The Curious Case Of Sealand, The Hacker-Friendly Offshore Micronation

Michael Bates, Prince of Sealand
Michael Bates, Prince of Sealand
Mehdi Atmani

SEALAND — The marine wind gusts slide against Michael Bates' slightly balding hair. His calloused hands buried in a fleece jacket, the fisherman crosses the 500 square meters of his kingdom.

At 62 years old, Bates looks like the typical fishing captain from Leigh-on-Sea — a small English town from Essex where the River Thames flows into the North Sea. But he’s also the head of a self-proclaimed principality located at the edge of international waters: the Principality of Sealand.

The "prince" has been administrating his subjects since 1999, here, 10 kilometers away from the British coast of Suffolk, on a former World War II military platform perched seven meters high on two reinforced concrete pillars.

The Sealand principality illustrates a democratized form of sovereignty for all. The micronation, and its extra-territorial status, has its own currency, national anthem, coat of arms and Constitution with libertarian rules, which, he hopes, will please illegal downloading enthusiasts and Internet privacy advocates.

A hacker haven

Fifteen years ago, at the start of the year 2000, Michael Bates teamed up with four ambitious youngsters from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These experts, who taught themselves cryptography, navigated within what's known as the cypherpunk community, an informal group whose main objective was the guaranteed respect of privacy on computer networks through the use of cryptography.

Ryan Lackey, 21 at the time, was the brain of the group. “We were looking for a place where we would be able to host servers for online payment services,” Lackey, a U.S. citizen, explains today. “It’s through this that we heard about Sealand and its particular status.”

Lackey’s great project went well beyond electronic commerce. The libertarian hacker intended to make the most of the legal loopholes around Sealand, to turn it into an offshore data storage paradise. Through his company HavenCo, the cypherpunk planned to offer his future clients a safe accommodation out of reach from nosy governments, a place to store their data with complete anonymity and in accordance with Sealand’s libertarian laws, which authorize the free download of works protected by intellectual property but condemn cybercriminal activity.

Lackey and his gang then raised “almost $3 million from private investors” who were active in the Internet sector “to cover operating costs.” In addition to the storage of computer servers in the heart of the two concrete pylons cooled down by sea water, HavenCo planned on supplying its customers nearly one gigabyte per bandwidth second at highly competitive prices.

But that same year, with the burst of the Internet bubble, the libertarian utopia suddenly took on water. “All our potential customers went out of business. And so did we,” Lackey recalls.

Michael Bates prefers not to talk about that time. He leaves it to his son James to comment on the business disaster. “Sealand has a very limited capacity of server storage for a tiny list of customers,” says James. “Our services turned out to be too expensive for us to remain competitive.” But James still hopes to “set up a business” with HavenCo — a hypothetical project because Ryan Lackey left HavenCo in 2002 to dedicate himself to various communication encryption projects.

HavenCo’s bankruptcy hasn’t tarnished Sealand's appeal for activist and underground geeks. In 2007, the Swedish pirates of the torrent website Pirate Bay — whose servers had been shut down a year earlier by the Swedish justice system — made a $2 million offer to buy Sealand. But the negotiations failed. Then, in 2010, the WikiLeaks activists made a play for the military platform. But again, the discussions resulted in failure. Yet another shipwreck in the short and turbulent history of Sealand.

Birth of a micronation

The adventure of this principality began in 1943. Sealand, which at the time was called Fort Royal Roughs, was part of the forts built by the British army to counter German missiles. These military bases were placed inside territorial waters. But Sealand was set up by mistake beyond this limit, which, at the time, was located five kilometers (three miles) away from the coast. The platform was abandoned after World War II. It was only in the mid-1960s that Michael Bates's father, Roy, dropped his anchor there.

In 1967, Roy Bates was the typical revolutionary and wild-eyed squatter. This former major of the Royal Navy was, at the time, at the forefront of the pirate radio scene, which involved shows broadcasted from boats, planes or any other floating or sailing object. Two years earlier, Great Britain passed a law aiming to dismantle these illegal transmissions, which were cutting into the audience ratings of the BBC and deemed indecent by the government. The legislation went into effect in 1967, prompting Roy Bates to seek out an unassailable stronghold where he would be able to keep on broadcasting.

Soon he discovered Fort Royal Rough and its particular status outside territorial waters. Without a wife or children, he colonized the platform and renamed it Sealand. Not satisfied with only taking control, the retired military man soon decided to proclaim the independence of this territory, which isn’t much larger than a football field. Thus the micronation was born. Then, in 1968, an Essex court confirmed the extra-territorial status of the military base.

But the rejoicing was short-lived. Over time, the rules agreed between the British authorities and the Sealanders changed. So did sea laws. The territorial waters limit was extended sufficiently to reintegrate Sealand into the county of Essex. And yet nothing has been done to dismantle the micronation, which still enjoyed a salutary international indifference. It survived thanks to subsidies from “private investments from generous anonymous patrons,” James Bets explains. “Two guards live their all year-long for maintenance and security.”

Still, since his father’s abdication in 1999, Michael Bates has had to manage a cumbersome and expensive legacy. Sealand’s crazy history aside, the fisherman has always said he's willing to concede his maritime fortress provided the price is right.

For now the micronation is still looking for its next captain. As hackers failed to take control of it, they set sail towards other free territories like Iceland. Michael Bates now meditates on the future of his kingdom as the prince of an empty shell, and on the project that will maybe allow Sealand to survive in perpetuity.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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