From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
“In 1982, Exxon scientists projected carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere”
CAN ANYONE PROVIDE the FOLLOWING DATASET?
HEIGHT of NEWLY-CONSTRUCTED OIL RIG PLATFORMS
X AXIS = YEAR CONSTRUCTED
Y AXIS = HEIGHT ABOVE SEA LEVEL
KEY QUESTION: DO THEY (ALL) GET HIGHER at SOME POINT, and WHEN?
PLEASE INCLUDE GROUNDS GIVEN for DESIGN CHANGE (IF ANY)
PLUS ANY EARLY RELEVANT OIL INDUSTRY CLIMATE CHANGE STUDIES / INTERNAL ANALYSIS
(SHARING is CARING)
POLAR ICE MELT-OFF ACTUALLY VERY PRETTY (STRIPES!)
“Government is an industry with a really high barrier to entry,” he said. “You basically need to win an election or a revolution to try a new one. That’s a ridiculous barrier to entry. And it’s got enormous customer lock-in. People complain about their cellphone plans that are like two years, but think of the effort that it takes to change your citizenship.”
Peter Thiel Makes Down Payment on Libertarian Ocean Colonies
BY Alexis Madrigal / 05.19.08
Tired of the United States and the other 190-odd nations on Earth? If a small team of Silicon Valley millionaires get their way, in a few years, you could have a new option for global citizenship: A permanent, quasi-sovereign nation floating in international waters.
With a $500,000 donation from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a Google engineer and a former Sun Microsystems programmer have launched The Seasteading Institute, an organization dedicated to creating experimental ocean communities “with diverse social, political, and legal systems.”
“Decades from now, those looking back at the start of the century will understand that Seasteading was an obvious step towards encouraging the development of more efficient, practical public-sector models around the world,” Thiel said in a statement. It might sound like the setting for the videogame Bioshock, but the institute isn’t playing around: It plans to splash a prototype into the San Francisco Bay within the next two years, the first step toward establishing deep-water city-states, or what it calls “seasteads” — homesteads on the high seas.
Within the pantheon of would-be utopian communities, there’s a particularly rich history of people trying to live outside the nation-state paradigm out in the ocean. The most ambitious was Marshall Savage’s Aquarius Project, which aimed at nothing less than the colonization of the universe. There was also Las Vegas millionaire Michael Oliver’s attempt to create a new island country, the Republic of Minerva, by dredging the shallow waters near Tonga. And the Freedom Ship was to be a mile-long portable country costing about $10 billion to construct.
None of these projects has succeeded, a fact that The Seasteading Institute’s founders, Google’s Patri Friedman and the semi-retired Wayne Gramlich, are keenly aware of throughout the 300-page book they’ve written about seasteading. Instead of starting with a grand scheme worthy of a James Bond villain, the Institute is bringing an entrepreneurial, DIY mentality to creating oceanic city-states. “There’s a history of a lot of crazy people trying this sort of thing, and the idea is to do it in a way that’s not crazy,” said Joe
Lonsdale, the institute’s chairman and a principal at Clarium Capital Management, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund.
The seasteaders want to build their first prototype for a few million dollars, by scaling down and modifying an existing off-shore oil rig design known as a “spar platform.” In essence, the seastead would consist of a reinforced concrete tube with external ballasts at the
bottom that could be filled with air or water to raise or lower the living platform on top. The spar design helps offshore platforms better withstand the onslaught of powerful ocean waves by minimizing the amount of structure that is exposed to their energy. “You have
very little cross-sectional interaction with waves [with] the spar design,” Gramlich said. The primary living space, about 300 square feet per person, would be inside the tube, but the duo envisions the top platform holding buildings, gardens, solar panels, wind turbines
and (of course) satellites for internet access. To some extent, they believe the outfittings for the seastead will be dependent on the business model, say aquaculture or tourism, that will support it and the number of people aboard. “We’re not trying to pick the one
strategy because we think there will be multiple people who want one for multiple reasons,” Gramlich said.
Dan Donovan, a long-time spokesman for Dominion, an energy company that operated Gulf of Mexico-based gas rigs, including Devils Tower, the world’s deepest spar structure, said the group’s plan wasn’t too far-fetched. His company’s off-shore rigs, which are much larger than the institute’s planned seasteads, provided long-term housing for its
workers. “They were sort of like mobile homes. We could move them from one place to another,” Donovan said. “People did live on them.” But even the institute members admit that their plans aren’t far enough along to stand up to rigorous engineering scrutiny. Some engineers, Gramlich said, have been skeptical of their plan, particularly their desire to do it on the cheap. “We have some legitimate doubting Thomases out there,” Gramlich said.
But if the idea turns out to be just crazy enough that it works, Friedman, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, envisions transforming the way that government functions. “My dad and grandfather were happy
arguing their ideas and were happy influencing people through the world of ideas,” Friedman said. “I see a real need for people to go out and do something and show by example.” True to his libertarian leanings, Friedman looks at the situation in market terms: the institute’s modular spar platforms, he argues, would allow for the creation of far cheaper new countries out on the high-seas, driving innovation. “Government is an industry with a really high barrier to entry,” he said. “You basically need to win an election or a revolution to try a new one. That’s a ridiculous barrier to entry. And it’s got enormous customer lock-in. People complain about their cellphone plans that are like two years, but think of the effort that it takes to change your citizenship.”
Friedman estimates that it would cost a few hundred million dollars to build a seastead for a few thousand people. With costs that low, Friedman can see constellations of cities springing up, giving people a variety of governmental choices. If misguided policies arose,
citizens could simply motor to a new nation. “You can change your government without having to leave your house,” he said. Of course, one major role of government is to provide security, which would seem to be an issue on the open sea. But Friedman’s not worried about defense beyond simple firearms because he thinks pirates will lack the financial incentive to attack the seasteads. “More sophisticated pirates will take entire container ships that have tens of millions of dollars of cargo and 10 crew [members],” he said. “On a seastead, there’s a much different crew-to-movable assets ratio.”
In fact, his only worry is that a government will try to come calling and force their jurisdiction upon them. Toward that end, they are planning to fly a “flag of convenience” from a country that sells them, like Panama, to provide them with protection from national navies. “If you’re not flying a flag … any country can do whatever they want to you,” he said. Even if their big idea doesn’t end up panning out, their story should live on in internet lore for confirming the dream that two guys with a blog and a love of Ayn Rand can land half a million dollars to pursue their dream, no matter how off-kilter or off-grid it might seem. “Everything changed when we got the funding,” Friedman said. “Before that, it was two guys with some ideas writing a book and blogging about their ideas…. Now that we’ve got some funding, it’s something I plan to make a full-time job out of.”
WHY GOVERNMENTS SUCK
Dynamic Geography: A Blueprint for Efficient Government
by Patri Friedman
This article briefly discusses the fundamental reasons why governments function so poorly, and why many libertarian solutions are insufficient to solve the problem. Government is modeled as an industry which is shown to be lacking in competitive feedback. Based on this, we examine ways of making government more efficient, including an odd but elegant way of fixing this problem which has not previously been analyzed in this context. So if you’re ready to get your feet wet, read on!
Those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.
Given how far all current governments stray from the libertarian vision, it is natural that some of us have considered designing or even founding a new nation. In doing so, we sometimes assume that the major failing of present nations is the mental attitudes of their residents. Thus to ensure that a political system works, we merely need to start with libertarians. This is incorrect, because much of what we don’t like about current states stems from the behavior of systems – behavior which is to some degree independent of which humans are involved. As an example, the USA started with liberty-minded founders and degenerated anyway.
Alternatively, it is tempting to think that some structural problems or lack of specificity in the constitution are the issue. If laws required a supermajority to enact but a 1/4 vote to repeal, or if the constitution made it clear that RKBA really means the right for anyone
to possess the most deadly weaponry available, maybe that would solve the problem. While these issues matter, the approach is still too superficial. Again, the USA started with a pretty darn good constitution, and still degenerated. No matter what your starting laws (and the Bill of Rights is pretty clear), judges must interpret them.
When we look at the empirical evidence of the twentieth century, the libertarian case is bleak. However much we may admire it, small government does not appear to be a stable equilibrium. Instead, the clear pattern is growth of government spending, in absolute and
relative terms, in a variety of different first-world countries. The budget-maximizing bureau and the ratchet of government appear to be robust phenomena. We must not dismiss this evidence simply because it is distasteful. Laissez-faire may be efficient, but if it is inherently unstable there can be no Libertopia.
This stability problem is a crucial one for libertarians, perhaps the most fundamental issue we face. We know a great deal about how things would/should/could/did work in our vision of society. But why are such societies so rare? Why aren’t they forming? Why do they disappear? How can we create one that lasts? Some excellent analysis has been done on this topic (thanks, public choice economics!). But these pressing questions seem to receive little attention compared to minor technical issues, despite the fact that we must answer them if we are ever to create a stable libertarian society.
The Governing Industry
Traditional government consists of a monopoly on the use of force in some geographic area. Generally it is extended to include monopolies on a large number of services as well, such as courts, police, military protection, roads, and licensing. We’ll consider all of these
as government services, and call the provision of these services the governing industry. There are two aspects which make this industry uncompetitive: a high cost of switching and a high barrier to entry.
High Cost of Switching
Government service providers have monopolies over wide areas. Most people live in buildings and own lots of physical property. They are likely to have family and friends in the surrounding geographical area, and to work at a nearby job. While there may be people who live in RV’s, only have friends on the internet, and telecommute every day, they are surely rare. Thus if an individual wishes to switch providers, they must physically relocate to a new country. This involves an onerous series of steps: sell their house, pack up all
their possessions, quit their job, move to a new country, deal with immigration requirements, buy a new house, get a new job, make new friends, learn a new culture. This is an extremely costly process.
Because it is so expensive to switch service providers, the industry has little market feedback. Jurisdictional arbitrage is ineffective because the difference to an individual between two governments must be higher than the cost of switching – and that cost is huge. Thus its a great temptation for residents to stay and hope things get better, or perhaps try to change them despite slim odds.
If it is not clear why this leads to poor service, consider a business example. Suppose there were many competing phone companies with no interconnection, so that you could only call people subscribed to your provider. It is likely that your friends, family, and coworkers all use the same provider, because convenience of communication is so important. In fact, they’ve probably all used the same provider for their whole lives. Once a provider had many customers signed up, it would not have to treat them very well to keep them as customers, because it would be so difficult for them to switch. When all phone
networks are interconnected and it takes only a few minutes to change providers, service is vastly more efficient. The effect with government is even stronger because physical proximity is more important and all-encompassing than the phone network, thus people are willing to bear higher costs to maintain it.
High Barrier to Entry
Consider two industries. One has few economies of scale, thus small firms can enter easily. In the other, high economies of scale mean that only a huge, highly-funded new venture can be competitive with current firms. The first might be the computer applications market and the second the computer operating system market. When the barrier to entry is low, many innovative firms will compete to provide the best product. When it is high, a small number of entrenched firms fight to maintain their position.
The barrier to entry in the government market is gargantuan. While it is possible to control small parts of a democracy without great expenditure, creating a new system or taking over the existing one are very difficult. Bloody revolution is the usual route, and those attempting it must risk death with little chance of success. All land is claimed, and its current possessors have a great deal of interest in maintaining the status quo. The recent US invasion of Iraq demonstrates the tremendous expense and difficulty of regime change.
This high barrier means that the governing market contains a small number of large firms. The industry lacks the continual growth, innovation, and energy produced by a constant stream of small experiments and ventures. Currently, small groups of people cannot readily experiment with new systems. This deprives the world of useful information about improved ways of governing – as well as letting people keep their illusions about methods which would prove disastrous in practice.
Further evidence that these two conditions are key to the poor provision of services is found by examining the few governmental services with a much lower cost of switching and barrier to entry. For example, incorporation and ship chartering do not require physical presence, and both are among the minority of profitable government-run businesses. It is no surprise that for this small subset of “virtual” services, jurisdictional arbitrage is alive and well.
Aside: applying these two criteria to the Windows OS explains why it is of low quality, while Microsoft makes much better products for more competitive industries.
Now that we have considered government as an industry and realized that it is a very uncompetitive one, we should be unsurprised that existing governments do such a poor job. Without competition and market feedback, we should not expect significant improvement – regardless of superficial reforms. Changing one part of one system is not enough, we must change the meta-system under which systems evolve.
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root. — Henry David Thoreau
Industries are not made competitive by rhetoric, and the governing industry is no exception. Instead, we must change the incentive structure which leads to stagnant, exploitative governments. The above analysis suggests that lowering the barrier to entry and the cost of switching is likely to be effective. How can this be done?
One answer is a heirarchical system of alliances like medieval feudalism. Each unit can choose which higher-level unit it is affiliated with, and thus shop around for the best deal. This actually created a competitive system, as Robert Wright describes in Non-Zero Sum:
Why were these ruling elites more open to change than Rome’s ruling elites? One reason, some historians say, was the decentralized nature of feudalism. Feudal lords often had the leeway to rewrite the rules in their territory, and they also had the incentive – competition with neighboring lords. As savvy lords tried to foster more prosperity than their neighbors, the many fractal units of feudalism became, in effect, laboratories for non-zero-sumness, competing with each other to raise productivity. 
He also reports that this competition in the governing industry may have contributed substantially to Europe’s technological advantage. Unfortunately, there are problems with this method. For example, stable units in feudalism tend to be geographically compact, and geographic features constrain the possible configurations. So a unit will often have only 2 options for affiliation – or if its not on a border, no options at all.
One system fairly well-known in libertarian circles is called anarcho-capitalism. The idea is that all of the services of government are provided by private businesses. No one provider has a monopoly on any service or area. For example, police functions would be the domain of “protection agencies”, and disputes would be settled in private courts. We will not examine the system in detail here (see ). Instead, we will examine how AC fits into our model.
AC lowers the barrier to entry, because a new firm would only have to enter a specific industry (like fire protection) in a certain area. Some governing service industries may have high economies of scale and be natural monopolies, but it is unlikely that all are. Unlike monolithic governments, anarcho-capitalism allows for competition in the non-monopolistic fields. AC also dramatically lowers the cost of switching because people would not have to physically move in order to change service providers – it would be like changing insurance agents is today. Additionally they are free to choose a different provider for each service. Thus to stay in business a provider must be competitive, or its stream of customers will dry up. It is not merely protecting a rent-generating resource like a traditional state.
The main objection raised to AC is stability – whether the power vacuum of having no central government will inevitably lead to one forming . Critics say the protection agencies will just join together to tyrannize the population. While the scant historical evidence does not support this prediction of failure via swift descent into totalitarianism, it does not point towards long-term stability either. Rather, situations such as an external threat to the anarchy cause centralized control to develop. Once in place, regardless of what happens with the original threat, government gradually strengthens its hold. This is a typical example of the so-called ratchet effect which is a major contributor to the continual growth of government .
In The Machinery of Freedom, David Friedman used the following metaphor to show the benefits of anarcho-capitalism:
Consider our world as it would be if the cost of moving from one country to another were zero. Everyone lives in a housetrailer and speaks the same language. One day, the president of France announces that because of troubles with neighboring countries, new military taxes are being levied and conscription will begin shortly. The next morning the president of France finds himself ruling a peaceful but empty landscape, the population having been reduced to himself, three generals, and twenty-seven war correspondents. 
Taking this metaphor literally suggests an alternative strategy. Suppose that the cost of physically switching countries really could be dramatically reduced. Even though each country retained a monopoly on its geographic territory, governments would be forced to compete for citizens by providing services more efficiently. Governing would be more like long-distance phone carriers less like operating systems. But how?
While the answer is not to put wheels on our houses, some may find it equally counterintuitive – to build floating cities from detachable, modular units. The general concept is by no means an original idea, as floating cities have long been a part of the nation-founding fringe. Because all land is under the control of nations with no interest in selling sovereignty, nation-founders have been forced to consider the oceans. Yet far from being a booby prize, it appears that the sea may be ideally suited to sustaining free societies.
The geography of land is fixed, and the cost of transporting things over it is high. Moving buildings is rarely feasible. Buildings and heavy possessions are valuable and important, which makes control over physical territory important. Water, however, is a fluid medium. Even large buildings, if floating, could be towed to new locations quite cheaply (think cruise ships). So the geography of the oceans is dynamic – pieces of territory need not maintain a fixed spatial relationship.
The consequences of this geography should be clear from Friedman’s story. If an individual structure can cheaply relocate to another jurisdiction, the cost of switching governments is low. The streets which make up a town, the towns which make up a county, the counties which make up a state – each level can switch its affiliation to get a
better deal. This switch is not merely virtual as in feudalism, since it can involve physically moving the entire area. If the state tries to impose a sales tax on Monday, the capitol building may be all that’s left of the city by Tuesday. When leaving is easy, exploitation is difficult.
The barrier to entry is much lower on the ocean as well, because the geography of floating cities can be dynamically grown as well as re-arranged. A new government no longer has to fight a war over some already-claimed piece of land. It can simply take some small bit of
the vast empty oceans as its own. While location does matter, the oceans are far more homogenous than land, and so there will be less contention for prime real estate.
As mentioned earlier, one of the major factors bloating governments is the ratchet effect. Because dynamic geography can also be shrunk, it provides a potential “reset button” to help counter ratcheting. Imagine a platform city where the government has become too repressive or inefficient. A single platform decides to disengage and anchor a mile away, forming a new government. More follow. Eventually, the entire city may have relocated to the new position, with exactly the same set of platforms, but an entirely new government. In practice, it is likely that the threat of this possibility will keep it from being necessary. While a reset policy could be made part of a terrestrial constitution, the powers-that-be will have great incentive to fight the reset. When citizens can just walk out and take friends, family, and office with them, resetting is harder to stop. This sort of reset is incremental, so it has no single point of failure. Stopping a terrestrial reset might just require winning a vote. Stopping a dynamic reset requires limiting the freedom of movement of every module in the city.
This solution can be foiled. If a government physically prevents modules from leaving, they have terrestrialized the city – and can proceed to terrorize it. But while this is a genuine danger, the aquatic city is still relatively better off. On land, buildings and land are inescapably trapped in place. On the ocean there is always some chance that a platform might, through valour or stealth, make a daring escape. Further, this restriction will have to be sprung quite suddenly, as I believe that the freedom of physical association will be considered the most fundamental right of a platform. It will be revered as free speech and property rights are by libertarians today, for it ensures explicit, voluntary participation in the social contract.
Dynamic geography moves power downwards towards the smallest separable unit. Depending on various factors, the smallest economically feasible unit might be as small as a single residence, or it might have to house some 10-100 people. Either way, this size will allow far more individual influence and accountability than in current huge, monolithic, winner-take-all political systems. Not only will government be more efficient, but it is likely to be more diverse. There seems to be a fair variety in people’s tastes for political systems, so with a lower barrier to entry firms will arise to serve many niche markets.
Part of why this idea is so powerful is that you don’t need to believe in it for it to work. The governing market will have different characteristics under a different incentive structure, regardless of the particular political beliefs of its citizens. This avoids the weak link of many utopian ideas, which require everyone to See The Light. The only convincing required is to start the process, and since its incremental only a few people need be persuaded at each step. As floating cities grow, the additional evidence that they are nice places to live convinces those on the margin, which produces more evidence, and so forth.
A disadvantage to DG is that the oceans are a difficult and resource-poor environment. One might ask whether the advantages of efficient government are worth it. Empirically, the answer appears to be yes. For example, consider cities like Hong Kong and Las Vegas. With few natural resources, they have enjoyed tremendous economic growth by providing an environment of freedom. In our complex global economy, there is plenty of work to be done besides extracting natural resources.
You can see why governing floating cities will be a dynamic, competitive industry. As with any such industry, I have great confidence that it will produce useful innovations I would never have dreamed of. DG, like AC, produces good government through competition. I don’t claim this will result in utopia, but it will increase both private freedom and the efficiency of public efforts. Note that the advantages of dynamic geography are not specific to libertarian or AC politics – all kinds of government will be made more efficient by DG. In fact, it may turn out that both communism and anarcho-capitalism are infeasible on land but workable at sea.
Are such settlements technologically feasible? I have done a fair amount of research on the subject and concluded that they are not only practical but reasonably cost-effective. I am currently writing a book on the subject, called Seasteading. For more detailed information, see the draft, which is available on the web . Note that even if the technical problems are an issue, we have transformed a political problem into an engineering one – and humans are good at solving engineering problems.
Under anarcho-capitalism, individuals are free to switch providers of any individual service without physically moving. In dynamic geography, modules can always choose an entirely different government by switching location. There is no conflict between these ideas, and in fact a great deal of synergy. An AC system seems much more likely to form and remain stable under DG, for several reasons.
For example, governments currently have huge profits from their monopolies on coercion. This gives them a great deal of incentive to fight the emergence of an AC system, and a large pool of resources to fight it with. In the competitive market of governing a dynamic
geography, the profit for providing services is dramatically decreased. This will make it much it easier for AC (or other alternative systems) to emerge.
As we mentioned earlier, a frequent criticism of AC is the stability problem – what happens if all the protection agencies gang up to form a government. This is much less of a worry when potential victims can physically move away at low cost. Like the president of France, the protection agency cartel may form a monopoly – only to discover that its territory consists of its corporate headquarters and a few waves. Its rank and file should be able to get new jobs easily, as the protection agencies in the newly formed city on the horizon are hiring like mad – but its executives will have a more difficult time.
Thus dynamic geography may finally strengthen anarchy’s weakest link. It is difficult to seize hold of water – it tends to fragment into tiny pieces and swirl away. Counterintuitive though it may be, this apparently shifty foundation will provide a stable base for anarchy.
Dynamic geography leverages the peculiar nature of the oceans to create a free society. It is interesting to consider how broadly applicable this technique is. Well, the next frontier will be space. Space contains planets, some of which have static geographies, and others (gas giants, worlds with liquid surfaces) have dynamic ones. But most of space consists simply of…space – which is clearly an environment of dynamic geography. Gravity wells do place severe limits on movement, but the utter lack of friction means that gigantic objects can be moved cheaply. In other words, dynamic geography is not merely a local quirk, it holds for most of the universe.
So the bad news is that our current residences are unlikely to ever enjoy high levels of freedom or support stable anarchy. The good news is that 70% of the earth’s surface and 99.9999…% of the universe have the necessary characteristic. The landlubbers and groundhogs can keep their monopoly-inducing dirt – we’ll take everything else.
Mark Twain once said “Buy land. They’ve stopped making it.” When he is finally disproved, I predict that a great deal of political change will result.
Thanks to Wayne Gramlich and David Friedman for their inspirational ideas, and to the Libertarian Nation Foundation for giving me a reason to write this up.
 Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. Pantheon Books, 2000. ISBN: 0-679-44252-9. URL: http://www.nonzero.org/
 Friedman, David D: 1973. Machinery of Freedom: Guide To A Radical Capitalism (New York, NY, Harper & Row). A few chapters are webbed at: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Libertarian/Machinery_of_Freedom/MofF_Contents.html
 For an example of an article arguing that AC is unstable, see Paul Birch’s Anarcho-Capitalism Dissolves Into City-States
 Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Epsiodes in the Growth of American Government, Robert Higgs, Oxford University Press.
 The seasteading website and book can be found at: http://www.seastead.org/
FLAGS OF CONVENIENCE (GET YOUR OWN)
AUTONOMOUS ZONE THEORY, TEMPORARY and OTHERWISE
PREVIOUSLY : START YOUR OWN OFF-SHORE MICRONATION
SEALAND (THE COUNTRY) BURNS DOWN
The public reaction was predictable when word first got out of SeaCode Inc.’s proposal to house 600 foreign software engineers on a cruise ship moored three miles off the California coast, thus undercutting U.S. wage rates and circumventing local labor rules. The veteran technology columnist John Dvorak described the vessel as a “slave ship.” Other critics preferred the label “sweatshop.” The words “exploitative” and “inhumane” caromed around the Web. The image that first leaped to my own rather more literary mind was of the floating prison hulks that housed the convict Abel Magwitch in “Great Expectations.” Roger Green tried to take the rhetoric philosophically. “We know we’ll be a lightning rod,” Green, 58, a co-founder and chief operating officer of the San Diego company, told me. “But my hope is we’ll get our story out.”
The story is SeaCode’s plan to help clients overcome the drawbacks of outsourcing sophisticated engineering work overseas. The chief benefit of offshoring — the low pay scales in India and elsewhere — often is offset by the cost of flying executives out to monitor progress, the time difference (you have to be awake at 10:30 p.m. in California to reach India at noon) and the doubtful security of intellectual property abroad. When a mutual friend hooked up Green, a manager of corporate software projects, with David Cook, 42, a former tanker captain who had moved into the information technology business, their complementary skills suggested a way to bring low-cost offshore labor near to hand. (The mutual friend, Joe Conway, is SeaCode’s third co-founder.)
For all the skepticism that has greeted this proposal, it hardly sounds like the launch of a slave ship. SeaCode says it will pay two to three times the going rate for foreign IT workers, which works out to as much as $24,000 for lower-level jobs and $60,000 for senior programmers. They’ll work in two shifts of 12 hours each, spending four months on board and two months off, with flights home provided by contract. Assuming they’re cleared by immigration authorities, they’ll be able to take shore leave whenever they’re off duty.
Clients, meanwhile, will gain an inexpensive workforce no farther away than a coast-to-coast flight, allowing for more direct supervision of projects than they could achieve at longer range. SeaCode also promises to provide better security for client data than can be
offered abroad. The company says that the cost of maintaining a floating software lab requires it to look for high-value software development, not grunt work; it expects most of its employees will have master’s degrees or better. The actual recruiting of engineers, along with the acquisition of a ship, won’t take place until it signs one or two major clients, which it hopes will happen in the next few months.
The ship’s location just outside the three-mile limit will exempt it from California labor and environmental regulations, but not international maritime labor rules or federal regulations forbidding the dumping of fuel, trash and sewage. Because the ship will be registered under the Bahamian flag or another foreign registry, the workers won’t need H-1B visas, unlike foreign employees housed temporarily on U.S. territory. SeaCode’s U.S. clients might consider that a plus because H-1Bs have become extremely scarce since 2003, when the government slashed the annual quota by more than half, to 85,000.
Plainly, one’s opinion of the scheme depends on one’s opinion of offshoring — whether it’s a scourge to be fought from every battlement or a fact of life to be made the best of. If the former, then it’s easy to view SeaCode as threatening to hasten the disappearance of
decent-paying jobs for American professionals. The drawbacks of offshoring “are real, and this may be a way of addressing that,” says Ron Hira, author of “Outsourcing America: What’s Behind Our National Crisis and How We Can Reclaim American Jobs.” If the latter, then it’s a means of salvaging some domestic profit from the inevitable shift of certain work overseas. The firm expects to spend millions of dollars a year on fuel, food and supplies in local communities. Indeed, Green and Cook say only 10% of SeaCode’s total revenue will be spent on foreign labor, with the rest staying in the U.S. “We’ll be creating a lot of jobs on the mainland,” Green says. Even a small onboard cadre of 200 engineers will require support from 35 or more workers on land. The engineering jobs, he says, “are ones that have already gone out of country. We’ll be taking jobs from Indians over there and bringing them back here.”
In any event, while the founders dream of eventually running multiple ships off the U.S. coast and even expanding to Europe, their initial goal of 600 jobs won’t make a ripple in the overall employment picture. The biggest Indian outsourcing company, Infosys, employs more than 30,000 workers outside the U.S. Still, offshoring is bound to remain a hot-button issue. Some researchers say the share of global information technology jobs domiciled in low-cost locations like India could double to 7% over the next three years. Most of that work will be for American companies.
Accordingly, SeaCode’s big challenge may not be logistical but political. While the company’s plans appear to conform to existing law, says James P. Walsh, a maritime lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine, critics might charge that classifying software engineers as maritime crew and using a temporary mooring as a long-term anchorage amount to exploiting legal loopholes. “Someone in Congress might say these people are taking advantage of a set of rules that never were designed for them,” Walsh says. Protectionist legislation has been enacted on far less provocation. Green says he hopes that once SeaCode lines up some major clients, its model’s economic logic will become clearer. “The very definition of a brilliant idea,” he says, “is that it’s obvious after you know it.”
ROBOT vs. PIRATES
Pirate Hunting Drone Boats Unleashed
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have expressed interest in the 30-ft.- long Protector, which comes mounted with a machine gun and could be retrofitted for commercial use. Robots versus pirates — it’s not as stupid, or unlikely, as it sounds. Piracy has exploded in the waters near Somalia, where this past week United States warships have fired on two pirate skiffs, and are currently in pursuit of a hijacked Japanese-owned vessel. At least four other ships in the region remain under pirate control, and the problem appears to be going global: The International Maritime Bureau is tracking a 14-percent increase in worldwide pirate attacks this year.
And although modern-day pirates enjoy collecting their fare share of booty — they have a soft spot for communications gear — they’re just as likely to ransom an entire ship. In one particularly sobering case, hijackers killed one crew member of a Taiwan-owned vessel each month until their demands were met.
For years now, law enforcement agencies across the high seas have proposed robotic boats, or unmanned surface vessels (USVs), as a way to help deal with 21st-Century techno Black Beards. The Navy has tested at least two small, armed USV demonstrators designed to patrol harbors and defend vessels. And both the Navy and the Coast Guard have expressed interest in the Protector, a 30-ft.-long USV built by BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Israeli defense firm RAFAEL.
The Protector, which comes mounted with a 7.62mm machine gun, wasn’t originally intended for anti-piracy operations. But according to BAE Systems spokesperson Stephanie Moncada, the robot could easily fill that role. “Down the line, it could potentially be modified for commercial use as well,” she says. Instead of being deployed by a warship to intercept and possibly fire on an incoming vessel, a non-lethal variant of the Protector could be used to simply investigate a potential threat.
A favorite tactic of modern-day pirates is to put out a distress call, then ambush any ships that respond. The unmanned Protector could be remote-operated from around 10 miles away, with enough on-board sensors, speakers and microphones to make contact with a vessel before it’s too late. “Even without the machine gun, it could alert the crew, give them some time to escape,” Moncada says. The 55-mph Interceptor could become the long-range patrol boat of the future, while the jetski-size Sentry could help prevent a terrorist plot such as Al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in December 2000.
HIGH SEAS LAW
In international waters, are you beyond the reach of the law? / 23-
Dear Straight Dope:
I have heard that in international waters you can commit endless crimes with no jurisdiction to prosecute you. Is this true? Do such ungoverned spaces exist? I am in no way interested in going to them, but I know they exist and my friends say they don’t. Please help settle this argument. –Michelle
SDSTAFF gfactor replies:
Nope, it doesn’t work that way. Freedom of the seas is a fundamental principle of the law, but it only applies to countries. At sea ordinary folks remain subject to at least one nation’s jurisdiction– sometimes more. Freedom of the seas is often credited to the Dutch jurist Grotius. In the early seventeenth century the Dutch wanted part of the East Indies trade. Several nations, especially Spain and Portugal, claimed control over all the oceans, which prevented the Dutch from reaching foreign ports. The idea that a country could claim control of the sea was called mare clausum (closed sea). Grotius, a pioneer in international law, argued for the right of innocent passage (or navigation) on the high seas. He noted, “the sea is called indifferently the property of no one (res nullius), or a common possession (res communis), or public property (res publica).” Grotius contended that the sea could not be owned, and that no country could deny another country’s ships innocent passage right up to the shoreline.
Grotius didn’t dream up freedom of the seas on his own. He relied on Roman law and the maritime customs of Asian and African countries dating back to “before history was ever recorded,” according to Ram Anand, in his essay, “Freedom of the Seas: Past, Present and Future.” Spanish theologians of the sixteenth century had argued for freedom of the seas as well. Grotius’s work, Mare Liberum, didn’t make much headway at first. Welwood argued against him in Abridgment of all Sea Lawes (1613). So did Selden in the unoriginally-titled Mare Clausum (1635). Grotius himself changed his mind about it. Anand summarizes:
“[N]either Grotius nor Holland were in favour of the freedom of the seas as a principle. . . . as soon as the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and seized the profitable trade of the Spice Islands, they sought to create their own monopoly . . . . Grotius conveniently forgot his freedom of the seas principle propounded in 1609 with such fervour, and went to England in 1613 with a Dutch delegation to argue in favour of a Dutch monopoly of trade . . . . In fact, he was surprised that his own book, published anonymously . . . was being quoted by the British against him.”
Nevertheless, the idea of a sea where no vessel could interfere with another one took hold. America fought the War of 1812 partly to vindicate the principle and entered World War I in part because of its violation. Woodrow Wilson relied on it in his Fourteen Points, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted it in 1941. The United States Supreme Court traced the doctrine to “no later than the latter half of the 18th century.”
The notion that freedom of the seas should extend up to the beach never worked out in practice. Fear of smuggling and armed attack led coastal nations to claim control of the water immediately offshore. There was a lot of disagreement about how far out territorial waters extended. According to the Head Department of Navigation and Oceanography of the Russian Federation of Ministry and Defence:
“At the beginning of the 18th century, a widespread doctrine proclaimed that “the authority of the coastal nation terminates where she can no longer control it with her weaponry.” From that time, the limit of sovereign authority of the maritime countries over coastal
waters has become to limit by a swath, the width of which does not exceed distance of the flight of a cannonball from the shore. The average distance of flight was about 3 miles.”
Outside this limit, no country could claim the seas. As we will see, this rule survives today, although the 3-mile limit has been extended. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC) lays out the current rules. As of April 2006, 149 nations had ratified the LOSC. The U.S. played a major role in the drafting of the LOSC, but then decided not to sign it. Never fear: the rules we’re discussing here apply to the U.S. The U.S. is party to other treaties with similar provisions, has asserted rights available only under the LOSC, and has said that its provisions are part of existing international law. So it’s the best place to start looking for answers.
You asked about ungoverned spaces. Technically they exist–the LOSC calls them the high seas: “No State may validly purport to subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty.” But that doesn’t mean you can avoid prosecution for crimes committed there. For one thing, every ship is subject to the jurisdiction of the country whose flag it flies. So are its occupants. And you can’t just pick the flag of a country whose laws are most favorable to you, either. The LOSC says there must be a “genuine link” between the ship and the state. If you want to fly a country’s flag, you have to ask the country’s permission and provide it with your ship’s “name and particulars.”
The idea that there is no jurisdiction on the high seas comes from confusion about the meaning of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction describes the limits of the legal power of a nation (international lawyers call them States) to make (prescriptive jurisdiction), apply (adjudicative jurisdiction), and enforce (enforcement jurisdiction) rules of conduct. One basis of jurisdiction is territory–a State can make and enforce laws in its own territory. The confusion arises from the assumption that this is the only basis of jurisdiction. It isn’t. There are five:
(1) The territorial principle, which we’ve already covered.
The other categories are forms of extraterritorial jurisdiction:
(2) The nationality principle, also sometimes called the active personality principle. That’s the one involved where ships are concerned. LOSC says, “Ships have the nationality of the State whose flag they are entitled to fly.” The nationality principle says that states have the right to regulate the conduct of their nationals. One example of this principle at work is section 4 of the Indian Penal Code, which says, “The provisions of this Code apply also to any offence committed by (1) any citizen of India in any place without and beyond India; (2) any person on any ship or aircraft registered in India wherever it may be.” Another example is the U.S.’s application of its civil rights laws to Americans employed abroad by American employers.
(3) The passive personality principle, which is jurisdiction based on the nationality of those injured by the conduct. This kind of jurisdiction is controversial. An example is 18 USC §7, a statute by which the U.S. asserts jurisdiction “[a]ny place outside the jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offense . . . against a national of the United States.”
(4) The protective principle. According to Amnesty International: “National law in most states permits courts to exercise jurisdiction over conduct by persons abroad which harms the national– particularly the security–interests of the forum state in violation of its own national criminal law (protective or security principle or compétence réelle ou compétence du protection). This principle has been used to prosecute national security offences; currency offences; counterfeiting currency, stamps, seals and emblems; desecration of
flags; economic crimes; forgery, fraud or perjury in connection with official documents, such as passports and visas; immigration offences and political offences.”
(5) Universal jurisdiction. According to Henry Kissinger, “the doctrine of universal jurisdiction asserts that some crimes are so heinous that their perpetrators should not escape justice by invoking doctrines of sovereign immunity or the sacrosanct nature of national frontiers.” Under the relevant treaties, any State can board a ship on the high seas if the ship is suspected of piracy, transporting slaves, or broadcasting illegally. A ship and its occupants can be arrested for piracy and illegal broadcasting by a warship of any State. For other crimes, the arresting State must get the consent or assistance of the flag state. Also, a ship that flies two flags (flags of convenience) or a ship flying no flag may be visited for further inquiry by any State’s ships. Ships without flags, and those that fly flags of convenience are subject to the jurisdiction of any State. While some scholars disagree, national courts have upheld convictions based on such arrests.
Territory still plays a big part in the law of the sea. States’ territorial claims have expanded considerably since the 18th century. Two hundred miles offshore (when I say mile, I mean the nautical mile, which is 6076 feet, or 1.150779 statute miles) is the limit of a State’s potential exclusive economic zone. I say potential because States must claim the territory they want within this limit, and not all of them do so. In this zone the State has some exclusive rights to exploration and resources. However, other States’ ships have a right of innocent passage through the EEZ, just as Grotius argued.
The next territorial boundary marks the State’s potential contiguous zone, which extends 24 miles offshore. Within this zone, a coastal state can stop and inspect vessels and act to punish (or prevent) violations of its laws within its territory or territorial waters. The contiguous zone solves a vexing problem. As Malcolm Evans describes it:
Traditionally, where the territorial sea ends, the high seas began and the laws of the coastal State no longer apply. However, policing maritime zones is no easy matter and, unlike land boundaries, they are simple to cross. It would therefore be easy for vessels to commit offences within the territorial sea but to evade arrest by moving just a little further seaward. The answer is to permit coastal States to arrest vessels outside their territorial seas in connection with offences that either have been committed or which it is suspected are going to be committed within their territorial sea.
In 1999 President Clinton extended the U.S.’s contiguous zone from 12 to 24 miles. The potential territorial sea extends 12 miles off the coast. Here the State has territorial jurisdiction, but only up to a point–the right of innocent passage still applies. The LOSC says:
1. The criminal jurisdiction of the coastal State should not be exercised on board a foreign ship passing through the territorial sea to arrest any person or to conduct any investigation in connection with any crime committed on board the ship during its passage, save
only in the following cases:
(a) if the consequences of the crime extend to the coastal State;
(b) if the crime is of a kind to disturb the peace of the country or the good order of the territorial sea;
(c) if the assistance of the local authorities has been requested by the master of the ship or by a diplomatic agent or consular officer of the flag State; or
(d) if such measures are necessary for the suppression of illicit traffic in narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances.
Because coastal State jurisdiction is limited, even in its territorial waters, the flag State’s laws still apply aboard its ships. U.S. courts adjudicate crimes committed aboard ships flying U.S. flags, even if the crime was committed in foreign territorial waters.
In the territorial waters of the United States, ships can be subject to the jurisdiction of individual U.S. states, too. Under federal law: “The seaward boundary of each original coastal State is approved and confirmed as a line three geographical miles distant from its coast line or, in the case of the Great Lakes, to the international boundary.” In Skiriotes v. State Of Florida, 313 U.S. 69 (1941), the United States Supreme Court held that within the three-mile limit, “[w]hen its action does not conflict with federal legislation, the sovereign authority of the State over the conduct of its citizens upon the high seas is analogous to the sovereign authority of the United States over its citizens in like circumstances.” At the time, the U.S.’s territorial sea was three miles wide, so the states had the same territorial jurisdiction as the federal government. In 1988, President Reagan extended the U.S.’s territorial sea to 12 miles. The states’ territory was left at the three mile mark. For historical
reasons, Texas and Florida’s claims in the Gulf of Mexico are three marine leagues, which is about nine miles.
Individual U.S. states can apply their laws to their citizens aboard U.S. flag ships, even in foreign territorial waters. In State v. Jack (2005) the Alaska Supreme Court upheld Alaska’s right to prosecute the defendant for a sexual assault committed on the Alaska state ferry
while it was in Canadian territorial waters. The court based its decision on the power of a sovereign state to regulate its citizens (the nationality principle) and the effects doctrine (an application of the territorial principle when conduct outside the state has effects within it).
The right of innocent passage ends at the coastline of the State–you need permission to enter the State’s internal waters. Once there, ships and their passengers are subject to all of the State’s laws. Even on the high seas, a foreign flag vessel isn’t completely exempt from the jurisdiction of other States–vessels are subject to ”visit” and arrest under certain circumstances. LOSC also provides a right of hot pursuit. According to Article 111, “The hot pursuit of a foreign ship may be undertaken when the competent authorities of the coastal State have good reason to believe that the ship has violated the laws and regulations of that State. Such pursuit must be commenced when the foreign ship or one of its boats is within the internal waters, the archipelagic waters, the territorial sea or the contiguous zone of the pursuing State, and may only be continued outside the territorial sea or the contiguous zone if the pursuit has not been interrupted.”
As a nod to the territorial principle, “The right of hot pursuit ceases as soon as the ship pursued enters the territorial sea of its own State or of a third State.” States can also agree to permit another state to arrest vessels flying their flags. Even if none of these exceptions apply, U.S. courts have held that arrest in violation of international law doesn’t necessarily bar prosecution. For example, in United States v. Postal, the defendants were U.S. nationals arrested on board a vessel registered in the Grand Cayman Islands, 16 miles from shore (which at the time was the high seas). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that though the arrest violated the Convention on the High Seas (1958), the treaty violation didn’t impair the court’s jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit followed suit in 2002. So on the high seas not only are you not beyond the reach of any nation, sometimes you’re with the reach of two.
– Anand, Ram, “Freedom of the Seas: Past, Present, and Future,” reprinted in Caminos, Hugo, ed., Law of the Sea (2001)
– Bryant, Dennis, The U.S. Territorial Sea and Other Lines in the Water, Holland & Knight, November 14, 1997: http://www.hklaw.com/Publications/OtherPublication.asp?ArticleID=81
– Churchill, R. and Lowe, A., The Law of the Sea (1999)
– CIA World FactBook, Field Listing – Maritime claims (listing of most States’ maritime jurisdictional claims): http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/fields/2106.html
– Evans, Malcolm, “The Law of the Sea,” in International Law, (Malcolm Evans, ed., 2003)
– Grotius, Hugo, The Freedom of the Seas, or the Right Which Belongs to the Dutch to Take Part in the East Indian Trade (1608) (Ralph Van Deman Magoffin, transl., 1916):
– Head Department of Navigation and Oceanography of the Russian Federation of Ministry and Defence, untitled web page available at: http://www.oceansatlas.com/unatlas/about/internationalcooperationdrs/seemore2.html; (tracing ancient history of maritime claims and their resolution)
– Kissinger, Henry, “The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction: Risking Judicial Tyranny,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2001: http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20010701faessay4996/henry-a-kissinger/the-pitfalls-of-universal-jurisdiction.html
– Molvan v. Attorney-General for Palestine (The Asya),  A.C. 351 (stateless vessel subject to jurisdiction)
– Reagan, Ronald, Statement on United States Oceans Policy, March 10, 1983: http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1983/31083c.htm;
– Skiriotes v. Florida, 313 U.S. 69 (1941) (states have criminal maritime jurisdiction to the three-mile limit):
– State v. Jack, 125 P.3d 311, 2006 A.M.C. 206 (Alaska 2005) (Alaska had criminal jurisdiction over sexual assault committed aboard ferry operating in Canadian waters)
– Stewart, Robert, Our Ocean Planet: Oceanography in the 21st Century–an Online Textbook (work in progress, rev. 2006):
– The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (A Historical Perspective), United Nations:
– United State v. Best, 304 F.3d 308 (3d Cir. 2002) (approving prosecution of foreign national seized on foreign flag ship outside the territorial waters of the United States): http://vls.law.vill.edu/Locator/3d/Sept2002/014321.pdf
– United States v. Conroy, 589 F.2d 1258 (5th Cir. 1979) (upholding conviction where defendants were arrested on American vessel in Haitian waters)
– United States v. DeLeon, 270 F.3d 90 (1st Cir. 2001) (arrest and prosecution for attempted immigration violation in international waters were based on United State’s effects jurisdiction despite lack of authorization in relevant treaty):
– United States v. Flores, 289 U.S. 137 (1933) (United States had jurisdiction to prosecute murder committed aboard American vessel in Belgian territory): http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=289&invol=137
– United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1 (explaining the basis for Texas and Florida”s claims in Gulf of Mexico) final decree, 364 U.S. 502 (1960): http://www.justia.us/us/364/502/case.html
– United States v. Maine, 475 U.S. 89 (1986) (part of Nantucket Sound was United States territorial waters and part was high seas; rejecting Massachusetts’ claim that it was part of the state’s internal waters based on claim of “ancient title” because Massachusetts did not effectively occupy the territory before the freedom of the high seas became a part of international law): http://www.justia.us/us/475/89/case.html
– United States v. Marino-Garcia, 679 F.2d 1373 (11th Cir. 1982) (upholding arrest of stateless vessel found 300 miles from Florida). – United States v. One Big Six Wheel, 166 F.3d 498 (2d Cir. 1999): http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=2nd&navby=case&no=986028 (Congress did not intend to extend the three-mile limit for gambling cruises under the Gambling Ship Act)
– United States v. Postal, 589 F.2d 862, 874 (5th Cir. 1979)
– United States v. Rodgers, 150 U.S. 249 (1893) (United States had jurisdiction to prosecute assault committed on ship bearing its flag despite fact that assault occurred in Canadian waters): http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=150&invol=249
– United States v. Suerte, 291 F.3d 366 (5th Cir. 2002) (Due process does not require a nexus between foreign citizen and US where flag state has consented or waived objection to the enforcement of United States law by the United States): http://laws.lp.findlaw.com/5th/0120626cr0.htm
– “Vice President Al Gore Announces New Action To Help Protect And Preserve U.S. Shores And Oceans: Extension of Federal Enforcement Zone in U.S. Coastal Waters Will Help Prevent Violations of Environmental, Customs, or Immigration Laws,” press release (September 2 1999): http://clinton4.nara.gov/CEQ/990902a.html
– Wildenhus’s Case, 120 U.S. 1 (1887) (United States had jurisdiction to prosecute stabbing committed aboard Belgian steamship docked at port of New Jersey): http://www.justia.us/us/120/1/case.html
Though buccaneering is back with a vengeance, stepped-up law enforcement and high-tech tools are helping protect shipping on the high seas
BY Paul Raffaele / August 2007
The attack came after daybreak. The Delta Ranger, a cargo ship carrying bauxite, was steaming through the ink-blue Indian Ocean in January 2006, about 200 nautical miles off Somalia’s coast. A crewman on the bridge spied two speedboats zooming straight at the port side of his vessel. Moments later, bullets tore into the bridge, and vapor trails from rocket-propelled grenades streaked across the bow: pirates.
A member of the Delta Ranger’s crew sounded the ship’s whistle, and the cargo ship began maneuvering away as bullets thudded into its hull. The captain radioed a message to distant Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) operates the world’s only pirate reporting and rescue center. In describing the attack, he added that the pirates seemed to be using a hijacked Indian dhow, a fishing vessel, as their mother ship. The center’s duty officer immediately radioed an alert to all ships in the Delta Ranger’s vicinity and found that two other cargo ships had escaped similar attacks in recent days. The duty officer’s next message went to the USS Winston S. Churchill, a Navy guided-missile destroyer on patrol about 100 nautical miles from the pirates’ last reported position. Soon after, the Churchill headed for the dhow.
Pirates have been causing trouble ever since men first went down to the sea in ships, or at least since the 14th century B.C., when Egyptian records mention Lukkan pirates raiding Cyprus. A millennium later, Alexander the Great tried to sweep the Mediterranean clear of marauding bandits, to no avail. In 75 B.C., ship-based cutthroats took Julius Caesar hostage and ransomed him for 50 talents. The historian Plutarch wrote that Caesar then returned with several ships, captured the pirates and crucified the lot of them. That hardly spelled the end of pirating. At the beginning of the 13th century A.D., Eustace the Monk terrorized the English Channel, and the European colonization of the Americas, with all its seaborne wealth, led to the so-called golden age of piracy, from 1660 to 1730—the era of Blackbeard, Black Bart, Captain Kidd and other celebrated pirates of the Caribbean. The era ended only after seafaring nations expanded their navies and prosecuted more aggressively to deal with the threat.
Now the seedy romance of the golden-age legends may be supplanted by a new reality: as governments cut their navies after the cold war, as thieves have gotten hold of more powerful weapons and as more and more cargo has moved by sea, piracy has once again become a lucrative form of waterborne mugging. Attacks at sea had become rare enough to be a curiosity in the mid-20th century, but began to reappear in the 1970s. By the 1990s, maritime experts noted a sharp increase in attacks, which led the IMB to establish the Piracy Reporting Centre in 1992—and still the buccaneering continued, with a high of 469 attacks registered in 2000. Since then, improvements in reporting, ship-tracking technology and government reaction have calmed the seas somewhat—the center counted 329 attacks in 2004, down to 276 in 2005 and 239 last year—but pirates remain very much in business, making the waters off Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Somalia especially perilous. “We report hundreds of acts of piracy each year, many hundreds more go undetected,” says Capt. Noel Choong, head of the Piracy Reporting Centre, in Kuala Lumpur. “Ships and their crews disappear on the high seas and coastal waters every year, never to be seen again.” Even stationary targets, such as oil platforms, are at risk.
Global commerce would collapse without oceangoing ships to transfer the world’s fuel, minerals and bulk commodities, along with much of its medicines and foodstuffs. According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, about 95 percent of the world’s trade travels by water. Boston-based Global Insight, a forecasting company, estimates the value of maritime trade for 2007 to be at least $6 trillion. Estimates of the pirates’ annual global plunder range into the billions. Unlike the galleons of old, which sat low in the water and were easily boarded, the supertankers and bulk carriers of today may rise several stories—and yet they pose no great obstacle to thieves. Bullets and rocket-propelled grenades have persuaded many a captain to stop at sea; at that point, almost any pirate can climb to the deck by tossing grappling hooks over the rail.
Today’s pirates range from villainous seaside villagers to members of international crime syndicates. They ply their trade around the globe, from Iraq to Somalia to Nigeria, from the Strait of Malacca to the territorial waters off South America. No vessel seems safe, be it a supertanker or a private yacht. In November 2005, pirates in two speedboats tried to attack the cruise liner Seabourn Spirit off. Somalia. The liner’s captain, Sven Erik Pedersen, outran them while driving them off with a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD—a sonic weapon the United States military developed after the USS Cole was attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen in 2000. If you enter an anonymous office 35 floors above Kuala Lumpur’s lush tropical streets and pass through a secured door, you will come to a small room dominated by maps of the world taped onto two of the walls. This is the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre, which operates round-the-clock. When pirates attack anywhere in the world, this office almost always receives the first report of it and radios out the first alert. Tens of thousands of vessels depend on the IMB’s information.
Red pins mark the latest attacks. On the day I visited, the pins looked like a rash covering much of the world. Another wall was covered with thank-you plaques from the admirals of many nations, including the United States. Noel Choong, who ushered me through this command center, spent more than ten years on oceangoing ships as a mariner. Now, in a dark suit, the soft-spoken Choong looked more like a corporate middle manager than a supersleuth of the seas. Choong showed me the center’s reports on the 239 major pirate attacks it recorded in 2006. One hundred eighty-eight crewmen were taken hostage and 15 were killed—9 in Asia, 4 in Africa and 1 each in the Middle East and South America. “Modern-day pirates can be just as merciless as the Caribbean buccaneers,” Choong told me. He recalled the 13 pirates—12 Chinese and 1 Indonesian—who hijacked the Cheung Son, a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship, off China in 1998. “They blindfolded the 23 crewmembers, beat them to death with clubs and threw their bodies overboard,” he said. Then they sold the vessel to an unknown party for $300,000. But they were caught, convicted of piracy and murder in a Chinese court, and sentenced to death.
On their way to the firing squad, Choong said, the 13 sang Ricky Martin’s bouncy 1998 World Cup soccer theme, “La Copa de la Vida,” jumping up and down in their chains as they bellowed the chorus: “Go, go, go, ale, ale, ale.” (Afterward, Choong said, “the Chinese charged their families the cost of each bullet” used in the executions.) Because much of Choong’s work is under cover, and because he’s been the target of assassination threats, he’s careful to protect his anonymity. He has a wide network of informants—usually members of pirate gangs or corrupt government officials looking for a fat payoff— and when a big ship goes missing, he will jet to distant cities at short notice to launch recovery operations. The pirates’ going rate for the return of a hijacked ship, he said, is about $800,000. “If I can get it back by paying an informant a fraction of that, then the owners and underwriters are happy.”
Recently, an informant called Choong’s cellphone to say he knew where pirates were holding a hijacked ship. The next day Choong flew to Bangkok and, in the bar of an airport hotel, listened to the man’s offer: the ship’s whereabouts in exchange for $50,000. Choong forwarded the offer to Chinese authorities, who found the ship at anchor in the South China Sea, sporting fresh paint, a new name and a fake registration. After the ship was in hand—Choong said he never pays without results—he arranged a $50,000 deposit to an account the informant kept under a false name. The entire transaction—from phone call to payoff—took no more than a week. But Choong doubted that the man got to enjoy his loot. “I heard he was murdered by the gang not long after,” he said. Between rounds of whiskey in a plush Kuala Lumpur bar, a ship broker who asked not to be named because of security concerns told me that besides buying and selling ships for his clients, he sometimes arranges ransoms to get their vessels back from hijackers, for about the same sum that Choong had mentioned. “The owners usually pay up without question,” he said. Bringing in the authorities “might tie up the ship for weeks, even months, at a port while they investigate the crime. That could lose them millions of dollars.”
Of course, not all negotiations go smoothly. Along the coast of Somalia—which Choong pinpointed as one of the world’s likeliest areas for pirate attacks—brigands can, and often do, drag out negotiations for months. “Somalia is chaotic, with gangs of heavily armed men roaming around the land and its seas,” James Mriria, a strapping sailor, told me in the Kenyan port of Mombasa. He said he had spent four months in 2001 as a hostage of Somali pirates as they haggled with the Italian owner of a fishing trawler they had hijacked. The bandits, he said, fed their guests just enough food to keep them alive, and often beat them with rifle butts. “It was hell,” Mriria said. The pirates who tried to take the Delta Ranger would head for Somalia too.
In pursuit of the hijacked dhow, the Churchill had the advantage of surprise. The pirates “couldn’t see us over the horizon” during the night, the ship’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Erik Nilsson, told me in a telephone interview. But at first light the destroyer deliberately showed itself to the crew of the dhow, and the pirates took off to the west. Somalia’s territorial waters—from which the Churchill was barred by international law—were 80 nautical miles away. Nilsson had no doubt this was the right ship. He had gotten a description of it from the captain of the Delta Ranger. In time he would see through his binoculars the 16 Indian crewmembers, on the fo’c’sle, holding up a piece of plywood on which they had spray- painted: SIR PLEASE HELP US.
“We repeatedly radioed and asked [the dhow] to halt,” Nilsson said. When the pirates refused, the U.S. sailors called to them over an amplified megaphone, without effect. The chase went on all morning and into the afternoon. With Somali waters only four hours away, the Churchill closed to within 500 yards of the dhow and fired across its bow with its 25-millimeter chain guns. “That got the pirates’ attention, and they stopped,” Nilsson said. Some of the Churchill’s crew boarded the dhow and took everyone on it into custody. Aboard the destroyer, a Hindi-speaking member of the Churchill crew questioned the dhow’s captain. “She found that the pirates had captured the dhow six days earlier and had beaten and imprisoned the crew,” Nilsson said. “They’d given the Indians no food during that time and had threatened to kill them if they resisted.”
Nilsson said that he had seen the Somalis throw unidentified “objects” over the side during the night. Many pirates try to ditch their weapons in the belief that it would provide less evidence for prosecution, but if that were the case aboard the dhow, it didn’t work: the boarding party found an AK-47 stashed in the wheelhouse. Later that afternoon, the USS Nassau, a 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship and the flagship of the expeditionary strike group to which the Churchill was attached, caught up with the destroyer. Ten Somali pirates were taken to the brig of the larger ship. After consulting with the U.S. Central Command, the Nassau took the Somalis to Mombasa, where Kenyan authorities arrested them and charged them with piracy.
Keeping the world’s sea lanes safe for commerce is one goal of what the Navy calls Maritime Security Operations, or MSO. Another is to prevent sea-based terrorism. Choong had told me that piracy was prevalent even in the hazardous waters off Iraq in the northern Persian Gulf. To get there, I flew to the desert kingdom of Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which operates in the Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean. From there I caught a Navy Desert Hawk helicopter for a two-hour flight to the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, my base for a three-day visit. Along the way, the chopper flew fast and low over a sparkling green sea dotted with coral islands, fishing dhows and oil rigs. With the cruiser steaming along, the pilot put us smoothly down on the aft deck.
On board, Australian Navy lieutenant commander Tish Van Stralen, a maritime lawyer, said that the cruiser was the flagship of an eight-ship coalition task force guarding Iraq’s nearby Al Basrah and Khawr Al Amaya oil terminals, which were pumping up to 1.6 million barrels a day into the holds of supertankers. “They provide up to 90 percent of Iraq’s GDP, and so the coalition forces have set up a pair of adjacent two-mile-wide exclusion zones around the oil terminals,” Van Stralen said. “We challenge and check every vessel wanting to enter them, primarily on the watch for terrorists intent on blowing up the oil terminals, but also for pirates and smugglers.” The pirate hunters patrolling the zones were a Coast Guard crew aboard the cutter Aquidneck. The next morning I rode a half hour across a flat sea in a rigid inflatable speedboat to meet them.
Lt. Jonathan Carter and his 22-man crew had spent six months on these volatile waters. Assault rifles were nestled in a rack, and on the small bridge, four sailors hunched over radar and sonar equipment, looking for any vessel trying to enter the exclusion zones. As the Aquidneck edged up the Shatt Al Arab waterway toward Basra, Carter pointed to an empty stretch of desert about 200 yards on our left. “That’s Kuwait,” he said. About 200 yards to the right was Iraq—more desert with no sign of life. The cutter passed several rusting hulks resting half out of the water, casualties of Gulf warfare. “Pirates have been active in these waterways for centuries. There’re still plenty of them here, and we call them Ali Baba,” Carter went on. “They mostly prey on the fishing dhows, especially during the prawning season when the dhow captains carry plenty of money on board after selling their catch to traders….We’ll hear a plea over the radio, ‘Ali Baba! Ali Baba!’ But by the time we reach the dhow, the pirates have usually escaped. If we surprise them, they throw their weapons overboard.”
Coalition naval forces are trying to train Iraqi marines to board, search and, if necessary, seize suspicious vessels. From the north, I saw two patrol boats roaring along the waterway toward us. On board were Iraqi marines under the guidance of a pair of Royal Australian Navy officers. The marines were taking part in a training exercise, and five Coast Guardsmen and I volunteered to play potential terrorists or pirates. Several grim-faced Iraqi marines clad in camouflage fatigues climbed aboard and forced us up to the front of the Aquidneck. Some pointed their guns at us even though their trainers had ordered them not to, and others searched us and checked our ID. I grimaced when a marine yanked my arms above my head and I tensed as he roughly searched my body for hidden weapons.
They made us sit on the uncovered deck in brutal heat for more than an hour, refusing our requests for water and keeping their guns trained on us. But for all that, our captors failed to detect a knife one of the Aquidneck crew had secreted, and they never searched my camera bag. Had we been actual bad guys, who knows what might have happened. Last October I drove an hour north of Mombasa, past a string of Kenyan luxury seaside resorts, to talk to any of the ten accused Somali pirates who would speak with me in the maximum-security jail where they were being held. As I waited outside the stone walls, grim-faced prisoners in striped pajamas with short pants came and went, under guard.
By then, the Somalis’ trial was under way; the defendants were due in court the following day. Inside the jail, armed guards escorted two of them as they shuffled toward me, handcuffed to each other. We moved to a bare room with a barred window. The guards followed us, while others crowded the window outside to stare and listen. Moktar Mohammed Hussein and Abdi Fadar, clad in sarongs and T-shirts, squatted in front of me but did not make eye contact. They were 17 and 18, respectively. “We’re fishermen, and our boats broke down on the ocean,” Hussein said. “We sought help from the Indian dhow.”
Then why were they carrying assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, I asked them. “Every man in Somalia carries such weapons for protection,” Hussein said, turning his dark eyes on me. That much was corroborated later by the BBC’s Mombasa-based correspondent, Peter Greste, who often visits Somalia. But why did they try to escape when they spotted the American warship? “We thought they suspected us of being Al Qaeda. We were frightened, and so we tried to get away,” Fadar said. “We just want to go home,” Hussein added softly. I reminded them that Indian crewmembers had testified that the Somalis had hijacked their ship and beaten them? Hussein shook his head. “They’re lying,” he said.
Did they even know any Somali pirates? Both shook their heads no, but stared silently at the floor. At 3 o’clock the next afternoon, all ten defendants crowded into the dock in a small courtroom to face a senior magistrate, Beatrice Jaden, seated high above us on a pedestal in the British manner. The prosecutor, Margaret Mwangi, read out the charge, accusing them of committing “acts of piracy on the high seas,” and ran through the evidence, based on statements from the Indian crew aboard the dhow and the U.S. sailors who had rescued them. The Somalis’ lawyer, Hassan Abdi, argued that because no one involved— neither the victims, the accused nor the alleged perpetrators’ captors— was Kenyan, Kenya had no right to try this case in its courts.
Mwangi countered that the U.N.’s Convention on the Law of the Sea allows Kenya to prosecute pirates of any nationality under the corresponding section of the Kenyan penal code. Should the Somalis be found guilty, Mwangi went on, they should be sentenced to death to deter piracy. Ten days later, Jaden handed down her verdict and the sentence. Guilty. Seven years in prison for each man. By then, the pirates might have considered themselves lucky. At the time, Somalia was ruled by a fundamentalist Muslim movement called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which sought to impose sharia, or Islamic law, when it took over the capital of Mogadishu from its notorious warlords in June 2006. Piracy was one of several crimes punishable by death.
Noel Choong told me that after the ICU takeover the IMB noted a lull in piracy in the waters off Somalia. But the ICU was overthrown and replaced by a transitional government at year’s end. Since then, pirate attacks have surged off the Somali coast, from 10 reported to the IMB in all of 2006 to 14 in the first six months of 2007. In February, pirates off the coast boarded and hijacked the merchant vessel Rozen, which had just delivered food for the U.N. World Food Programme. They held its 12 crewmembers for 40 days until an undisclosed ransom secured their release. Another merchant vessel, the Mariam Queen, was hijacked and held for 24 days before it was freed May 27 after the ship’s owner reportedly paid a $100,000 ransom. At the end of that month, the IMB recommended that vessels keep 200 miles offshore unless they were calling into Somali ports. “We’ll never see the end of piracy, just as we’ll never see the end of robbery on land,” Choong said. “But we’re doing everything we can.”