In the past decade, everyone from WikiLeaks to The Pirate Bay has sought safe haven from the law in Sealand. The former anti-aircraft deck, built during World War II off the coast of the UK, was declared a sovereign nation by Roy Bates, a pirate radio operator who fought off both rival pirates and an attempted coup as the self-proclaimed "Prince of Sealand." Its fuzzy legal status made it seem like the perfect site for a data haven, where people could host and anonymously distribute information that was considered illegal elsewhere. And in 2000, Sean Hastings and Ryan Lackey did just that with HavenCo.

At the time, HavenCo was hailed as potentially revolutionary, "the world's first truly offshore, almost-anything-goes electronic data haven — a place that occupies a tantalizing gray zone between what's legal and what's... possible." Within two years, however, Lackey claimed Sealand had "nationalized" the service, locking him out and reorganizing it with little regard for technical expertise. HavenCo never recovered, and Sealand's hosting was moved to a London data center by 2006.

So why did HavenCo fail? In a painstakingly-researched retrospective, Ars Technica writer James Grimmelmann finds it difficult to isolate one reason. "HavenCo had so many problems, its failure was overdetermined." Sealand was on shaky legal ground and had no allies; it's likely all that stopped it from being attacked was its proximity to the UK. More importantly, the advantages that Sealand could provide — anonymity and security — were mostly desirable for activities that would make it extremely vulnerable. "The only content that couldn't be hosted somewhere else would be content that's illegal everywhere — meaning the nations of the world would find it quite easy to gang up on Sealand, or be willing to look the other way while someone knocked it into the sea." Sealand won't be a data haven any time soon, but it's worth reading the whole fascinating history over at Ars.