Net freedoms are all at sea

Rupert Goodwins: Government and big business are slowly restraining the freedoms of the Internet, in the name of law, copyright and security. Can eccentricity save the early days of anarchy?

The English have always been a nation at home with paradox and irony: imperialists and champions of liberal emancipation, experts in politesse and rampaging football hooligans, inventors of sports that we never seem able to win. That innate ability to encompass opposites is particularly marked in our approach to government and statehood: we genuinely like our unelected, medieval monarchy while excoriating our elected leaders. We're embarrassed about being English, but proud of what it means.

You can see this most clearly in films like the post-war Ealing comedy, Passport to Pimlico. In it, the eponymous small area of London discovers that by historical accident it's really part of French Burgundy. Pimlico rises up and declares itself independent of Great Britain, which is going through severe rationing and other austerity measures, and transforms itself to a Bacchanalian parody of the freedoms enjoyed by the hedonistic French. But doesn't that turn you into a bunch of foreigners, one character is asked? Her answer makes perfect sense to anyone born hereabouts: "We always were English, and we always will be English, and it's just because we're English we're sticking out for our right to be Burgundians!"

It's more than fifty years and umpteen lost semi-finals since that film was made, but the sentiments are far from dead. Pimlico may now be nothing more than a cluster of overpriced temporary accommodation, but the autonomous Englishman retains his castle. Or, in this case, fort -- Sealand, an abandoned wartime construction six miles off the Essex coast that has for around thirty years been the home of Roy of Sealand, erstwhile army major Paddy Roy Bates. He, his family and some chums colonised Fort Roughs Tower in 1967,when it was outside the then-three mile territorial limits of the UK. He declared it sovereign territory. The British government didn't like this, and sent the Navy in to dissuade him: he fired at the warships, which promptly backed off, and was hauled in front of an English court. Who threw the case out, declaring that it was outside UK territory and thus nothing to do with them.

I won't bore you with the subsequent legal joustings -- or the exciting business with the invaders, the diplomats and the false passports, which you can read about on the Sealand Web site -- but unusually for such ad hoc statelets it looks as if Sealand has some claim to independent existence. Which they capitalise on by running Internet services, connected to the outside world by satellite link: if you don't abuse their fair use policy -- no spam, no child porn, no hacking -- you can do what you like and no nasty government subpoena can get your data.

Of course, as soon as anything too nasty does happen the RN will be all over it like a flock of seagulls on a rubbish dump -- it'll be embarrassing, but nobody will come to Sealand's aid. These days, all you have to do is declare your suspicions that a boat is carrying drugs, terrorists, guns or any combination of the three and you can send your lads in to check it out without a care in the world. It'll be a bold business that stakes its survival on a Sealand server.

But this isn't the first time the offshore forts have been home to stuff that annoys the suits. In the 60s, a number of the forts were home to pirate radio stations -- Radio City, Radio Invicta, 390 and so on. They got cleared off the air through a combination of legislation, dodgy dealings and the Royal Marines, but while they were on the air, they were a sovereign tonic to a nation more than fed up of the Home, Light and Third services from a fusty, Reithian BBC. Their popularity led to Radio 1 and independent radio in the UK -- or at the least, accelerated the liberalisation of the airwaves.

Of course, the pirates haven't gone away, as any London listener trying to tune in to Radio 3 on a Sunday will know. But instead of being based in ships or on forts, they're slipperier customers: popping up from one tower block one weekend and another the next, linking programmes into unattended transmitters through untraceable microwave beams, always one step ahead of the powers that be. They provide programming that's unavailable any other way.

And that's where the spirit of Sealand will end up. It's static, an easy target that just requires enough political will to remove. But with wireless networks, with Wi-Fi hot spots and 3G phones, you'll be able to have your own Sealand in the back of a dodgy van parked up on the side of the Old Kent Road. Or, indeed, in Pimlico. We'll still be breaking the rules in a most English way, and the Net will be a healthier place for all.

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