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 came to grief. This has driven an interest in seasteading: floating cities that will test new ideas for government. That explicit experimentalism is a good thing, because the HavenCo experience shows just how hard a problem good governance can be.

Kinakuta: I promised to come back to Kinakuta, the data haven in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptnonomicon. As a novelist, Stephenson was free to invent an ideal place for a data haven and he did. Kinakuta is a Brunei-esque Sultanate with multiple advantages over Sealand, including immense oil reserves and a substantial population with a long history of tolerance. In a very realpolitik kind of way, Kinakuta’s oil wealth gives it the freedom to stand up to the other nations of the world. If Kinakuta can’t make a data haven work, no nation on earth could.

Grenada and Singapore: Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net imagines that 2020s Grenada, Cyprus, and Singapore have become havens for all kinds of dangerous and illicit technology, including insanely sharp ceramic blades and sunblock that alters your genome to change your skin color. Untraceable data storage is only one of many such ventures. Many of Sterling’s ideas about physical technology were prescient. But the political order is bizarre: a world organization protects nations’ sovereignty absolutely, but is near-powerless in most other respects. Even with this help, the data havens are still unstable: two of the three collapse in the course of the novel.

Freeside: William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy is only very tangentially about data havens. But he lets slip several times that the Freeside space station, in high orbit near the L5 Lagrangian point, has served as a data haven. This makes some sense: being as far away as the Moon provides physical protection from annoyed people on Earth, who at the same time will have a relatively hard time blocking or jamming your signals. On the downside: terrible network latency.

Crypto Anarchy: Sean Hastings and Ryan Lackey came out of a tradition that prized better living through cryptography. From inside that worldview, a physical data haven is actually a bit of an oxymoron: the real goal is to have pervasive encryption render territorial control meaningless where bits are concerned. HavenCo’s original corporate documents demonstrate quite clearly that its founders understood this: Sealand was only supposed to be a transitional home while universal cryptography got up to speed. The idea lives on today; it’s everywhere from Freenet to Tor to the Freedom Box.

Virtual Worlds: In some of my earlier work, I’ve explored the ways in which virtual worlds are political communities that have rules that are different from but overlap with those of offline communities. Virtual worlds struggle with the fact that the world’s operator — like Blizzard for World of Warcraft — has a degree of near-absolute power within the world. The operator becomes a target for offline legal enforcement efforts and can impose its wishes on players, sometimes without warning and retroactively. At the same time, the operator has the ability to help resolve disputes within the world, needs to intervene if someone discovers a bug or an exploit, and has at least some ability to keep the offline world at bay so the virtual community can develop its own distinctive values. People have been trying for years to create a truly decentralized virtual world platform; I suspect one of the reasons no one has really succeeded is that the HavenCo-style rule of law issues are hard political problems, not just technical ones.

Other examples abound, of course; feel free to bring up more of them in the comments. I had enormous fun writing this paper, and not just because of the quirky stories. HavenCo is a window onto truly fundamental issues: what is law, why do we have it, how do we make it work, and how can we live together successfully in this shared world?

I take from the story a lesson in the difficulty of making law work. Even as it sought to undermine all sorts of laws, HavenCo’s model of a data haven still took law itself a bit too much for granted. One can still try to undermine, reform, or revolt against bad laws, but it takes different forms of engagement than HavenCo was able to pull off.

One could say more, much more, but I think I personally have said enough. Thanks again to the Conspirators for having me here, and to all of you for your kind words and thoughtful comments.

Previous entries in this series on Sealand, HavenCo, and the Rule of Law: