From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]








“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

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





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!

The Problem
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

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. [1]

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 [2]).
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 [3]. 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 [4].

Dynamic Geography
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. [2]

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

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

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

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 [5]. 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.

Dynamic Anarchism
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.

[1] Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. Pantheon
Books, 2000. ISBN: 0-679-44252-9.
[2] Friedman, David D: 1973. Machinery of Freedom: Guide To A Radical
Capitalism (New York, NY, Harper & Row).
A few chapters are webbed at:
[3] For an example of an article arguing that AC is unstable, see Paul
Birch’s Anarcho-Capitalism Dissolves Into City-States
[4] Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Epsiodes in the Growth of American
Government, Robert Higgs, Oxford University Press.
[5] The seasteading website and book can be found at:







Shipping Out U.S. Jobs — to a Ship
BY Michael Hiltzik  /  May 2, 2005

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-

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

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

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,15240,158732,00.html?
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.


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

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

(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

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:
–   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):
–   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:;
(tracing ancient history of maritime claims and their resolution)
–   Kissinger, Henry, “The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction: Risking
Judicial Tyranny,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2001:
–   Molvan v. Attorney-General for Palestine (The Asya), [1948] A.C.
351 (stateless vessel subject to jurisdiction)
–   Reagan, Ronald, Statement on United States Oceans Policy, March
10, 1983:;
–   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):
–   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):
–   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):
–   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):
–   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):
(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):
–   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):
–   “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):
–   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):

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:

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

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

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

“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

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-

“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

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

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

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.”