Over the Sky to Sea(land)

Back in December, when I was involved in preparing and giving a guest lecture to Globalisation and the Law students in Trinity College, we opened the class with an extract from Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu’s book, Who Controls The Internet? The first extract was from the section dealing with the infamous ‘country’ of Sealand, and the use of said lump of rock for the purpose of a ‘data haven’ through Havenco. I’m not quite sure the class was too attracted to the story, and they did pick up on the practical issue of how ‘independent’ an unrecognised country really is.

Goldsmith and Wu conclude their chapter, in which they knock down the utopian ideals of absolute data havens, by returning to Sealand. They write of how Havenco and Sealand’s “royal family” fell out, how Prince Michael (“head of state”) wanted to have standards of responsibility, and how the company ran out of customers and money.

It turns out, now, that there is an interesting coda to this sorry tale (which began in the heady days of pirate radio, incidentally). Sealand is for sale (I danced around my room with excitement at the prospect of a nice public debate on state recognition as a result). I couldn’t have predicted what was to happen next, though: thepiratebay (a famous site for torrents) started a campaign to buy it, intending to succeed where Havenco (which has barely been mentioned in popular media reports, which are generally presuming that the existing ‘country’ has no IT facilities!) failed. You can learn more at the (snappily-titled) buysealand.com.

The good llama Andrez Guadamuz has an appropriate response that sums up the mixture of cynicism and mischievous optimism that I am feeling (and a lot of other geeklaw types are in a similar place, it seems!) While it’s an interesting effort, and brings some of the relevant issues into public view, it’s no substitute for a serious conversation about international information flows or state sovereignty. The (new) pirates will get some good headlines, but in the long term, it’s a bit of a Trivial Pursuit rather than a serious challenge to established law and (dis)order.

Apparently the current rulers don’t wish to sell to the PirateBay people anyway, because:

“It goes totally contrary to what I have in mind,” Mr. Bates said from his home in Essex on the eastern English coast. “As much as file sharing goes, it’s theft, it’s stealing.”

Let’s open it up. Sealand – sinking or swimming?

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