Can You Make an Algorithm Walk the Plank?


Google shivered some timbers this week when it was revealed that the company is thinking about floating some of its data centers out to sea and anchoring its supercomputers on barges in international waters. The plan would reduce Google’s tax exposure and could drive down energy costs if the barges are able to capture wave power.

The news got us to thinking: Google expends a lot of effort protecting its users’ personal data from hackers and identity pirates; but wouldn’t a floating supercomputer with terabytes of valuable personal data be a rich target for honest-to-goodness high-seas pirates?

To find out, we asked our resident pirate expert, George Mason University economist Peter Leeson. His thoughts are below:

The situation with Google’s latest proposal is an interesting one: to avoid “political pirates” (a.k.a. the taxman), the company may risk making their data centers vulnerable to traditional sea pirates, who might very well sell stolen information to “intellectual property pirates.” It’s a veritable triangle of piracy involving a different kind of theft at each “corner.”

The danger of modern sea piracy is only significant in a handful of places, such as off the east coast of Africa and the Straits of Malacca, where it’s unlikely Google would float its data centers. Still, there remains some risk of sea scoundrels plundering the company’s precious booty no matter where it floats its data centers.

What’s interesting, then, is what Google’s proposal tells us about the kinds of pirates the company sees as posing the greatest threat to its profit. Apparently “political pirates” pose a greater threat to Google’s property than the seafaring kind do. If not, the company wouldn’t be willing to trade an increased chance of plunder by sea bandits for a reduced chance of plunder by government.

For more locations Google might not want to float its “computer navy,” check out the International Maritime Bureau’s live Piracy Attacks Map for 2008.


Google's biggest incentive to go to sea might be emancipation from certain inconvenient privacy and antitrust laws that have so hindered their beneficience in the United States.


Google has always been an amazing company. Let's face it, they are the most creative genuises we know. I just wanted to say that media often obscures certain points, and if Google does move its computers to the ocean, i'd trust them, they know what they are doing. If they don't have some sort of undercover plan that secures them, then I don't think its a good idea and they wont do it, they just wanted media attention. The marginal cost for them moving to the ocean is far greater than their marginal benefit, and this is because information is truly valuable, and they don't want to lose it to threats...

Tkwon CMS

@28 Dennis

"Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to talk about forming a new government. "

Tell me, how are we to actually make this happen? Be my guest...


Google probably won't do this.

Count the enterprises that operate free of government and taxes.

Done? It didn't take long did it?

Governments don't like independents. Google would at best end up governed by someone else. Perhaps the UN? The UN would dearly like to make inroads into direct governing and taxing.

There are easier ways: Google could probably make a deal to buy an island, one totally uninhabited off the UK or Iceland or Canada. Arrange for a trivial tax. No defense problems. Ask Japan about Iwo Jima.


Really, the threat is not to the data (most people won't bother with it, and it's value to any potential buyers is limited). The real bounty is the hardware and the barge itself.

The problem I foresee for this kind of off-shoring is staffing (who would WANT to work in a datacenter that doesn't let you leave easily?) and saltwater enhanced corrosion of the hardware housed on the barge.

But, given Googles history of hiring, I'm certain they can make it worthwhile for some willing person to work aboard ship.


Is it just me who is concerned and confused at the idea of a company who's motto is "don't be evil" setting up floating, armed(against "pirates") computer/centres?

Do Larry and Sergei own white cats?

Maybe they could find a volcano with a removable lid?


I'd be more concerned about vulnerability of an offshore enterprise. I know pirates probably wouldn't torpedo a floating server farm, or fly an airplane loaded with explosives into it, but they could certainly make that threat, and it might mean Google paying protection/ransom money. I'm sure they're smart enough to figure this possibility into their equations, but there's certainly risk involved.

Piracy can come in other forms, though. Depending on the point of view whose wealth is being appropriated.

Perhaps Google is tired of paying extortion in the form of political contributions and hearing vague threats from House and Senate subcommittees who are thinking of holding hearings into how Google is helping protect terrorists (or child molesters, etc.) by refusing to disclose data. And all of a sudden, Google needs to be investigated because they have monopoly power and the government starts issuing subpoenas and holding televised hearings.

Pirates don't look so bad now, do they?

But just because Google (and the internet) started in the United States, doesn't mean Google can't thinking and acting as a citizen of the world.

To quote the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."

Maybe, just maybe, it's time to talk about forming a new government.



@32 Tkwon CMS

“'Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to talk about forming a new government.' ”

"Tell me, how are we to actually make this happen? Be my guest…"

How do we start >talking


I must agree with some of the previous comments, about stating that google probably made the right choice. By calculating their marginal cost and marginal benefit, which probably outweighed the marginal cost.

But many people make mistakes, even large corporate companies. In my opinion mistake has no "face", meaning anyone can make it. Therefore it would not be a bad idea if google heard different opinions form different people.

Working at sea has many risks, such as sea natural disasters, which are more unsafe than land natural disasters. Also they probably will have to spend a lot of money in wages and in efficient technology to work at sea.

This money should probably be spent agianst hackers, by developing new techonology, etc.


"dont be evil"

so taking advantage of a the public infrastructure but not paying into it isnt evil. I love the naughts!!

Tkwon CMS

I am pretty confident when I say that Google has probably calculated all the opportunity costs and have concluded that their plan does more good than bad.

Nevertheless, Google might be overlooking a few problems. For example, Google techies may be less than enthusiastic at the prospect of working afloat. This may affect their work efficiency (unhappy workers are less efficient). Another problem may be how Google will have to look out for the weather. In a scenario where a hurricane would strike the floating data bases, Google's losses could be devastating.

Thus, apart from the opportunity cost that sea pirates may add (which I don't think is a serious problem. At any rate, probably being on land is riskier in terms of possible sabotage/stealing of their products), the cost of lost employee efficiency and the risk imposed by mother nature's whim among others may be more than enough to discourage Google actually carrying out this plan.

PS: I doubt hackers are at Google's list of top concerns. What difference does it make for Google's databases to be afloat than on land in terms of data security? (apart from physical security issues)



As long as Google encrypts the data (and doesn't give anyone on the barge the keys), there's no danger of data being stolen. Any danger of data being held hostage could be eliminated by multiple redundant back-ups in physically distributed locations.

Pirates might still be interested in stealing the hardware. But how much of a black market is there for high end servers? And it seems like it would be easy enough to Google to arm the platforms well enough that it would be too risky a target for pirates.


The idea of servers in the ocean sounds like a far-fetched idea, but if Google is behind it all it must be gold. Though I’m sure as many have pointed out that Google has done its research homework, I wonder how will consumers feel knowing their private information lays solitary in the middle of no-man’s land. Perhaps, Google has not considered the reduction of consumers it might experienced if individuals do not feel that their information is safe from piracy. One must draw the fine line between hunting for the self-profitable interest of the company and working for the interest of its customers. The marginal benefit may seem large now, but the decision is a significantly large risk and with large risks come large reductions.

C. Alan Joyce

Huh. Do Sergey and Larry belong to a book discussion group? Who wants to bet the group's latest pick was Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon"?

Nick Johnson

Just to inject a little bit of reality into the conversation: This is a patent filing. Not a concrete plan to take to the high seas and battle it out with pirates, or to dodge tax, or anything else. I don't see any evidence that Google has made any decisions about anything except to file for a patent.


Interesting that you should post this just 3 days before International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Yarrr!


Unlike TV shows and movies where anyone can walk up to the most powerful computers and just casually login, big server farms are not designed to make it easy to "plunder" the data. Those pirates would more easily steal oil from an offshore oil platform.

The bigger problem may be the cost of servicing and supporting such a server system, especially in terms of moving data on and off cheaply enough. But, the cost of land in some places is so high, and the cost of cooling is so expensive, that this could overcome the other costs. Forget energy harvesting, consider just cooling using a pump system from the water below.


I'm not so sure this was a good decision on Google's part. Obviously they have much smarter and well paid technicians to make that decision for them, so i'm probably wrong.

Still, i don't know where they would plan to store these servers. I really don't believe hacking will be a serious problem, whatever security they place on land they could adapt to sea. Now, i think that the cost of running a tech base off shore and in water will raise service costs, make solving any physical problem more than a hassle, and expose sensitive equipment to saltwater oxidation.

Also, and I'm sure they'r enot about to commit this mistake, what are the odds of getting hit by a hurricane...or any storm for that matter. Storms at sea are much more dangerous than on land.


Google Motto #1: Don't be evil.

Google Motto #2: Goonies never say die.


now, i'm not an enemy of all tax avoidance (standard loopholes good, transfer pricing bad), but this is just absurd. talk about offshoring your business...

further: consider that google itself would not exist were it not for the research funded my the US government (ARPA Net in particular)...