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News Analysis

Should Facebook, Twitter follow IM providers and block access to U.S. 'enemies'?

Legal experts say the services should be blocked, but others question a contradiction with democratic goals for the countries

By Eric Lai
June 10, 2009 07:28 PM ET

Computerworld - Facebook and Twitter should join instant messaging services and block access to U.S.-sanctioned countries in order to avoid running afoul of the government's trade embargoes, say legal experts.

However, others say that doing so would be premature and run against the U.S. government's goals regarding trade embargoes and for bringing democracy to the countries.

Computerworld spoke with two lawyers who advise companies on how to comply with bans on exports of goods and services set by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

OFAC's sanctions currently block U.S. firms and citizens from trading with Cuba, Iran and Sudan, and from providing goods or services to certain institutions or individuals -- called specially designated nationals (SDN) -- in Syria and North Korea, said Clif Burns, a lawyer in the Washington office of Bryan Cave LLP, and author of the ExportLawBlog.

OFAC has long fought terrorists and drug dealers through its traditional anti-money-laundering tactics, said Burns. But in recent months, the group has been taking a stronger look at how curbing access to Internet services can aid in that battle, he said.

"This is an increasing area of interest to them," Burns said, citing a conversation he recently had with an unnamed OFAC official.

OFAC did not respond to a request for comment.

IM move sets the tone

Though OFAC has not explicitly prohibited Web communication services, Burns says the fact that Microsoft, Google and AOL have all turned off IM services, possibly at OFAC's request, should be a clear signal.

"If you ask any lawyer who regularly practices in this area, they would say don't offer the service [to sanctioned countries]," Burns said.

This is true even if the service is completely hosted and doesn't require the downloading of IM software to users' computers, which is considered the export of a good, Burns said.

Erich Ferrari, another D.C.-based legal expert on OFAC issues, said Web 2.0 vendors need to worry about the "stigma" of their services being used by terrorist or narcotics-linked groups.

"I think Obama is starting to get focused on the cyberwar on terror, and OFAC is essentially our instrument in the financial war on terror," Ferrari said.

Facebook and Twitter did not reply to a request for comment.

Besides IM, Microsoft has been blocking access to other Windows Live services that require a user download since "late last year," confirmed Microsoft's director of product management, Dharmesh Mehta, this week.

Windows Live client applications include Movie Maker, Mail, Writer (a blog authoring tool), Photo Gallery and others.

U.S. Web hosting firm Blue Host was criticized earlier this spring for shutting down the blogs of users in Iran and other U.S.-sanctioned countries.



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