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Tuesday, 9 July, 2002, 08:15 GMT 09:15 UK
Web rebels profit from net controls
Sealand was a WWII anti-aircraft platform
Sealand: Former military fortress in the North Sea
BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

A crumbling concrete anti-aircraft tower off the east coast of England is home to a venture with a difference.

The military platform, dubbed Sealand, is the base of internet hosting company HavenCo which is bucking the downturn of the economy.

The company has been exploiting Sealand's self-proclaimed sovereignty to offer an offshore data haven, free of government interference.

"We believe that people have a right to communicate freely," said Ryan Lackey, co-founder of HavenCo. "If they want to operate certain kinds of business that don't hurt anybody else, they should be able to do so."

The venture comes at a time when governments across the world are tightening controls on the internet.

New laws both in the US and Europe are giving officials greater powers to snoop on online activities.

Self-styled nation

Mr Lackey came up with the idea for HavenCo two years ago and started looking for somewhere to create an electronic refuge.

Access to the platform from the sea
Visitors have to be winched onboard
"We looked all around the world for somewhere that would have secure internet hosting, outside of government regulation and we could not really find any," Mr Lackey told the BBC programme Go Digital.

In the end, he settled on the self-styled sovereign principality of Sealand.

Britain built the anti-aircraft platform during the Second World War.

It remained derelict until the 1960s when a retired Army major, Paddy Roy Bates, took over the 10,000 square foot platform and declared it the independent nation of Sealand.

At the time, the platform was beyond the then three-mile limit of British territorial waters. All this changed in 1987, when the UK extended its territorial waters from three to 12 miles.

Little regulation

Britain does not recognise the sovereignty of Sealand but this has not deterred HavenCo.

Servers on Sealand
Few controls on sites on HavenCo's servers
It has installed internet servers on the platform, linked to the outside world via satellite links.

There are few controls on the kind of websites that HavenCo is prepared to host.

"We have a strict policy of three things we prohibit here," explained Mr Lackey. "We prohibit child pornography, spamming and hacking from our machines to other machines."

So far many of the sites are online gambling ventures. But a growing number of political groups banned in their own countries have turned to HavenCo, such as the website of the Tibetan Government in exile.

"We also permit any sort of free debate about issues whereas a country or company might try to censor this or sue you," said Mr Lackey.

Providing a service to companies or groups who want to keep their data secret or publish it on the web without censorship is proving a worthwhile enterprise.

"We've been profitable since the summer of 2001 so from a commercial standpoint we can continue forever," said Mr Lackey.

"Regulations in other countries simply increase demand."

However, how long HavenCo will escape the attention of the authorities is uncertain, with officials insisting that any site hosted on Sealand will have to comply with British internet regulations.

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See also:

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11 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
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