Bielar.us Had Been Blocked... Because of Sanctions Against Belarus
Last Friday Bluehost, our hosting provider, blocked this web site. Bluehost promised to delete our blog within 10 days. The site had been blocked for four days until we completed migration to a new hosting earlier today.
Needless to say, I was very surprised when I learned about the blockade.There was nothing even remotely illegal on Bielar.us. So, initially I thought it was just a mistake. But it was not. Here is the story, which you would expect to happen in Cuba or North Korea, but not in the United States.
When I called the company for clarifications, a Bluehost representative told me that I “abused” their terms of service because I happened to be in Belarus when I set up my account with them. As I understood, they figured it out by tracking down my IP address.
According to Bluehost, Belarus is a “Sanctioned Country” and this is why I was not good enough to be their customer. They explained that after consulting with the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control it was decided to ban all persons from Belarus from using any of their services. The Bluehost representative added that it was much easier for them to ban everybody than to try to figure out each time who was who.
As a result, although I live and work in the United States, paid for their services with my U.S. credit card, they blocked this web site and promised to delete everything within ten days. No warning had been given before they shut down Bielar.us and my personal site. They also explained that even if I were to set up my Bluehost account from the United States, I would still have been banned from using their services. Just because I am a citizen of Belarus.
As an international law practitioner and scholar I know that the scope of sanctions against Belarus is very narrow. The sanctions are supposed to work only in two situations:
a) against a few people “undermining democratic processes or institutions in Belarus” listed on the U.S. Treasury web site; and
b) against “Lukashenko-controlled petrochemical conglomerateas” as explained by the U.S. Treasury.
But Bluehost’s interpretation was by no means narrow. According to provision 13 of their terms of services:
1. Each Sanctioned Country, all governmental, commercial, or other entities located therein, and all individuals located in any Sanctioned Country are hereby prohibited from registering or signing up with, subscribing to, or using any service of BlueHost.Com.
2. Each individual which is a National or Citizen of a Sanctioned Country is hereby prohibited from registering or signing up with, subscribing to, or using any service of BlueHost.Com, regardless of where said individual is located.
The definition of “Sanctioned Country” includes Belarus along with Iran, Zimbabwe and other autocratic regimes. Clearly provision 13 provides for discriminatory treatment of nationals of those countries. Such treatment violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” as well as the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech and press.
It is ironic, that the blog which Bluehost blocked is run by activists of Belarusian American Association, one of the oldest Belarusian pro-democracy groups in the U.S. Its Washington chapter is often instrumental in helping to formulate the U.S. policy towards Belarus.
Our blog contains several posts discussing how the US foreign policy is supposed to help promote human rights, media freedom and the rule of law in Belarus. By the way, one the purposes of Belarus Democracy Act adopted by the U.S. Congress in 2006 is “ facilitating the development of independent … Internet media working … from locations outside the country.”
Clearly, these Bluehost policies undermine both the letter and the spirit of the U.S. foreign policy towards Belarus. In effect, this U.S. hosting provider effectively helps Belarusian authorities (as well as other autocratic regimes) to silence public dissent. One may even argue that the U.S. company becomes complicit in human rights violations in Belarus.
There are two simple but important lessons from this story:
The practical lesson is to stay away from Bluehost. They will block your web sites without any warning and soon thereafter will delete all your data if you happen to be a national of a “wrong” country. Even if they figure out that you “used” Bluehost’s services in one of those countries where people have no freedom, you will “abuse” their terms of service.
The policy lesson is that the U.S. agencies in charge of implementing sanctions should prevent rather than aprove such practices. Otherwise, they will throw the baby out with the bath water.
UPD: There were more people from Belarus who were kicked out by Bluehost because of their nationality. Read here (in Russian).
UPD-2. The problem is bigger than I initially thought. All Belarusian profiles have been deleted back in 2007 by Guru.com – a popular site for freelancers. They no longer accept Belarusian customers. Their moitivation was the same – overly broad interpretation of sanctions. You may be interested to read this post.
UPD-3. In 2008, iKobo.com (an online payment processor) also asked all Belarusian customers to leave within 5 days because off their interpretation of sanctions. Here is the notification they sent. Read more about it in Belarusian and Russian.
UPD-4. Exportlawblog shares our concern:
The terms of service’s provision that denies services to all “nationals” of Belarus clearly goes beyond the sanctions themselves.