< Stranger Than Paradise


Friday, May 20, 2005

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. [MUSIC] You're listening to the National Anthem of Sealand, the world's smallest country – roughly 600 square feet. Ruled by Prince Roy Bates, his wife Joan, and their son Michael, Sealand boasts its own flag, currency and postage stamps. Back, before it was a nation, it was an abandoned World War II anti-aircraft deck built seven miles off the east coast of Britain, but Bates saw its potential for freedom, if not glory, and declared sovereignty in 1967. In 2000, the royal family broke with tradition and opened its borders, so to speak, leasing its territory to a company called HavenCo that sought to use Sealand's special status to evade laws governing information on the internet. Jonathan Cedar co-directed a documentary about Sealand called From the Sea, Freedom. He told us how Sealand's independent status was upheld in the mid-70s, after an international incident landed the prince in British court.

JONATHAN CEDAR: Michael, the current prince regent, the son of Roy, was out on the deck with his sister, who was nude sunbathing, [LAUGHTER] and these British Naval buoy servicemen came by and, as Michael put it, were passing lascivious comments about his sister, and so Michael pulled out a .22 caliber rifle and essentially fired on this British Naval destroyer. [LAUGHTER] Of course, you know, when they came back to Britain, as they have to for food and fuel and what not, they were arrested and brought to British courts, and they were found not guilty because they were not within the British jurisdiction at the time, being seven miles off the coast.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Bates's were hemorrhaging money to maintain this principality on a platform, and people kept coming up to them with fairly shady business schemes, and then five years ago, a couple of young men representing a company that they would call HavenCo came up with an offer that the Bates's thought they couldn't refuse. What was HavenCo?

JONATHAN CEDAR: HavenCo was what's called a data haven, so essentially an offshore bank for information. Think of it, you know, like a Swiss bank account where no other government can get its paws on your private stash of information. And so it could be used to run illegal businesses, perhaps on line gambling. It could be used to store email, so that it couldn't be subpoenaed by the government, and theoretically it could be used to make financial transactions that were not traceable by any other government.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what were the unique characteristics of Sealand? The fact that simply there were no laws?

JONATHAN CEDAR: Essentially, they didn't have any agreements with any other nations pertaining to electronic business and the storage of information. You know, the you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back that all other nations participate in. Let's say Enron wanted to store their email at Sealand. The United States government then tries to subpoena Enron's email, and the Sealand government says well, we don't have any extradition treaties with you, and throws the computers into the ocean.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Cedar is the co-director of the documentary From the Sea, Freedom. Sean Hastings was the co-founder and CEO of HavenCo. Enron never was a client. The only customers interested in HavenCo were on line gambling brokers. In fact, when someone proposed some actual illegality – streaming Hollywood films – HavenCo crumbled. But Hastings never lost heart.

SEAN HASTINGS: Doing it was an interesting political statement – to say here is the internet, and you're going to have to stop trying to regulate it, because it's just not going to work. It's going to flow across borders freely. We started with an area which had fallen through the cracks and kind of had no law.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that would relate to free speech, but it would also relate, at least in terms of HavenCo's initial idea, to financial invisibility – everything from shielding emails from government scrutiny to money-laundering.

SEAN HASTINGS: Indeed, and the whole cypherpunk ideology that I was a part of at the time was in that direction, that transactions talking about who owed what to whom very much were speech; they were just information flow. It was just data, and any attempt to regulate these things, in the long run, just hurts everybody.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think there should be any restrictions on web content?

SEAN HASTINGS: No, I, I don't think there should be any restrictions on speech at all. Speech should be protected, and anybody should be able to say whatever they want, pass any information along that they want.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the rules that HavenCo did subscribe to was no child porn.

SEAN HASTINGS: And that was a concession to the people that had created Sealand. They thought that that was the worst possible thing that could be done; that people might come after us for, and probably so. You look at things that are evil and wrong, and laws have been passed to make content based on that also evil and wrong.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So perhaps there is a commonly held set of ethics that simply the cyber world subscribes to, and I don't know whether you do or you don't.

SEAN HASTINGS: I, I don't know what those commonly held set of ethics are, but I have no problem with the idea of turning off a channel you don't want to listen to. I think that's the main control that should be put on speech. If you don't want to hear what somebody is saying, you don't listen.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: We were told that one of the main reasons why HavenCo went under is because a lawyer there was very nervous when the idea came up to stream movies. They were afraid that pressure would come from America on England, who would disrupt HavenCo's operations. Is copyright a big issue for one of these non-governmental structures that you want to create?

SEAN HASTINGS: One of the things that we were very much hoping to do was have a place that would challenge the whole idea of copyright.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you don't believe in intellectual property rights?

SEAN HASTINGS: I don't believe in intellectual property rights at all. I really don't. I believe that the whole concept of property, as it is used to benefit society, is used to allocate scarce goods. Ideas are not scarce goods. In fact, the whole beauty of them is that they're not – that they transfer from one person to another, and you don't lose it when you give it to somebody.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've moved on to something called “seasteading” now. Can you explain what that is?

SEAN HASTINGS: I've been working with a few other people, and we have been talking about the possibility of floating structures in international waters and creating communities where basically there are no rules but what the people want for themselves. We're looking to create a new frontier, basically, where new ways of living and doing things can be tried out, outside the restrictions of current society. We're actually currently at a time where the frontier has vanished, or maybe the only place left right now is the, the surface of the ocean.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you're not talking about, you know, a floating nudist colony. You're talking about basically communications networks.

SEAN HASTINGS: I believe that advances on the way we're living now occur through the creation of new ideas, and new ideas occur because people exchange a lot of information back and forth. The more of that you have, the better it is for society.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you need a non-governmental place, like HavenCo, to accomplish a lot of what you say you want to accomplish?

SEAN HASTINGS: I, I would say it's not absolutely necessary; that having the right kind of encrypted networks would allow people to exchange information without fear of being eavesdropped on by government or anybody else. However, having someplace where people are publicly saying this is right, and we're doing it because it's right, puts a lot of pressure on governments around the world to let their people be a bit freer.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sean, thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sean Hastings was the co-founder of HavenCo.