On February 20, Washington D.C. resident Yaraslau Kryvoi received notice from Internet service provider and webhost, Utah-based Bluehost, that it was suspending Kryvoi’s account and giving him 10 days to remove content that Bluehost found objectionable from his website.
The objectionable content in question?
Kryvoi, an immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Belarus, maintained and operated a website for the local chapter of the Belarusian American Association (BAA), which according to Newsweek, “is one of the oldest and most visible U.S.-based groups pushing for democracy in Belarus.”
So what is the problem?
Bluehost suspended Kryvoi’s account in response to a consultation the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a Treasury agency, which advised the hosting service that it needed to stop dealing with nations that the U.S. government (via the Treasury and Commerce departments) had imposed economic and trade sanctions against. Sanctioned countries include Cuba, North Korea, Burma, and Belarus. The Commerce Department has gone so far as to impose “a blanket ban on a handful of states designed to keep sensitive technology, like encryption, from falling into the wrong hands.” As Newsweek notes, most ISPs provide customers with data encryption “as a standard tool for secure communications.”
Bluehost has gone so far as to include in its terms of service a clause that “states that the firm won’t do business with citizens of Belarus, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Zimbabwe and “the Balkans” (raising some curious questions as to whether nationals of Slovenia or Romania make the cut).”
Whether the content on Kryvoi’s website should be covered under these trade sanctions or Bluehost’s terms of service should be up for debate. Unfortunately, the ISP has taken the easy road, and simply “[b]ann[ed] everyone from Belarus.” This ban apparently includes Kryvoi, who now lives in the U.S., but happened to “pa[y] his Bluehost bill by credit card while visiting his family in Belarus.”
Alarmingly, Newsweek has found that Bluehost is not unique in censoring Internet content by “all citizens from certain states.”:
At least three other U.S. hosting companies—HostMonster, Blaser Hosting and Biz Builder Hosting—have similar provisions in their terms of service. What may make these companies skittish is the rules governing data encryption. The Internet has blurred the lines between sinister exports and harmless Web surfing—encryption, after all, is what makes browsing, e-mailing and online banking secure. When it comes to Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Sudan (but not Belarus), the restrictions can be troublesome. Google, for instance, had to forbid downloads of its Chrome browser to users in these countries. In 2007 Yahoo and Microsoft removed Iran from the drop-down lists that let users specify their country of origin when they register.
From Newsweek’s coverage of Kryvoi’s problem, it seems American based ISPs find it easier to issue bans and restriction on content tangentially related to enemies of the U.S., than to actually take the time to distinguish between content that genuinely flies in the face of U.S. interests, and content that advocates for the interests of the Washington D.C.-based Belarusian diaspora.