London (CNSNews.com) - HavenCo, the company offering a secure and no-questions-asked "data haven," has set up base on an old World War II sea fort, six miles off the English coast.
The setting could hardly be more fitting for a group of techno-pioneers disparaged by critics as "pirates."
Comprising a large platform and two concrete pillars rising from the gray North Sea off the port of Felixstowe, it has for the past 33 years been home and country to the self-styled Prince Roy of Sealand and his family.
The platform, originally called Roughs Tower, was an artificial island built during the war as a fortress to guard the approaches to the Thames River estuary. It was closed and abandoned by the government after the war ended.
In 1967 a former British army major, Paddy Roy Bates, landed on the vacant fortress and began to make it habitable. Soon thereafter he declared the sovereign principality of Sealand.
Before long Sealand boasted a red, white and black national flag and Prince Roy was printing his own postage stamps. Passports were issued to a select group of people who contributed to the enterprise in some way.
He declared English the official language, minted coins and fixed the exchange rate of the Sealand dollar to the U.S. currency. A national motto was chosen - "From the Sea, Freedom."
As Roy tells it on the Sealand Internet website, the British government quickly got wind of "the new situation off the coast of England."
In 1968, Royal Navy ships approached the area, but Roy said he "threatened the navy by undertaking defensive activity. Shots were fired from Sealand in warning."
The incident led to charges being brought against him in a British court. But, in what Roy described as "a spectacular success for Sealand's claim to sovereignty," the court ruled that the tower was outside UK territorial waters and not subject to its legal jurisdiction.
Since then several countries have given what Roy maintains is "de facto recognition to the existence and the sovereignty of Sealand."
Roy's description of his mission borrows generously from the terminology of earlier pioneers.
"The history of Sealand is a story of a struggle for liberty. Sealand was founded on the principle that any group of people dissatisfied with the oppressive laws and restrictions of existing nation states may declare independence in any place not claimed to be under the jurisdiction of another sovereign entity."
At other times it reads like a cheap thriller.
"Over the years since the declaration of statehood by Sealand, the family lived a free-frontier lifestyle," his Internet website says. "They made and enforced the laws of Sealand. They faced and drove off armed attackers and on one occasion, a member of the family was actually kidnapped by armed men and taken to a foreign country against his will."
It turns out Roy had a falling out in 1978 with a German lawyer, Gernot Putz - the earlier recipient of a Sealand passport - who together with a group of Dutchmen arrived at Sealand while Roy was away, seized control, and took Roy's son, Michael, prisoner.
The Prince of Sealand recaptured the platform in a counterattack, freed his son, and took the foreigners prisoner.
The incident presented Roy with yet further ammunition in his claims to sovereignty: When Germany and the Netherlands protested to Britain, it was told Sealand was outside UK jurisdiction. Germany then sent a diplomat to negotiate the prisoners' release - "an act of de facto recognition of Sealand's sovereignty."
At the time he declared independence, British territorial waters extended three nautical miles from the coastline. At six miles out, Sealand was firmly located in international waters.
But in 1987, Britain extended its territorial waters from three to 12 nautical miles. One day earlier Roy pre-emptively declared he was extending Sealand's territorial waters to 12 nautical miles.
"International law does not allow the claim of new land during the extension of sea rights ..." says the Sealand website. "Britain has no more right to Sealand's territory than Sealand has to the territory of the British coastline that falls within its claimed 12 nautical mile arc."
Ten years later the limitations of Sealand's legal powers became evident, when it emerged that a large number of fake Sealand passports were circulating.
Putz, the German who led the 1978 attack, had allegedly set up an office, named himself Sealand Finance Minister, and was selling fake passports to all-comers - especially to Hong Kong citizens keen to leave the territory before it reverted to Chinese rule that year.
Sealand believes more than 150,000 passports were sold, and that in some cases people paid $1,000 each for them.
Sealand spokesperson Jo Hastings said only "a couple hundred" were ever issued legitimately, on an individual basis to "people who have been of service to the principality in the past."
"Passports and citizenship are not available to the general public. This is very important, as we get requests for these every day," she said.
Earlier this year it was reported that Spanish police were investigating a crime ring involved in selling false documents - passports, driving licenses and academic qualifications - purportedly issued by Sealand.
Hastings said the "royal family" was not implicated in any way.
"Some individuals possibly linked to these criminals are still operating websites that fraudulently use the name of Sealand. We would like to see them stripped of their domain names, to prevent unsuspecting persons from giving money to these criminals."
Hastings said she understood two people had been arrested in Spain.
"Because we didn't find out about the incident until we read it in the newspapers, we were all horrified, and very upset that the good name of Sealand and the Royal Family has been sullied."
When his health began to deteriorate, Roy, now 77, began to consider moving off Sealand and finding new uses for it.
Thus it was that negotiations began with HavenCo late last year, and a deal was struck early in 2000 giving the company "an exclusive lease to all the physical territory of Sealand for its datacenter operations."
Ironically, it may be just when the Prince of Sealand is planning to hand over the reins that his sovereignty is being most seriously challenged.
The British Home Office, responding to queries about the HavenCo operation and the possibility it will circumvent new internet interception legislation, said: "The UK does not recognize Sealand as an independent state. It is within UK territorial waters."
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