This page considers notions of cyberhavens, essentially
visions of evading censorship, intellectual property,
taxation and other restrictions by locating servers in
a 'virtual state'.
It covers -
Some online communities have embraced the idea of creating
their own state - typically one so small that it does
not need much cleaning and close enough to civilisation
for deliveries of pizza - as a way of evading irksome
restrictions regarding intellectual property, censorship
Enthusiasm for the idea mingles unawareness of law, disregard
for logistics challenges, romanticism about pirates as
an embodiment of funkiness and freedom, and commercial
opportunism (because promoters of such schemes have to
recover set-up costs and running expenses, even if not
aiming for a substantial tax free profit).
An example was online chatter in January 2007 about a
supposed US$2 billion bid
from Sweden's The Pirate Bay for "the micronation
of Sealand", with a Pirate Bay spokesperson saying
"We would love to move there and move all our servers
there" - after the group's filesharing
site was shut down by the Swedish Police in mid 2006.
Visions of creating a country to facilitate access to
adult content and unauthorised copies of intellectual
property (eg software, music and video), avoid taxation
and erode restrictions on hatespeech are distinctly utopian.
Traditional tax havens distinguish themselves by enacting
legislation that provides corporations and individuals
with some degree of shelter from the domestic governments
of those entities, whether through low (or zero) tax rates
or through anonymity. Such havens have usually had political
and economic stability, are supported by a large international
market, are within easy reach of a major financial centre
(eg Switzerland, Liechtenstein or the Caribbean havens)
and have advanced communication facilities.
Walter Diamond thus indicated that the ongoing success
of major havens has been based on rule of law (including
guarantees against expropriation and security of property
rights), expectations of fair treatment by government
and low corruption, favourable taxes and investment concessions,
political and economic stability, strong secrecy regimes
alongside tax treaties with the major nations, minimal
restrictions on capital imports and exports, excellent
transport and communication infrastructure and promotion
by the haven's government. It is not expected that all
users of the haven will actually live in the nation (as
citizens or guests) but some of those users and their
agents can be expected to visit.
Havens from authority have a long tradition in western
history, with particular locations providing refuge for
individuals and bases for commercial or other activity.
That might reflect exemptions under the law of a particular
jurisdiction (eg sanctuaries in pre-modern London that
were exploited by publishers, debtors and people accused
of assault). It might instead reflect disagreements between
two or more jurisdictions over control of the particular
location, whose inhabitants enjoyed unusual freedom pending
resolution of those disagreements or an act that provoked
unilateral intervention by a particular state.
Havens might also reflect administrative incapacity. 'Free
cities' such as the international quarters of Shanghai
during the 1930s for example offering a more laissez faire
regime than Tokyo or London. Pirate havens in the Caribbean
or Barbary Coast survived for many decades because naviews
were not on hand to eliminate them. That has inspired
contemporary mythologies such as William S Burroughs'
homoerotic fantasies about pirate republics (buffed boys
and bondage on the briny) and works by Neal Stephenson
on libertarian cyber enclaves.
Restrictions on commercial radio broadcasting in the Netherlands,
UK and other jurisdictions during the 1960s and 1970s
saw some broadcasters place their equipment offshore with
the expectation that they would be able to exploit inadequacies
in legislation or merely be beyond the reach of law enforcement
That might involve oceangoing vessels (eg former lightships
and converted fishing vessels), abandoned offshore platforms
(typically manmade gun emplacements from WWI and WWII)
and even small purpose-built islets. Examples of what
has variously been characterised as pirate radio, free
radio and offshore radio were Radio Nordsee International
(RNI), Radio Veronica, Radio Atlantis, Radio City and
Radio Caroline in Europe and Radio Hauraki off New Zealand,
some of which have since lucratively migrated back to
Responses by government agencies took three forms.
Firstly, they progressively revised existing legislation
to ensure that unlicensed broadcasting from territorial
waters was an offence and that assisting the operation
of such stations was an offence. The UK Marine Broadcasting
Offences Act for example crimped stations directed
at the English market through restrictions on marketing
in the UK by the stations and provision of supplies.
Some drew on existing provisions in customs and other
law, for example authorisation for interdiction of shipments
to/from vessels 'hovering' just beyond the nation's territorial
limits. Some nations amended their navigation rules, reflecting
complaints that platforms or vessels were interfering
with marine traffic or legitimate radio transmissions.
They also initiated tax
investigations, consistent with policies regarding where
income is earned (for example in the UK mainland rather
than in a boat or platform offshore). Bureaucratic unhappiness
about offshore misbehaviour appears to have fed moves
to secure oil, gas and other seabed resources by extending
territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (for example
the UK in 1988)
Secondly, government representatives asserted their authority
through seizure of vessels or equipment and through forcible
entry to vessels or platforms. That action is contrary
to folklore, which generally depicts pirates as blithely
ignoring British, Dutch and Swedish regulators and attributes
the apparent gentleness of official responses to acknowledgement
of the pirates' legitimacy.
Thirdly, governments deregulated their broadcasting regimes
by allowing commercial broadcasting from onshore stations.
That change reflected consumer demand, the deregulatory
zeitgeist of the period that was evident in much privatisation,
and recognition that licencing fees would provide substantial
revenue. The pirate radio industry essentially disappeared.
Pirate broadcasters typically argued that they were outside
a particular nation's jurisdiction - in international
waters - and therefore
not subject to action in its courts or by its police and
customs officials. They did not consistently assert that
the ship or platform was an independent nation, one with
its own currency, tax regime, citizenship and recognition
by major states.
One exception was the putative Principality of Sealand,
a structure off the coast of England that had been constructed
during the Second World War as an artillery and aerial
observation platform. Along with similar platforms it
had been sporadically used for pirate broadcasting and
seen fights between competing groups of squatters. The
UK government had not renounced ownership of the platform
and arguably it is still crown property, despite occupation
by the Bates family and their associates from 1967 onwards.
Paddy Roy Bates announced that he
the island his own state ... bestowed upon himself the
title of Prince and the title of Princess to his wife
and subsequently made the state the Principality of
Sealand. Roy Bates, henceforth Roy of Sealand, exerted
state authority on the island and thus was an absolute
The supposed independent principality claimed to issue
citizenship papers and passports (a claim that, as mentioned
earlier in this note, was rejected by a German court in
1978) and of course to be outside the jurisdiction of
the UK Revenue Office.
The Bates family, however, appear to have continued to
travel on UK passports, retain UK nationality and otherwise
behave as British citizens.
Sealand is clearly within UK territorial waters. Assertions
that interaction with the UK government represents recognition
by that government of Sealand's independence are absurd.
Sealand has of course not gained recognition from the
United Nations General Assembly and international bodies
such as the ISO and ITU.
The notion of floating republics or sovereign states on
manmade island seems to be a wet dream that never dies.
In 2008 Arstechnica enthused
about the Seasteading Institute (SI),
"an audacious new project" aimed at "creating
new competition for the world's sovereign nations"
through development of
self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower
individuals to break free of the cozy cartel of 190-odd
world governments and start their own autonomous societies.
... a future in which any group of people dissatisfied
with its current government would be able to start a
new one by purchasing some floating platforms—called
seasteads—and build a new community in the open
data haven proposals
Several of the projects highlighted on the preceding page
featured plans to provide data processing and financial
facilities that would ostensibly not be subject to scrutiny
by the US government and its peers. It appears that those
plans did not eventuate.
In the late 1990s, amid dot-com delirium,
Sealand's occupants leased space in the platform to HavenCo
for an ambitious data haven program. Promoters of that
to gain substantial revenue through secure data archiving
and hosting for corporations and other entities - "the
world's most secure managed servers in the world's only
true free market environment, the Principality of Sealand".
The program included plans for a gold-backed anonymous
It appears that statements by the promoters, uncritically
accepted by some journalists, were not always consistent
with reality. Supposed freedom from "regulatory hindrances"
does not appear to have enthused major electronic commerce
businesses, unsurprising given uncertainties about the
legal status of Sealand, difficulties with payment and
infrastructure, the proliferation of high quality hosting
facilities across the world and past media coverage of
raids on Sealand (complete with kidnapping of Prince Michael).
Problems were exacerbated by disagreements within HavenCo
and with the Bates family. The vision of HavenCo as a
dominant player in the world of hosting thus evaporated
with the dot-com bubble.
Jonathan Zittrain's 2003 Be Careful What You Ask For:
Reconciling a Global Internet and Local Law (PDF)
fact that Sealand itself must get its network connectivity
somewhere – and could be at risk of losing it
should its own Internet service providers reject its
activities, or be pressured by nearby governments to
do so. Further, the benefits to a would-be defendant
of safeguarding data there for jurisdictionally evasive
purposes are limited by the defendant's location.
a more tongue in cheek comment he drily noted that
a person is willing to move to Sealand, he or she would
still be within another sovereign's physical and therefore
legal reach and would thus risk being personally penalized
should undesired activities taking place on Sealand
under the defendant's direction not cease, or sought
after data secured there not be produced.
Moving to a very small platform (one without capacity
to grow its own food) in an attempt to evade prosecution
is not practical: from our perspective Sealand is potentially
less of a haven for people on the run than a rather claustrophobic
A new vision - another round of hype - appeared in 2006,
with suggestions that Sealand was on the market for some
US$2 billion and might be acquired by The
Pirate Bay, the Swedish filesharing
group whose site is claimed to be a leading facilitator
of unauthorised access to video, audio and other content.
Swedish authorities had seized the group's server and
frozen its accounts over breaches of intellectual property
law. The group had failed to gain power by fielding candidates
for a Pirate Bay party during Sweden's 2006 national election,
gaining 0.62% of the vote and thus missing the 1% required
for state assistance with printing ballots and funding
staff in the next election.
One spokesperson, of course anonymous, is reported to
have explained interest in developing Sealand as a cyberhaven
not only about Pirate Bay, it's more about having a
nation with no copyright laws. For Pirate Bay it would
be awesome to have no copyright law. All countries today
are based on the old economy and old ideas and we want
to do something new ...
We would love to move there and move all our servers
there. ... We would love Sealand because its history
is perfect for us as pirate radio used to be broadcast
from there. If we don't get enough money for Sealand
we are going to try for a small island somewhere
is an echo of the US Free State Project (FSP),
a "Live Free or Die" group that has made noise
about "Liberty in our Lifetime" through
a political migration to New Hampshire in hopes of creating
a freer society along libertarian lines.
the European Free State Project (EFS),
decorated with slogans about "aversion of the autochthon
The group established buysealand.com
to raise funds to buy Sealand (or merely gain more publicity),
undeterred by questions about the legitimacy of buying
a principality, fictive or otherwise.
Suggestions that "pirates" would form "the
world's smallest country" inevitably gained global
media attention during the 'slow news period' in January
2007 and support in online fora such as Australia's Whirlpool
broadband forum, with enthusiasts forecasting use of satellite
links (or a sealand satellite), wave-generated power and
Mission Impossible-style attacks by the CIA.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the supposed
Pirate Bay bid shows the same mixture of delusion and
media cooption evident creation of many virtual states.
Sealand would not provide an effective data haven.
The inevitable schism occurred, with the people behind
FreeNation Foundation declaring
while having the benefit of a degree of established
respect as a sovereign nation, was too small and aesthetically
A number of the supporters preferred the more practical
and realistic idea of a free nation and branched from
the community, becoming known as the FreeNation Foundation.
These people formed what became known as 'core', a title
that caused many misconceptions as to their nature,
mainly elitism and secrecy.
so it goes.
Nicholas Negroponte famously forecast that the nation
state would shortly evaporate like a mothball exposed
to warm dry air. As of 2007 the state appears to be going
strong and, as noted in works such as Who Controls
The Internet? - Illusions Of A Borderless World (New
York: Oxford Uni Press 2006) by Jack Goldsmith & Tim
Wu, appears likely to survive for many decades to come.
Visions of cyberhavens prove less durable when faced with
The essential difficulty for proponents of Sealand and
other data havens is that those facilities are typically
located within the territorial waters or on terra firma
claimed by one of the major nations.
They are subject to taxation law, intellectual property
law, customs regimes, national security and censorship
law, and even administrative impediments such as occupational
health & safety law.
Sealand for example is not a state; paying US$2 billion
(or US$2) will not convert it into a nation. Moving servers
from Sweden or the Netherlands to concrete silos in the
North Sea will not provide immunity from copyright or
other law and not secure support from the United Nations.
Contrary to assertions by Sealand enthusiasts, the platform
is within British waters, Under English law the UK government
would be able to interdict Sealand. That would be consistent
with international law and would presumably gain endorsement
by the European Commission and individual members of the
At US$2 billion for a small chunk of real estate within
UK jurisdiction Sealand is grotesquely overpriced. The
same sum would buy a substantial oceangoing vessel or
a more commodious platform to be parked in international
waters, particularly in a region where the geeks could
get a tan.
Is a floating 'pirate haven' feasible? Arguably the answer
is no. Ships and platforms cost money to run: without
a flow of money from subscribers, advertisers or publishers
the 'gift economy' shuts down. Payment systems are a fundamental
vulnerability for such a haven and for online gambling
ventures. Governments would presumably seek to inhibit
support from legitimate banks, credit card and alternative
payment services such as PayPal
and iBill. Personal and corporate assets might be frozen
under proceeds of crime legislation. Major service suppliers
might be deterred through threats of litigation regarding
facilitation of child pornography, money laundering,
terrorism, drug trafficking and other offences.