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.