Why Data Havens Don’t Work

Seven miles off the English coast in the North Sea stands a steel and concrete platform that was, for a time, the world’s most impractical data center. A pair of American entrepreneurs launched HavenCo in 2000 as a “data haven”–a place for gamblers, freethinkers, and dissidents to put their bits far beyond the reach of censorious governments. They set up shop offshore there because since 1967 the platform’s occupants, a former pirate radio broadcaster and his family, have called it the independent Principality of Sealand; they promised to uphold HavenCo’s right to take on the rest of the world’s governments.

It didn’t work–and the reasons it didn’t tell us something important about the Internet. In a pair of recent articles in the popular Ars Tecnica and the scholarly Illinois Law Review, I explore the history of Sealand and HavenCo and conclude that “HavenCo failed not from too much law, but too little.” A remote island “nation” with a single-digit population can’t offer the kind of security and legal stability that a serious business venture requires. HavenCo, by its very nature, couldn’t turn to any other legal system in the world for protection without conceding the very point on which its existence depened: the sovereignty of Sealand.

HavenCo is long gone, but the dream lingers on. Napster clones, the Pirate Bay, and even WikiLeaks have talked about putting servers on Sealand, in the hopes of escaping from what they see as repressive national law. But freedom doesn’t come from some farcical aquatic ceremony. It comes from building institutions resilient enough to stand up to power, and self-restraining enough not to misuse the power they themselves posess. That requires engagement in politics, social movements, legal processes, and society–everything that HavenCo rejected.

In addition to its larger lessons, the Sealand/HavenCo story is also a ripping good nautical yarn. Roy Bates, Sealand’s founder and Prince, is a scalawag of the first order, and Sealand has always reflected his charismatic scheming. He seized it by force in 1967, then defended it with molotov cocktails against competing pirate broadcasters. He’s held on to his de facto independence for decades thanks to a native genius for working the press. HavenCo’s founders were a bunch of libertarian computer geeks, but in their love of liberty, fondness for firepower, and prowess at publicity, they were very much kindred spirits. As Bates put it when talking to a reporter in 1978, “We may die rich, we may die poor. But we certainly shall not die of boredom.”

And no, this post is not an April Fool’s joke.