BACK IN 2000
the HavenCo datahaven project was all the rage for Net-ziens, carefully
spun through skillful manipulation of sympathetic media -- such as Wired
-- as a bastion of freedom on the Internet. Based on the (allegedly) sovereign "state"/gun platform of Sealand
the (supposedly) secure co-location facility (web hosting by any other
name), the hyped theory was (almost) anyone could put data out of the
legal reach of other (better funded, more stable, less flaky)
If you were doing something in a gray area, such as an Internet casino,
pay-per-view video streaming without the blessing of movie companies,
or trying to start your own currency, HavenCo was the place on the
planet to escape the Oppressive foot of The Man (i.e. anyone with a
government). But please, no kiddie-porn, spammers, or hackers –
wouldn't want to legitimately piss anyone off.
In the words of G. Gordon Liddy, "Oh, ye suckers."
Ryan Lackey, one of HavenCo's founders and its former CTO, stood up at
DEFCON 11 and 'fessed up on how dysfunctional the whole scheme was from
a business and infrastructure standpoint. Most media "coverage" is an
echo of Declan McCullagh's
, but I think Ryan got a free pass in some areas. I was in the front
row for the whole presentation and went back to look at both the
presentation notes on line and old HavenCo. coverage.
Ryan is bitter, and I don't blame him. If I moved out to the
middle-of-nowhere for nearly two years living (No chicks, same food,
same scenery) on a second-rate platform ("Island Fortress" my ass),
limited to three showers per week, and owed $220,000 plus stock (worth
nothing) by HavenCo, I'd be more than a bit bitter.
Nobody put a gun to Ryan's head to go out to Fantasy Island, er,
Sealand. No one put a gun to Ryan's head to misrepresent the number of
existing customers and presence of redundant infrastructure out at
Sealand before the press. According to his DEFCON 11 presentation here,
he was an active participant in the company from day one and even after
the other founders left and handed over the keys to the operation to
Sealand's "Prince" Michael in the Summer of '02.
He also actively participated in press whitewashing, including a BBC story done in July '02
saying the venture had been "profitable" since the summer of 2001 – but
that didn't stop him from scorning the media for not trying to verify
HavenCo's claims or truthfulness. (Of course, I guess this merely
proves that the Beeb lives up to its poor reporting) While Ryan admits
to making claims of having plenty of servers in the HavenCo "basement,"
reporters weren't allowed to wander around willy-nilly on the platform.
Trade secrets of HavenCo, ya know. Nitrogen-filled machine rooms to
keep out oxygen and intruders? Fiction.
HavenCo didn't get any venture funding during the height of the dot.com
boom. Lackey blamed this on organizational problems with the founders,
but I suspect another reason. Let's consider the following conversation
with a VC throwing money at anyone who looks pretty (and the 2000 Wired
article counts as pretty)—
"Our facility is based in the state of Sealand
"Sealand? Where's that?"
"It's a WWII gun platform 6 miles offshore the UK, leaders are Prince Roy and Prince Michael."
"Of the British Royal Family??"
"No, the Royal Family of Sealand. Made themselves royalty of the country."
"Appointed themselves royalty of the gun platform they are squatting on?"
"Yes, you've got it."
"Is this ah 'country' recognized by the UN or any other international body worth a damn?"
"No, but we have this shaky case based on no more than two or three
incidents that's backed up by some pontificating windbags and a lot of
"Uh, ok. So, um, the 'government' is how large?"
"About three people."
"No courts, then? How do you resolve business disputes with the government?"
"We have the word of Prince Roy and Prince Michael is part of the
company. That's good enough for us because of our inbred mistrust of
large Oppressive governments suppressing Internet freedom, like the
United States of America."
"Thank you sooo very much for your time. Jane, could you send in the guy with the sock puppet?"
Ryan is now on a crusade/jihad to set the record
straight. It's not good enough to watch HavenCo die of its own
failings, so he's publishing all the things he couldn't/wouldn't talk
about when he "inside," such as (the small) number of customers and
(non-redundant, limited) infrastructure on the gun platform. While he
didn't explicitly instruct DEFCONers to go hack HavenCo, he was kind
enough to point out 2 Mbps of denial-of-service traffic would do it and
provided IP addresses to the audience.
Lackey finished his DEFCON presentation with a rambling laundry list of
other projects and schemes he was either (supposedly) working on or
supported, including electronic untraceable cash, improved security
products, and currently roaming the world trying to find a place to set
up a "high-tech free trade zone" that will support pro-liberty
ventures. The free trade zone would, of course, be equipped with a
surplus tank company or two to preserve its independents from third
parties. Why any country would agree to have an independent army not
answerable to anyone but a board of directors within its borders is an
interesting question best left for future VC or unemployed Taliban to
ponder, but Ryan is rather casual about the prospects. And there's
metacolo.com, Ryan's sequel to HavenCo. Why should anyone use it?
First, you'd have to trust him about the infrastructure...
While I doubt Neil Stephenson is running around screaming "They're only
stories, damn it," some meditation upon the HavenCo datahaven concept
is worth rehashing. "Pro-liberty" Netziens are locked into a
paradoxical mind-set that the only way to find True Data freedom is to
escape their (cushy, relatively tolerant) democracy-based societies to
utopian places with less government or no government. But it's funny
how many of these Netopian dreamers are holding on to their
(U.S./Western European) passports rather than trading them in for Third
As the HavenCo experience demonstrates, less/no government means being
dependent upon a benevolent dictator (another paradoxical concept) for
"free" operations. If the dictator dies or decides to change the rules
a la Prince Roy/Prince Michael, you're screwed. Going to the UN for
help won't do you any good, either. HavenCo, Metacolo, and future
pro-liberty utopias are pre-doomed to failure without structured ways
to resolve disputes between their "country of operation" and
themselves. The only dictator you can ultimate trust is yourself. Even
paying protection is, at best, a short-term solution.
The third paradox is the very public whoring of a datahaven. If you are
making noises that you're going to set up something out of touch of Big
Brother, it stands to reason that Big Brother is going to take more
than a passing interest in your operations. After all, what are you
hiding that you don't want taxed/monitored, hmm?
Ryan says he is going to set up his own electronic cash system
(allegedly backed by $10K US of gold). Sure, you'd have privacy, just
the sort of thing a Libertarian would want. Unfortunately, it's also
the sort of thing that drug dealers and hard-core criminals would love.
In a post-9/11 world, e-cash is not just a wet dream, it's the sort of
the wet dream that will get you the sort of attention you supposedly
want to avoid.
Perhaps the best solution should be found by looking to the words of
Avi Freedman, one of HavenCo's investors. Back in the '90s, "We suck
less" was a motto he used to compare his Philly-based ISP with the
operations of others. For all their flaws and burdensome rules,
democracies as a whole "suck less" than dictatorships and a better
investment of time and energy would likely to be investing in making a
democracy "suck less" than to try to find a paradoxical utopia that
doesn't exist. µ