challenge national Internet laws, it relied on Sealand’s sovereignty under international law, which left it at the mercy of Sealand law. This is a hard circle to square. HavenCo’s experience suggests that a data haven is not a viable project, or at least not in the form HavenCo tried: legal arbitrage through the smallest nation possible.

Today, I’d like to use this tripartite framework — national law, international law, Sealand law — to think briefly about other attempts to stand outside of the international system of nation-states. People have come up with all sorts of schemes to make the world a better place by pulling up stakes and starting over again somewhere out from beyond Leviathan’s reach. They all, however, need to grapple with the same kinds of issues HavenCo did, and it’s interesting to see some of the different balances they’ve tried to strike.

Artificial Islands and Seasteading: The nations of the world have signaled their strong disinterest in allowing the creation of new competitors on artificial islands. The Republic of Minerva, the Republic of Rose Island, the Republic of New Atlantis, and Atlantis, Isle of Gold all [...]

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Sealand and HavenCo Part IV: International Law and Sealand Law

Last time, I looked at HavenCo in terms of its losing battle with others nations’ laws. I closed by pointing out that HavenCo wasn’t anti-legal, just selectively legal. HavenCo needed Sealand to be an independent state under international law, and it needed Sealand law to permit its activities. Today, I’ll explain how these other bodies of law point us toward the deep contradiction at the heart of HavenCo.

International Law

On Monday, I mentioned Roy and Michael Bates’s 1967 acquittal on Englsih firearms charges. The decision, though, doesn’t say very much about Sealand’s legal status, because it turns on the historical quirks of British jurisdiction in coastal waters, quirks now rendered moot by the United Kingdom’s 1987 extension of its territorial waters to 12 miles, far enough to sweep in Sealand. (Of course, if Sealand was independent by 1987, the extension wouldn’t have changed its status — but saying that it was independent then is begging the question.)

But this is not the only time that a court has weighed in on Sealand. In 1975, Alexander Achenbach (who would later instigate the failed coup attempt) was named a citizen of Sealand, and promptly tried to resign his German citizenship. The Administrative Court of Cologne refused his request, on the grounds that Sealand was not a state, and thus could have no citizens.

The opinion, In re Duchy of Sealand, 80 I.L.R 683 (1978), is fascinating, particularly when compared with the expert opinion Achenbach offered from Dr. Dr. Dr. Walter Leisner of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. The court applied the three-part test for statehood from the Montevideo Convention — a state must have territory, population, and an effective government — and concluded that all three were lacking.

The court’s reasoning as to territory is unpersuasive. Sealand may not [...]

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Sealand and HavenCo Part III: Why Did HavenCo Fail?

Previously on Survivor: Sealand, I’ve discussed Sealand’s history and HavenCo’s rise and fall. Today, I’d like to move into Part III of my paper, and start thinking about what HavenCo’s experience means for the rule of law.

In my Internet Law class, I teach the HavenCo story by giving my students a slightly fictionalized version of the facts, circa 2000. I then ask them to take the role of lawyers advising a client considering investing in the HavenCo-style venture. Will it work? Why, or why not?

Most of my students, like most of the commenters here, come back with some variant on, “No, of course not!” Here are some of the common explanations for HavenCo’s failure:

  • You and What Army?: Shotguns suffice for fighting off German lawyers, but you’ll need more serious firepower if you plan to tangle with a government that has access to rocket launchers, speedboats, fighter jets, scuba divers, trained dolphins, and/or cruise missiles. HavenCo staff sometimes told the press that no other country would launch an attack so close to Britain — which, if you think about it, also presumably means that no other country would interfere if Britain moved to occupy the platform.

  • The Wrong Threat Model: HavenCo’s plan to destroy servers rather than let attackers get their hands on them was a plausible way of assuring client confidentiality. For the client whose only copy of sensitive data is stored on Sealand, though, a smoking wreck of a server is not exactly a good outcome. HavenCo was vulnerable to a concentrated denial-of-service attack.

  • Law Doesn’t Work Like That: There’s a deep irony in the fact that a company that celebrated the transformative power of the Internet to erase all borders was so deeply invested in the idea that the

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Sealand and HavenCo Part II: The Rise and Fall of HavenCo

Yesterday, I blogged about Part I of my new article, Sealand, HavenCo, and the Rule of Law, which chronicles Sealand’s quirky history. Today, I’ll pick up the story with Part II, which follows HavenCo’s founding, rise to fame, and slide back into obscurity.

HavenCo’s founders, Sean Hastings and Ryan Lackey, were hardly the first to bat around the idea of a data haven. The idea cropped up in policy debates in the late 1970s, in science fiction in the 1980s, and in cypherpunk theory in the 1990s. But few people have done more than Hastings and Lackey to actually create a data haven. They met at the Financial Cryptography Conference in 1998 and found a common interest in starting an offshore hosting site for data of any kind, safe from governmental snoops, censors, and prudes.

The only problem was where to put it. After looking into some of the smaller Pacific islands, or creating their own on the Cortes Bank, they settled on Sealand — and discovered that Michael Bates was receptive to their idea of a joint venture. The royal family would make Sealand available in exchange for a stake in the company and a series of payments as HavenCo took off. The business plan called for $25 million in annual profit by year three. In addition to Sean Hastings and Ryan Lackey, the rest of the initial team included Sean’s wife Jo, plus well-known technologists Sameer Parekh, Avi Freedman, and Joi Ito.

The plan was simple. Move a bunch of computer servers out to Sealand. Plug them in to a generator. Contract with networking companies to lay cable and create wireless line-of-sight links to the shore, with a satellite link as a backup. Allow anything except child porn or spam. Charge [...]

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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. [...]

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