On the world's final frontier - the high seas - a new brand of pioneer is testing the limits of laws made on land.
By the end of this year, two novel ventures will be blazing a controversial trail first signaled by the casino boats that take gamblers outside US waters, beyond reach of the bans on gaming that most states have enacted.
Seven miles off the coast of Britain, on a World War II-era antiaircraft gun emplacement, a team of young American Internet entrepreneurs is setting up the world's first "data haven" - a virtually rules-free location for people and companies wishing to store and transmit electronic files free of government legislation.
And just across the English Channel, in Amsterdam, a Dutch doctor is preparing to set sail on a ship specially equipped for abortions, which she plans to carry out in international waters off the coasts of countries where such procedures are illegal.
Both Sean Hastings, the American who founded HavenCo, and Rebecca Gomperts, who intends to name her medical ship the Sea Change, say they are using the ocean to offer people choices that they are denied at home.
But governments see things in a different light: Both ventures have been threatened with court action if they go ahead.
On the Mediterranean island of Malta, where abortions are illegal, Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi said in a recent radio interview that criminal action would be taken against anyone organizing or helping to arrange the services that Dr. Gomperts will offer.
Gomperts acknowledges that her project "is a shocking idea." But she defends it as "an emergency solution to a shocking reality.
"We can circumvent national laws like this, but that is not the main purpose," she insists. "The main purpose is to offer a much-needed service and to draw attention to what is happening." Twenty million of the 53 million abortions performed each year around the world are illegal and often unsafe, Gomperts points out, and 100,000 women die each year during such illegal operations.
Onboard her ship, flying the Dutch flag, Dutch law will apply when she is in international waters, Gomperts says. That law permits abortion on demand, after a five-day waiting period after the first visit to a doctor.
Mr. Gonzi's threat, however, points to potential problems when the Sea Change docks in order to take on patients. Gomperts' legal advisers have warned her to expect challenges, such as attempts to impound her ship, or to take out an injunction against it, on the grounds of intention to commit a crime.
"It might come to court, but we have a very strong case," she argues. "We are not intending to commit any crime because we will be outside territorial waters when we perform the operation, and in international waters, abortion is not a crime."
Gomperts knows, though, that "this will certainly raise questions. It has never been done before and there are some very complex juridical issues."
The juridical issues raised by HavenCo, on the other hand, are simpler. They boil down to whether the artificial fortress - claimed in 1967 by a former British Army major named Roy Bates, who declared the platform to be the sovereign principality of Sealand and himself its prince - lies within British waters. Sealand has irritated international authorities in the past by issuing its own passports and currency.
At the time Prince Roy took over the platform seven miles off Britain's eastern coast, London only claimed jurisdiction as far as three miles offshore. Subsequently, Britain extended its claims to 10 miles, but it has never tested Sealand's status in court since then.
For Home Office spokesman Tim Watkinson, the situation is clear: "The [United Kingdom] does not recognize Sealand as an independent state, it is within our territorial waters and as such subject to UK law."
HavenCo begs to differ. "It doesn't matter how far they extend their territorial waters, Sealand is a sovereign nation," insists Bill Scannell, a company spokesman. "We would not have invested $3 million in this if we had any doubt at all about that."
As Britain and other countries pass legislation controlling data flow and Internet commerce, HavenCo is offering companies freedom from such controls, for monthly fees starting at $1,500.
"Our target clients are in the financial sector, looking to keep bank information private, or corporations that want to keep their e-mail private, and not subject to subpoenas," explains Mr. Scannell.
Sealand has no rules on what is acceptable save a pledge not to allow "spammers" - senders of bulk, unsolicited e-mail - not to allow anyone using its servers to launch hacker attacks on other Web sites, and to pull the plug on anyone found to be distributing child pornography.
Everything else will be permitted, in a direct challenge to governmental efforts worldwide to get a grip on the Internet in order to prevent criminals from using it for money laundering, fraud, or other illegal purposes.
"This is a solid business model, but to do a project like this you have to have a slight libertarian bent," explains Scannell. "We will not be monitoring our customers. We will be treating them like normal people, not as potential criminals."
But when new British legislation comes into force later this year, requiring Internet service providers to provide the police with intercept capabilities, HavenCo might find itself required to at least allow the government to monitor its customers. HavenCo officials say they will refuse. "What can they do about it?" scoffs Scannell. "Invade us? Bomb us?"
The Home Office has less dramatic plans. "The bill contains provisions for noncompliance," says Mr. Watkinson. "We could mount a court case should it be necessary."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society