There’s a lot of ways to silence dissident voices online. My colleagues involved with the Open Net Initiative have done pioneering work documenting the ways that governments restrict their citizens’ ability to access certain online content. But while the government of Ethiopia can block access to blogs that criticize Meles Zenawi within the country, they have a much harder time preventing people around the world from reading a blog hosted in the US that’s critical of the Ethiopian government.
In recent years, governments and other actors have started focusing on silencing speech at its source – the server that hosts the speech. Troubled by documents hosted by Wikileaks, Bank Julius Baer & Co., a Swiss and Cayman Islands private bank obtained a court order forcing Wikileaks’s domain name registrar to redirect traffic to the site to an empty page; after a court hearing, the US federal judge withdrew the court order and allowed the site to reopen.
Not all attacks use the US legal system. Irrawaddy, a website run by Burmese exiles to report on news inside and outside Burma, has suffered widespread distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks over the past several months. These attacks make the site inaccessible and have the added effect of upsetting Irrawaddy’s hosting provider, who hosts the site on a server and subnet used by other clients, all of whom are affected by the attack. The nature of DDOS attacks is such that it’s very difficult to determine where they originate – it’s unclear whether independent pro-Burmese citizens are trying to attack Irrawaddy or whether someone supported by the Burmese junta is using DDOS to attack a vocal and visible critic.
Of course, you don’t have to block access to a web host – you can just convince the web host to pull the plug on a site. That appears to be what’s happened to my friends with Kubatana, a leading Zimbabwean NGO. Kubatana supports and trains NGOs in Zimbabwe, hosting websites for prominent activist organizations like Women of Zimbabwe Arise. For the past two years, Kubatana has hosted a joint blog for a wide range of Zimbabwean citizens, some who wrote anonymously, and others who wrote under their names – it’s been one of the key sources of information and perspective for people around the world who follow Zimbabwe, and a critical outlet for Zimbabweans who have few other ways to communicate.
Earlier this week, Kubatana’s blog site, as well as a couple of sites hosted on behalf of activist organizations, went dark. Visitors to the blog received a message that the webhost, Bluehost, had disabled the account. When the folks who run Kubatana asked why their account had been suspended, they were informed that an “internal review” revealed that Kubatana was a Zimbabwean organization, and Bluehost’s regulations prohibit them from doing business with ten countries that are subject to US government trade sanctions. (More in a moment about why sanctions on Zimbabwe’s rulers don’t mean sanctions on all Zimbabweans.)
I find it very hard to believe that Bluehost spontaneously decided to review Kubatana’s account – I suspect that someone frustrated by content on Kubatanablogs contacted BlueHost, leading to an account review where Bluehost decided to terminate hosting based on their reading of a trade sanctions provision.
This isn’t a new tactic – when I helped run Tripod.com, we routinely fielded cease and desist letters from companies that didn’t like webpages criticizing their services – they’d claim their trademark was being abused on the page in question and demand its removal. Their hope was that the hosting provider wouldn’t bother to look closely at the situation and would simply give up their customers rather than face involvement in a legal action. We got very good at standing up to these bullshit letters and offering advice to our customers on how to fight the complaints – these days, we’d likely just send them to the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard. But not every hosting provider is willing to go through the basic effort of protecting their customer’s speech rights – if it looks like it’s going to take more than a few minutes of time to resolve a situation, it may be worth losing the customer rather than analyzing the complaint.
Yes, there are US sanctions on Zimbabwe. Three executive orders – 13288, 13391 and 13469 – outline those sanctions, which are administered by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. These orders aren’t easy reading, but they specify a group of people targeted by these sanctions:
Any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, after consultation with the Secretary of State:
(i) to be a senior official of the Government of Zimbabwe;
(ii) to be owned or controlled by, directly or indirectly, the Government of Zimbabwe or an official or officials of the Government of Zimbabwe;
(iii) to have engaged in actions or policies to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions;
(iv) to be responsible for, or to have participated in, human rights abuses related to political repression in Zimbabwe;
(v) to be engaged in, or to have engaged in, activities facilitating public corruption by senior officials of the Government of Zimbabwe;
(vi) to be a spouse or dependent child of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to Executive Order 13288, Executive Order 13391, or this order;
(vii) to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, logistical, or technical support for, or goods or services in support of, the Government of Zimbabwe…
Because it’s hard to know who’s “materially assisted” the government of Zimbabwe, the Treasury provides a handy list of “Specially Designated Nationals”, who US individuals and organizations are prohibited to do business with. It’s a long list, but that’s what the “Find” command is for… and you won’t find Kubatana, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or the principals behind the projects on the list. (And rightly so – they’re fighting the regime that the US is sanctioning.)
My friends at Kubatana explained this to Bluehost. They sent them the relevant documents and asked them to check the SDN list. Bluehost insisted that they couldn’t do business with the residents of ten sanctioned nations, including Zimbabwe. Kubatana got the US embassy in Zimbabwe to write to Bluehost, explaining the situation. Blue host insisted they couldn’t make any exceptions.
Now, during a week that’s featured the emergence of a power-sharing government and the arrest of a prominent MDC activist, Kubatana finds itself silenced and on the sidelines when their voice is most important. I’m helping Kubatana find a new blog host, one that actually bothers to understand trade sanctions and sees a value in protecting free speech – I recommended Rimu Hosting, a New Zealand-based company that hosts this blog and all Global Voices sites.
If you maintain a sensitive blog or website, a site likely to anger a corporation or a government, do not assume that your hosting provider will help you defend your rights. Some hosting providers take this very seriously and will work with you to ensure you have an opportunity to respond to legal threats or complaints. Others will conclude that working with you is too much trouble and cut you loose.
I don’t think that Bluehost is somehow opposed to civil society in Zimbabwe. I think they’re lazy, and decided that actually responding to Kubatana’s explanations wasn’t worth their time. I think they failed to escalate the situation beyond an “abuse” person who was working from a script which offered no flexibility. And I think they concluded – perhaps correctly – that denying Zimbabwean activists a platform for speech wouldn’t adversely affect their business. I hope they read this post, I hope they’re ashamed of how they acted, and I hope they apologize to my friends.
If you run a site like Kubatana, look for a hosting provider that understands your business and has your back. There are lists out there of “free speech” webhosts – I don’t know how valuable they are, and the one linked above makes the same “sanctioned nation = banned nation” error that Bluehost made. Instead, I’d suggest you look for a hosting company run by human beings, not by notebooks filled with rules and procedures. (Barry Schwartz would suggest that you’re looking for a company run by practical wisdom, not by rules.)
This likely means working with a small company, where you’ve got a personal relationship with managers, and where you can explain the threats and problems associated with your site. Rimu knows that Global Voices is going to get blocked in some countries, and these blocks might affect other customers. They know we face DDOS attacks. In other words, they know we’re a pain in the ass to host. But they’re willing to take on the work because they believe in what we’re doing and in protecting our right to do so.
Does your hosting provider have your back? Rimu does. Bluehost doesn’t. Let’s hope that people who are brave enough to speak against repressive governments can find webhosting companies brave enough to let them do so.
Update – Kubatana’s blog site is back up, just not on Bluehost. Bev Clark tells us that Bluehost’s CEO has complained to her that Kubatana supporters are “spamming” him and Bluehost’s abuse department with comments about their decision. I attempted to post to CEO Matt Heaton’s blog, asking him to address the situation – the comment never made it out of moderation. Guess Bluehost really doesn’t want to talk about this issue.
Update 2, February 22, 2009 – Bev Clark from Kubatana heard from Bluehost offering to reinstate her account. Bluehost received an email and phonecall from the US Treasury Department confirming that they were not, in fact, on the list of persons Bluehost could not do business with. Bev and Kubatana have chosen not to go back to Bluehost, though Women of Zimbabwe Arise are remaining Bluehost customers.
While I’m glad that Bluehost finally saw the light, I will not recommend them to individuals looking for human rights hosting – the assumption that Kubatana was in the wrong, the unwillingness to listen to their explanation and the hostility of CEO Matt Heaton to customer complaints leads me to conclude that I wouldn’t recommend their services.