Sealand, HavenCo, and the Rule of Law

I have posted a draft of my newest paper, Sealand, HavenCo, and the Rule of Law. I revisit the strange story of HavenCo, an early-2000s attempt to set up an Internet hosting site where no country on Earth could get at it, leading to complete freedom from censorship. The place they chose was a former World War II anti-aircraft platform in the North Sea, which had been occupied since the 1960s by a former pirate radio broadcaster, Roy Bates, who declared it the independent Principality of Sealand.

I’ve been fascinated by the story ever since reading Simson Garfinkel’s classic 2000 article on it for Jonathan Zittrain’s Internet law class. In the paper, I delve deep into Sealand and HavenCo’s history to reconstruct what happened. It wasn’t, as some have claimed, a simple story about existing nations triumphing over the upstart Internet. Instead, HavenCo’s ultimate failure had as much to do with the very strange place it set up shop. Sealand may be a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want your business to live there. The paper asks what the rule of law looks like in an Internet age, as seen through the lens of HavenCo. I’ve had great fun writing it, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

I’ll also be guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy this coming week about the paper. Please drop by and join the discussion.

Here is the abstract:

In 2000, a group of American entrepreneurs moved to a former World War II anti-aircraft platform in the North Sea, seven miles off the British coast, and launched HavenCo, one of the strangest start-ups in Internet history. A former pirate radio broadcaster, Roy Bates, had occupied the platform in the 1960s, moved his family aboard, and declared it to be the sovereign Principality of Sealand. HavenCo’s founders were opposed to governmental censorship and control of the Internet; by putting computer servers on Sealand, they planned to create a “data haven” for unpopular speech, safely beyond the reach of any other country. This article tells the full story of Sealand and HavenCo — and examines what they have to tell us about the nature of the rule of law in the age of the Internet.

The story itself is fascinating enough: it includes pirate radio, shotguns and .50-caliber machine guns, rampant copyright infringement, a Red Bull skateboarding special, perpetual motion machines, and the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of State. But its implications for the rule of law are even more remarkable. Previous scholars have seen HavenCo as a straightforward challenge to the rule of law: by threatening to undermine national authority, HavenCo was implacably opposed to all law. As the fuller history shows, however, this story is too simplistic. HavenCo also depended on international law to recognize and protect Sealand, and on Sealand law to protect it from Sealand itself. Where others have seen HavenCo’s failure as the triumph of traditional regulatory authorities over HavenCo, the article argues that in a very real sense, HavenCo failed not from too much law but from too little. The “law’ that was supposed to keep HavenCo safe was law only in a thin, formalistic sense, disconnected from the human institutions that make and enforce law. But without those institutions, law does not work, as HavenCo discovered.

Sounds a bit like a digital version of “Lord of the Flies”.