U.S. Web Firms Practice Self-Censorship

Yaraslau Kryvoi was no stranger to censorship. After all, he grew up in Belarus, one of the last "outposts of tyranny" in Europe, as former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice once put it. On Feb. 20, he got a notice from his Web-hosting firm that his account was being suspended and that he had 10 days to remove his content. Like many citizens of authoritarian states, Kryvoi had found himself on a blacklist.

Trouble is, this story takes place in Washington, D.C. Kryvoi, a 29-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School, works at a reputable law firm. In his spare time, he administers a blog for the local chapter of the Belarussian American Association (BAA). Since the government of Belarus is subject to U.S. trade sanctions, Bluehost, the Provo, Utah, company that hosts Kryvoi's Web site, decided to cut him off.

Westerners are quick to condemn the deterioration of Internet freedoms in Asia and the Middle East. But some U.S.-based Internet firms, spooked by export rules, seem to be committing similar sins. They practice a kind of self-censorship that bears a striking resemblance to the way Chinese Web-hosting firms censor customers for fear of incurring the wrath of Beijing. The situation is not helping the United States win friends and promote democracy abroad.

At first glance, the U.S. rules don't seem all that onerous. The United States imposes two forms of economic and trade sanctions on rogue states. The Commerce Department has a blanket ban on a handful of states designed to keep sensitive technology, like encryption, from falling into the wrong hands. Since most Internet services provide encryption as a standard tool for secure communications, the rules would apply to Web hosting. The Treasury Department also keeps a broader list of states subject to trade restrictions, but it is not a blanket ban—rather, it targets "specially designated individuals," according to its Web site. The purpose of a specific list, of course, is to avoid implicating entire populations in what amounts to geopolitical squabbling.

In practice, some firms are not so selective. For instance, it would be difficult to mistake BAA's Washington blog for an authoritarian mouthpiece. BAA is one of the oldest and most visible U.S.-based groups pushing for democracy in Belarus. Kryvoi, as part of BAA delegations, has briefed officials at the State Department. When Kryvoi contacted Bluehost to suggest it had made a mistake, he says a customer-service representative told him that, after consultation with the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a Treasury agency, Bluehost stopped dealing with clients who might have connections with sanctioned countries. The representative pointed Kryvoi to OFAC's Web site, which did not mention him by name.

So why the ban? Although Bluehost is one of the world's biggest hosting companies, it probably doesn't have the time or resources to match the OFAC list with its own customer ranks. Banning everyone from Belarus takes much less time and effort. Indeed, Bluehost's contract with customers—the "terms of service" to which all users must agree when signing up, but which few ever read—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). Kryvoi might have triggered an alarm when he paid his Bluehost bill by credit card while visiting his family in Belarus. (Bluehost president Matt Heaton, contacted by e-mail, wouldn't discuss the case.)

Bluehost is not alone in banning 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. Of course, all an Iranian would have to do to get around this problem is select another country from the menu and use some software to mask his location. So much for the effectiveness of U.S. trade sanctions.

The situation is not doing much to advance the interests of the United States abroad. For instance, Kubatana, a portal in Zimbabwe known for its ardent stance against President Robert Mugabe, got a cutoff notice from Bluehost in February. Eventually the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe contacted officials at the U.S. Treasury Department who confirmed that Kubatana is not subject to sanctions; Bluehost then reinstated the service. But this is not a smart way to promote democracy. Purging customers from Belarus or Zimbabwe raises hurdles for pro-democracy groups—many of them funded by the U.S. government—while allowing dictators to broadcast their propaganda unabated.